Civil society groups in Chad set to protest French-backed military takeover

Following the death of long-time president Idriss Déby, his son, Mahamat Déby, seized power on April 20 at the head of a military junta. Opposition parties have called for a civil disobedience campaign

April 26, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Idriss Déby. Photo : Rama via Wikimedia Commons

Civil society groups and activists in Chad have called for protests on Tuesday, April 27, demanding the dissolution of the military junta which has assumed the power after Idriss Déby died on April 20 in the fighting between government and rebel forces. Deby was the president of the country from 1990 when he seized power in a French-backed coup. He had been elected for a sixth term in elections held on April 11.

At his state funeral on Friday, April 23, French president Emmanuel Macron reassured his diplomatic and military backing for the 37-year-old General Mahamat Déby, son of Idriss Déby. Mahamat, who was the directorate-general of the Security Services of State Institutions (DGSSIE) including the presidential guard, now heads the military junta.

However, these developments have not gone unopposed. “We, the Chadian artist-members of the platform, ‘In the name of respect’, demand the non-involvement of the French policy of double standards in the management of Chadian affairs,” Chadian artist Djigri Parterre, said at a press conference on Sunday, April 25. “We say no to the monarchization of Chad by France.”

The head of the Chadian League of Human Rights, Max Loalngar, said, “We place ourselves under the protection of the African Union and the United Nations and ask that mechanisms be urgently set into motion to ensure the protection of citizens, to take charge of the process of comprehensive and inclusive dialogue to build a consensual transition and to create the conditions that guarantee a lasting political handover.”

He went on to call on “the Chadian population all over the country to take to the streets on Tuesday for a public demonstration,” insisting that “we will stay on the streets if we are not listened to.”

Chad’s constitution provides that the speaker of the national parliament must take charge in the event of death of the president for a transitional period of 45 to 90 days. During this period, an election must be held and power transferred to the newly elected president. This constitution has been suspended.

All state power now rests in a committee which comprises Mahamat Déby and 14 other generals he reportedly handpicked from among his father’s loyalists. This military junta will rule the country for a period of 18 months, within which, the army’s spokesperson said, “free and fair elections” will be held. The parliament and the government has been dissolved. Borders have been shut since and a nightly curfew has been imposed.

Many residents in the capital city, N’Djamena, reportedly fled eastwards towards the Cameroon border after the army announced  the death of Idriss Déby and the takeover by his son. Panic had set in a day earlier when rumors about the death of Idriss Déby had already begun circulating. Tanks were seen on the streets of the capital, particularly around the presidential palace.  

Condemning the seizure of power as an “institutional coup d’etat conducted by the generals,” a dozen opposition leaders held a meeting on April 21 and issued a joint statement against “the monarchist devolution of power.” Opposition parties have called for a civil disobedience campaign. The Union of Syndicates of Chad called for a general strike. 

French government’s stake in Déby’s regime

Despite this wide-spread domestic opposition, the French government has extended support to the junta. Justifying the seizure of power by Mahamat, its Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told France 2 television, “Logically, it should be (speaker Haroun) Kabadi…but he refused because of the exceptional security reasons that were needed to ensure the stability of this country.”

Seated next to President Macron on the front row of the state funeral of Idriss Déby, Mahamat, in his turn, vowed to “stay loyal to the memory” of his father, who, having come to power with French backing, had loyally served the geopolitical ambitions of Chad’s former colonizer. 

The three decades of his rule were marked by immiseration of the masses and crackdowns on opposition. The 2019 UN Human Development Index ranks Chad as 187th among the 189 countries and territories compared. Over 66% of the population lived in severe poverty as of 2019. 

With little goodwill to count on domestically, military and diplomatic backing from France was a crucial factor behind the survival of Déby’s regime. Under his watch, Chad’s capital city became the center of French military influence in the Sahel region, where 5,100 troops are deployed. The French military base in N’Djamena houses 1,000 of these troops, along with Mirage fighter jets. 

This base is the command center of France’s Operation Barkhane which has been ongoing since 2014, with operations in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — all of which are former French colonies and whose troops participate in these operations as a part of the G-5 Sahel coalition. Having the most powerful army in the region, Chad is an important participant in French military operations in Sahel. N’Djamena also hosts some US military personnel. 

A landlocked country sharing borders with Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, the geopolitical value placed on Chad by France and other NATO allies, including the US, is very high. This is particularly so after NATO allies overthrew Muammar Gaddafi from Libya with the help of radical Islamic forces, which caused a rise of armed groups in the region.

The rebel force Idriss Déby was fighting, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad — known by its French acronym FACT — is also a product of the unraveling of Libya. 

Formed in Libya in 2016 by Mahamat Mahadi Ali — a veteran rebel commander who had spent his exile in France — FACT sided with Khalifa Haftar, who was also backed by France, UK and the US during the Second Libyan Civil War. With a ceasefire agreement reached between the Haftar’s military faction in Libya’s east and the Tripoli-based military coalition in the west in October 2020, the fighting in Libya has de-escalated. 

FACT, which is said to have gained possession of considerable military hardware from Haftar, pushed home southwards on 400-450 vehicles on April 11, 2021, capturing some outposts in Northern Chad, reportedly with little or no resistance. Declaring their intention to overthrow Idriss Déby, they headed towards N’Djamena. 

Crackdown in the run-up to election

It was on the same day that elections were held in Chad. Earlier, after Déby announced his decision to contest for a sixth term, protests had broken out in many cities and towns. While the term limit he had abolished in 2005 was reintroduced in 2018, the amendments to the constitution allowed him another term until 2023.

Security forces responded to the protests with force, arresting several hundred activists. While the ruling party, Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) campaigned freely, crackdowns on campaigns by opposition parties under the garb of containing the COVID-19 pandemic were the norm in the run-up to the election. On several occasions, opposition parties’ offices and residences of its leaders were surrounded by security forces to prevent them from campaigning.

On February 28, security forces forcefully entered the home of opposition leader and presidential candidate, Yaya Dillo from the Socialist Party Without Borders (PSF), killing multiple family members including his 80-year-old mother, in an attempt to arrest him. Several dozen protesters were wounded in the violent crackdown unleashed on peaceful protests in March. 

According to Human Rights Watch, during these crackdowns, the security forces “arbitrarily arrested at least 112 opposition party members and supporters and civil society activists, subjecting some to severe beatings and other ill-treatment.” 

Eventually, 10 of the 16 candidates were either barred from contesting or chose to pull out of the race, including Saleh Kebzabo of the National Union for Democracy and Renewal (UNDR). The runner-up in the previous presidential election, he was regarded as the main challenger to Idriss Déby in the 2021 election. 

Activists called for delaying the election. They alleged that there were no real contestants to choose from, accusing those who had remained in the race of being dummies fielded by the ruling party to give the appearance of a contest. Under such circumstances, the election commission declared Idriss Déby the winner for the sixth consecutive time on April 19. 

By then, he had already been wounded, reportedly on April 18. The US withdrew its non-essential diplomatic staff from Chad that day, due to “growing proximity” of FACT’s troops “to N’Djamena, and the possibility for violence in the city.” The UK also withdrew its staff. 

According to the communique released by the army on April 20, the 68-year-old president had “led operations in heroic struggles against the terrorist hordes from Libya. Wounded in the struggle, he passed away once returned to N’Djamena.” Many have questioned the veracity of this version. 

FACT maintains that Déby was injured when he went to the Karem region, about 280 km up north from N’Djamena, where his troops were combating FACT’s forces over the weekend. The exact circumstances under which he was wounded and the kind of injuries he suffered are yet to be ascertained.

At the crossroads

The rebel forces were said to be only between 200 to 300 km from the capital on April 20, when the army announced his death. In 2006, 2008 and 2019, when N’Djamena was at the risk of falling to the rebels, France had intervened to defend Idriss Déby’s regime. 

Whether or not France will yet again undertake a military intervention to defend the new regime is unclear. The Sahel region has witnessed protests against French military deployment in recent times. The French, on the other hand, will strive to ensure that no forces hostile to its interests in the region take over N’Djamena.

A FACT spokesperson told Reuters last week that it does not intend to seize power, but is marching on N’Djamena to “free the people from a system that is undemocratic.” After bombardment of rebel positions by the air force, Chad’s military said on April 24 that it had “annihilated” the rebel forces. 

On Sunday, April 25, FACT’s spokesperson told Reuters that it is “ready to observe a ceasefire for a political settlement that respects the independence and sovereignty of Chad and does not endorse a coup d’etat.” Rejecting the offer, the Chadian army has called the FACT as “outlaws” and is preparing for the battles.

The strength of the mobilization in the civil society-led protests on April 27, and the response of the security forces, now operating under direct military rule, will be among the telling indicators of how the balance of political forces might evolve over the coming period.