Under French-backed military ruler Mahamat Deby, Chad is a “pressure cooker waiting to explode”

While threatening war against Niger, ostensibly to restore democracy, France continues to back the military junta of Mahamat Deby which is accused of killing at least 128 pro-democracy protesters last year. However, anger against the junta and soaring anti-French sentiment threatens its military presence in the country

September 23, 2023 by Pavan Kulkarni
Mahamat Deby
The transitional President of Chad, General Mahamat Deby (center). Photo: André Kodmadjingar (VOA), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The killing and arrest of hundreds of pro-democracy, anti-French protesters by the France-backed Chadian military government found no mention at the “High-Level Side Event on Chad,” held on the sidelines of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly on September 18.

Titled ‘The Journey towards constitutional order in Chad: Challenges & Perspectives,’ the event was co-hosted in New York by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Chad’s Foreign Minister Mahamat Saleh Annadif.

Annadif was appointed by the military junta less than a week before October 20, 2022, the original deadline for it to give up power to an elected civilian government. However, the election was not held, and the military rule was extended by another two years on October 1 by a political forum which was boycotted by the opposition.

Opposing the extension of military rule, protesters took to the streets on October 20, 2022 in the capital N’Djamena, and other towns and cities across the country, raising slogans against the military junta, and its backer, France.

Even as it is willing to support a war against the popular military government of neighboring Niger, ostensibly to restore democracy, France maintains close ties with Chad’s military junta, which killed at least 128 people during the country-wide pro-democracy protests.

The National Human Rights Commission of Chad (CNDH) reported earlier this year that 943 people were arrested, another 435 detained, and 12 disappeared in the crackdown on October 20, which has come to be known as the “Black Thursday.”

Following a mass trial, boycotted by the Chad Bar Association which condemned it as a “parody of justice,” over 340 were sentenced to one to three years in the Koro Toro maximum security prison, deemed by the Chadian Human Rights League (LTDH) as the “Chadian Guantanamo.”

Without any mention of these atrocities at the “High-Level Side Event” on Monday, the UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed referred to this period of continued rule by the junta post-Black Thursday as the “last mile” of the transition — “the final sprint.”

At the end of this “final sprint,” the junta’s head and “transitional President,” General Mahamat Deby, will contest the election that will be overseen by his military government, contrary to his initial assurance that he will step down from power and not seek the office after the transition.

Without using the word “democracy” in her address, Amina Mohammed stressed the “need to stay the course to support and partner with Chad.”

“France influences the UN to adopt an exceptional policy toward Chad’s military junta”

Other military governments formed after recent coups in Francophone Africa, especially those in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger that are domestically popular for having ordered the French troops to leave, are facing aggressive posturing from the international community.

While economic sanctions targeting these countries adversely impact the everyday lives of its people, the Managing Director for Operations at the World Bank, Anna Bjerde, reassured in her address that, “It is a pleasure to… represent the World Bank’s support to Chad.”

Over the last year, French troops have withdrawn from Mali and Burkina Faso, and have now been ordered out from Niger. Chad is the last Sahelian country whose government willingly continues to host a permanent French military base with about 1,000 troops in its capital.

“France influences the UN to adopt an exceptional and unusual policy towards the junta in our country,” said Mahamat Abdraman, asking how else can the double standard in the treatment of different coup governments be explained.

Abdraman is the Secretary General of the Rally for Justice and Equality of the Chadians (RAJET), which is among the seven political parties suspended for three months after the protests on October 20.

“The events of October 20, 2022, have greatly impacted Chadian politics. The regime is now visibly afraid of protests,” said Max Loalngar, president of Chadian Human Rights League (LTDH), who has been forced into exile by the state repression in the aftermath of the Black Thursday.

He is also the coordinator of Wakit Tamma (The Time Has Come), which identifies itself as an anti-imperialist platform, formed under the aegis of the Union of Trade Unions of Chad (UST) and the LTDH in February 2021. It was banned after the Black Thursday protests for having an “unnatural marriage” with political parties, from which it has had to distance itself by restructuring its organization in April 2023.

“In plain sight of the international community.. the dictatorship” is assuming more draconian powers, including by issuing ordinances, “to suppress any form of citizen expression and public demonstration with violence,” he told Peoples Dispatch. It is only through heavy repression that the junta has been averting more country-wide mass demonstrations since October 20, he said.

Chad’s military junta was formed with France’s support in April 2021 by General Mahamat Deby, who seized power in a coup after his father, the then president Idriss Deby, was killed while on a visit to the troops on the frontline of the fighting with rebel groups.

Idris Deby, former army chief and “a long-standing ally of France” who ruled Chad for over 30 years from 1990 till his death in 2021, was widely described as a dictator. At his funeral, French President Emmanuel Macron hailed him as “a great soldier” and a “courageous friend” of France. Macron went on to reassure his son, Mahamat Deby, of France’s support.

“Our army has become a mercenary force serving the French under Deby’s command”

Barely two weeks before the renewed assurance of international support on the sidelines of the UNGA session on September 18, the Chadian army shot several protesters to disperse anti-French demonstrations in the city of Faya-Largeau.

About French 40 soldiers were reportedly stationed in the garrison France has maintained for 40 years in Faya-Largeau, the capital of Borkou province in northern Chad. Angry protesters began surrounding it on September 5, with several reportedly trying to break in, on learning that a Chadian soldier, 35-year-old Mahamat Dakou, had been shot dead inside by a French army medic.

French troops had “attempted to conceal the body, but information leaked,” Abdraman told Peoples Dispatch, adding that the protests it triggered “continued for three days,” before being violently put down by Chad’s army.

Soon after the protests began, Ahmat Toullomi, a member of the National Transitional Council serving as a parliamentarian under the junta’s rule, arrived outside the base to express solidarity. When confronted by Chadian army soldiers guarding the French garrison and dispersing the protesters, he was filmed in a heated argument, showing his parliamentary scarf to remind the soldiers that he had immunity.

Later on the intervening night of September 5 and 6, the army raided his home and arrested him, “disregarding his parliamentary immunity, under the fallacious pretext of flagrant misconduct,” Loalngar said. He has reportedly been charged with racism and xenophobia.

The junta leaders even “compelled the local traditional leaders to persuade or even force Dakou’s family into accepting compensation… to ease the tension as soon as possible,” added Abdraman. “Our army” he regrets, is no longer “a true national army,” but has become a “mercenary” force, serving the French under Deby’s command.

The Borkou province governor General Ali Kebir, along with French authorities, told the media that Dakou “was not in a normal state” of mind. He was accused of attacking the French medic with a scalpel, forcing the latter to defend himself by opening fire, allegedly at point-blank range.

Abdraman disputed this official version, insisting that “Dakou was indeed of sound mind at the time of his assassination,” and had only retaliated against the French medic on being insulted and slapped when he was seeking treatment for an infected finger. “No concrete evidence of the soldier’s mental illness has been presented,” said Loalngar, adding that if Dakou was in fact mentally ill, that only makes his “murder” by the French medic “even more abhorrent.”

“A pressure cooker ready to explode”

While the circumstances of his killing are disputed, the militant protests it instantly triggered illustrate that underneath the relative stability Deby’s regime has maintained on the surface since Black Thursday, there is, what Loalgnar called, “a pressure cooker ready to explode.”

The “tension” between Chadians and their former colonizer “can escalate from one day to the next,” said Abdraman.

The support provided by France to Mahamat Deby was the proverbial “last straw that broke the camel’s back,” unleashing an “anti-French sentiment, which had been latent for decades,” Loalgnar said. Anti-French slogans and placards have been a part of “all protests” since, including the major ones in February 2022 when “French flags were dragged on the ground” and “set on fire,” and again in May 2022, when “we ended up in prison with five other comrades.”

More protests against the junta are “planned throughout the country,” Abdraman said. “The support of powerful nations” mobilized by France for Deby’s “dynastic junta, will not discourage us,” he added, expressing confidence that there will soon come the day when “France won’t be able to stay in Chad any longer.”