There has been a coup in Chad. Following the death on April 20, of Idriss Déby, who was entering his 31st year as president on the back of sham elections, his son Mahamat Déby took control of the country as head of a military junta. He has suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament of the large north-central African country. He promised “free and democratic” elections in 18 months.
There was no need whatsoever for this to happen. The constitution set out a clear path out of the crisis, and there was no compelling reason to bypass it. The head of parliament should have become acting president and should then have organised elections after 45 to 90 days. That the military didn’t respect this process means its pledge to organise “free and democratic” elections in 18 months is empty.
True to form, France, Chad’s main military ally and eternal champion of liberté, hasn’t even whispered a word against this usurpation of democracy. It can’t even muster the chops to call it a coup. Instead, it mourned the late dinosaur and called him a “courageous friend.” The African Union, in its turn, has an anti-coup policy and should have condemned the irregular transition. It hasn’t squeaked.
The African Union’s silence is easy to explain. Not only has it never stood for democracy anywhere on the continent, despite being charged to do so by its charter, its current Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki, is Chadian and was backed for that post by the regime.
France’s silence is just as easy to explain. The dead Mr Déby was its strongest ally in the fight against jihadists in the Sahel.
Both silences constitute a spineless capitulation to expediency. Not only are they unnecessary and anachronistic, they will make things worse. The simple reason for this is that the ongoing instability in Chad is not merely a function of jihadist insurgency in the north of the country. Though this may sound preposterous to Western readers, the jihadists might even be the smaller problem.
Idriss Déby’s 30 years in office delivered little in the way of development and civil freedoms for the people of Chad. Thanks to him, the country is one of the poorest in the world. Literacy rates are rock bottom, and maternal and infant mortality rates are through the roof. Corruption has festered, and elections are always rigged. Speaking up against the regime carried the risk of detention and death, provided it was even possible in the first place, what with internet shutdowns and media censorship.
Chadians were on the streets for years calling for the removal of the regime. Some elements of this movement even turned militant. The rebel group that killed Mr Déby was no jihadist outfit. Called the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), its leadership insists that its only goal is to liberate Chad from the regime and return it to civilian rule. It’s avowedly anti-Islamist and has fought multiple skirmishes against the Islamic State and other jihadists in the area.
Far be it from me to praise or defend armed insurrection, leave alone trust the words of those who would pick up the sword against their countrymen.
But it’s not unreasonable to posit that if Mr Déby and his foreign supporters had been a little lighter on the backs of the Chadian people, they would have no such insurrectionists to worry about. The jihadists would still have been a problem, but the regime would be able to fight them without being distracted by its own struggle for legitimacy.
As it happens, now that another Déby has not only ascended to the presidency but also quashed the little democracy his father left, there’s no reason to believe that the anti-government clamour will be lulled. Even were he to have a forward-looking economic and civic agenda, his regime’s legitimacy would still remain in question. Of course, he doesn’t seem to have any agenda on those fronts at all.
All this bodes ill for that other struggle, the one that keeps the region in mortal peril and underwrites the regime’s foreign support. Though Chad’s army remains a solid bulwark against jihadists, it has been losing ground lately. France, for its part, is under pressure from its own electorate to pull back. The endless war in the Sahel has yielded few results and French voters are getting tired of funding it.
Furthermore, the new regime, on account of its illegitimacy, will have to continue fighting against pro-democracy militants like FACT, which have now proven their resolve and competence by killing a sitting president. Meanwhile, the civilians are restless, their chance to remake the country having been stolen so blatantly. As things stand, the country is setting itself up to explode.
And if that’s allowed to happen, the consequences for the entire region, but especially for the people of Chad, will be colossal.
Is there a way out? As a matter of fact, there is. Before the young Déby ripped it up, Chad had a constitution. It must be restored. Before he forced himself on the people, there was a process for resolving a presidential vacancy. It must be initiated. Before they rolled over, the African Union and France claimed to respect democracy. They need to pull young Déby into line.
In the meantime, the people of Chad must not relent in their call for freedom, civilian government and economic responsibility. Now is the time to amp up the pressure on the regime through peaceful protest. The moment is not yet irretrievably lost and the new Déby may yet be nudged out. Due process must be followed, for that is the only way a government obtains the mandate of the people.
No doubt some will consider my rant the height of naivete. The situation in Chad is complex and does not admit of simple solutions. Many interests must be balanced, and compromise must be entertained. Indeed, all this is true. But I refuse to bow down to the cynicism that would have a whole country settle for a significantly sub-optimal government just because the situation is “complex”.
It’s not clear to me that the present outcome is the only one that respects the status quo in Chad. It’s not obvious that Mahamat Déby has the right to run the country. There’s no evidence that the anti-jihadist effort will be harmed by a civilian government. And there’s no reason for the 21st century to suffer despots without resistance.
The people of Chad deserve a chance to run their own country.