This is a guest post by Ketil Fred Hansen, IGIS, University of Stavanger (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chad’s President, Idriss Déby Itno, is perfectly safe and no-one can challenge his position, I would have argued a year ago. Déby won his fifth presidential election on 10 April 2016 with 60% of the votes, five times more than his closest competitor Saleh Kebzabo (12,8 %). To strengthen the political opposition, the leaders of 31 political parties founded a new coalition “Front de l’Opposition Nouvelle pour l’Alternance et le Changement” (FONAC), on 26 July 2016, selecting Kebzabo as front-runner. However, many Chadians questioned FONAC’s real commitment to alternation. The opposition party leaders were accused of taking personal advantage of their position rather than being actually interested in political change. In fact, very few opposition parties had ever altered their own leader. Thus, both President Déby and the leaders of the opposition shared the same longevity in their functions to the frustration of younger generations.
These frustrated younger generations organized regular rallies in Ndjamena during 2016. Protests against the regime started when “untouchables”, sons of high-ranking civil servants and ministers, gang-raped a 17 year-old schoolgirl in February 2016. The protests gained force as Déby prepared for his fifth presidential re-election in April 2016, and continued when President Déby introduced his “austerity measures” on 31 August. In fact, 2016 was the year of social protest in Chad.
Still, I would have argued that president Déby was perfectly safe and at the height of his power at the end of 2016. Why?
Both the US and France saw President Déby as one of their closest collaborators in the fight against Boko Haram and other terror threats in the Sahel. N’Djamena was the home of France’s Operation Barkham, containing some 3500 troops, at least 3 drones, 20 helicopters and more than 200 armored vehicles. Chad was also the home of the American Special Forces anti-terror training Operation Flintstone in February 2017, as it had been in 2015. Since the close-to-successful coup d’état in February 2008, Déby had re-equipped and re-organized his army, significantly increasing military expenditure from an already high level. In 2013, the Chadian army gained international acclaim after its rapid deployment and brave operational courage against the Islamist insurgents in Mali. Indeed, by 2016 Chad held one of the best-equipped and best-trained armies in Africa. One of Déby’s sons, Mahamat Idriss Déby, headed the presidential guard that contained at least as many well-equipped and well-trained soldiers as the regular army. A year ago, then, neither civilian protests nor any military threat from inside (mutiny) or outside (insurgents), seemed possible.
In addition, President Déby enjoyed a high standing among his peers in Africa. He chaired the the regional G5 Sahel group and was elected Chairman of the African Union for 2016. As a sign of respect and importance, 14 African heads of state were present in N’Djamena when Déby was sworn in as president on 8 August 2016. However, his African peers were not the only ones to count on him. Germany ‘s Chancellor Angela Merkel invited President Déby to Berlin in October last year, promising Chad close to 9 million Euro in humanitarian aid. President Hollande received Déby numerous times in Paris to discuss both military collaboration and humanitarian aid.
No wonder, then, that I would have said that president Déby was perfectly safe a year ago. Not so today.
Several signs can be interpreted as a weakening of Déby’s power grip during 2017.
In January, France granted Hinda Déby, Déby’s favorite wife and Chad’s first lady, and their 5 children French nationality. Why, this sudden demand for French nationality? Rumors about President Déby’s untreatable cancer flourishes in the Chadian capital. Speculations about who would take power in the case of Déby’s death rocketed in N’Djamena, without anyone being able to give a clear answer. Together with Chad’s post-independence history of continuous power struggles, the uncertainty surrounding a presidential power transfer leads to thoughts of a new civil war.
Increasing activities of Chadian rebel movements in Southern Libya/Northern Chad also indicate that Déby’s position is fading. The Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT) headed by the 53 year-old-always-rebel Mahamat Mahdi Ali, contains some 1500 armed civilians under training. Other Chadian military movements, one headed by former minister now rebel-leader General Mahamat Nouri and another headed by one of President Déby’s nephews, Qatar-based Timan Erdimi, are also training in the same region. The formal closing of the frontier between Chad and Libya, undertaken sometimes by Libya, sometimes by Chad, has not stopped the rebels’ movements. Islamic State, apparently, backs Chadian rebel movements with money and weapons. Believing that Qatar also funds the rebels, on 23 August 2017 President Déby ordered the Qatari embassy in N’Djamena to close down and staff to leave Chad within ten days. A few weeks later, on 24 September, US President Trump included Chad on the list of terror states, banning the arrival of all Chadians on US soil from 1 October. While Chad is, officially, still a US partner in the fight against terror in the Sahel, Washington no longer has confidence in Chadian intelligence. Neither the quality of the information from Chad nor the sincerity of the collaboration are judged satisfactory by the US. Incomprehensible to most Chadians, both among the opposition and Déby’s entourage, the US travel ban has caused rage in N’Djamena; how come Chad, an acclaimed terror fighter, can be punished so severely by its prime benefactor? Both France and the G5 Sahel were puzzled with the US decision. Officially, no one understands the US travel ban. However, one may speculate that the US intelligence has reason to believe the rumors circulating in N’Djamena: President Déby secretly supports Boko Haram because when Boko Haram is still strong and frightening, Déby can act as an acclaimed fighter of terror and only then does the international community need him and will support him diplomatically, militarily and monetarily. No Boko Haram would mean no president Déby, according to these rumors.
Yet, Boko Haram is still active and the rebels in the north not strong enough to pose a serious threat to Déby alone. For the US and the EU, Chad and president Déby represent a stable spot in the midst of a troubled region. Déby has skilfully managed to stay in power for 27 years already. As long as his personal health is good enough and as long as the West needs him in the fight against terror, Déby will stay president in Chad. However, the day when either of these is no longer the case, Chad will turn into a nightmare of violent power struggles.