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Chad holds divisive post-coup constitutional referendum

December 17, 2023

Chadians have voted in a contentious constitutional referendum that is widely seen as a move to consolidate power by transitional leader Mahamat Deby.

Chad's junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby, dressed in a military uniform, looks on while seated during a ceremony
Mahamat Idriss Deby was installed as president of Chad on the death of his father in 2021Image: Denis Sassou Gueipeur/AFP

About 8 million registered voters headed to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballots on whether Chad should adopt a new constitution.

The "yes" vote was endorsed by a broad alliance of parties, including the military-led transitional government headed by General Mahamat Deby, the former ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) and the main opposition UNDR party of Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo.

During the 20 days of campaigning, the "yes" camp held large meetings throughout the vast country in the Sahel region, including a massive kickoff event in the capital, N'Djamena.

"The 'yes' camp has a strong hold on all the public resources and holds political power in terms of mobilizing people," said Remadji Hoinathy, a Chad-based senior researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, a pan-African think tank.

"It's also the camp that controls the media," Hoinathy told DW.

Members of the Chadian security forces parade during the 63rd Independence Day celebrations in N'Djamena on August 11, 2023.
Police officers and security forces have been accused of intimidating 'no' campaignersImage: Denis Sassou Gueipeur/AFP

In contrast, the "no" camp, which includes opposition parties and some civil society organizations, is short on finances and faces intimidation from security forces who have broken up rallies and seized flyers. Several opposition parties have called for a boycott of the referendum.

The lead-up to the vote was also marred by a lack of transparency around voting registration and auditing. Because of these factors, many analysts believe the "yes" vote will win.

"The 'yes' vote actually has all the means, including illegal means, to win," said Hoinathy. "But if the 'yes' won, that would not mean that there had been a free referendum."

Washington-based Africa security expert Cameron Hudson put it more bluntly: "The referendum's outcome is already a foregone conclusion," he told DW.

No referendum on the federal system

Those opposed to the new constitution are concerned the referendum has ignored the unresolved question of whether the desperately impoverished nation should become a federal state or stay centrally governed.

Chad has had a central, or unitary, government since gaining independence from France in 1960. The central structure is enshrined in the proposed constitution.

"No" campaigners, however, favor a transition to a federal state. They argue that a central government has failed to develop Chad, the world's second poorest nation.

Chad forces clash with protesters decrying takeover (2021)

Those who defend staying with the central state say federalism would further fragment the country, whose regions are marked by strong religious, ethnic and tribal divisions.

Referendum part of road map to civilian rule

The junta led by Mahamat Deby, who assumed power in April 2021 following the death of his father, President Idriss Deby, has set out a road map to transition back to civilian rule.

One of the three pillars of this transition was an inclusive national dialogue meant to tackle issues such as constitutional reform and other political topics dividing the country.

Held from April to October 2022, the national dialogue recommended first holding a referendum to settle the debate on which form the state should take — either a federal or central system — and then drafting a new constitution based on the outcome.

But Sunday's referendum failed to ask Chadians which form of government they would prefer.

Federation is a popular idea

In a survey published at the beginning of the year by the Network of Chadian Journalists and Reporters, more than two out of three Chadians, or 71%, were in favor of moving to a federal system.

In regional dialogues that preceded the national dialogue, 10 out of 23 provinces wanted to opt for federalism, according to political expert Hoinathy.

Africa's fifth biggest nation by area, Chad is home to some 200 ethnic groups. The semi-desert region in the north is populated primarily by nomadic and semi-nomadic Muslims. The semi-tropical southern part of the country, where there is large-scale farming, is predominantly Christian and animist.

"Most of Chad's regions are demanding a greater degree of federalism, which gives more local authority and autonomy to the various groups that dominate in those areas, like you have in Nigeria, for example," said Hudson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa, a Washington-based think tank.

The regions see the federal system working reasonably well in Nigeria, Chad's neighbor to the south, and now they want to adopt the same system, he told DW.

Some of those lobbying for the central system have accused the federalists of wanting to completely dissolve Chad as a country. But Chad expert Helga Dickow, a political scientist at Germany's University of Freiburg, doesn't believe this is true.

"They just want to have their fair share in politics and resources. They don't want it to be dominated by a small ethnic group," she said, referring to the Zaghawa, a minority ethnic group from the country's northeast.

The Zaghawa have dominated Chad's politics and armed forces since Idriss Deby, a member of the Zaghawa clan, took power in a coup in 1990, ruling until his death on the battlefield in 2021.

Mahamat Deby securing power: analysts

Transitional President Deby is consolidating his grip on power, most analysts have said, by avoiding a referendum on federalism and enshrining a unitary government in the constitution.

"If you are a dictator," said Hudson, "the federal system doesn't really serve your interests particularly well ... It would be a devolution of power, and that's something that [the transitional government is] resisting.

"That's why the government has been pushing for the unitary state."

Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno stands on the back of a truck and waves. Black-suited security guards and security forces surround the truck.
Mahamat Idriss Deby (right) was chosen as transitional president until elections scheduled for October 2024Image: Denis Sassou Gueipeur/AFP

Chad expert Dickow, who spent two months conducting research in the country earlier this year, shares a similar opinion.

"It's clear that the transitional government aims to guard the power in its hand by [keeping the central state]," she said. A central system also benefits the security forces by allowing them to keep control, she added.

On the death of Idriss Deby, Chad's military government promised a transition to democracy that included the national dialogue, constitutional reform and elections by October 2022.

The results of the national dialogue were widely seen as disappointing, the referendum turned out to be contentious, and elections were delayed by two years until October 2024.

"Unfortunately, there is the impression that this transition is not really a transition to anything new," said Hoinathy. "We are seeing the reification of the Deby system, maybe in a worse form to come."

Edited by: Ineke Mules

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Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.