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Tensions in Chad rise over Deby's presidential run

Martina Schwikowski
February 11, 2021

President Idriss Deby has ruled Chad for 30 years. His nomination to run for a sixth term in the April election is inflaming tensions in a country marked by economic woes and frustration with the political elite.

Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno waves to supporters as bodyguards look on.
Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno could technically be in office until 2033 Image: Präsidentschaft von Tschad

President Idriss Deby has ruled Chad with an iron fist for the past 30 years. 

The former army chief came to power in a 1990 rebellion that removed dictator Hissene Habre in a coup. He went on to win Chad's first post-independence elections in 1996 and was reelected in 2001. 

After a referendum in 2005 removed the two-term limit from the constitution, Deby continued his winning streak, sweeping presidential elections in 2006, 2011 and 2016. 

Chad amended its constitution again in 2018, expanding the president's powers and increasing the presidential term from five to six years. And although the new constitution reintroduced a two-term limit, this won't be applied retroactively, leaving Deby free to theoretically stand for president until 2033.  

Earlier this week, his party officially nominated the 68-year-old to run for a sixth term in elections scheduled for April 11, 2021. 

Despite a government ban on protests under coronavirus laws, Deby's nomination saw several hundred people gather in the capital N'Djamena, with demonstrators setting tires on fire while chanting, "Leave, Deby!" 

Police fired tear gas at the protesters and arrested more than 50 people. 

One of those present was prominent opposition politician Succes Masra.

Succes Masra, leader of Chad's Les Transformateurs movement.
Opposition politician Succes Masra is ineligible to run in the 2021 election because he is too youngImage: DW/B. Dariustone

He told DW his party, Les Transformateurs (The Transformers), had called for a peaceful people's march to demand justice and reforms on the weekend, yet he ended up seeking refuge within the security perimeter of the US Embassy, along with 10 other party members, to escape being arrested.

Masra called on the West to do more to pressure Deby's government to stop violations of fundamental rights. 

"We demand that the international community, like France, Germany, the European Union and the US, help the Chadian people demand the same rights that people in these big international countries have," Masra told DW. 

"We also demand the right to peaceful assembly and the right to march and express our heartfelt desires in a peaceful manner."

"Why should this lead to attempts to arrest us, or arrests and even kidnappings?" Masra asked. 

Deby's decades in power

Mismanagement and falling oil prices have exacerbated poverty and raised discontent in the landlocked country in Africa's Sahel belt. 

One of the poorest nations in the world, two thirds of Chad's 15.8 million people live in abject poverty, according to the World Food Programme, despite the nation's sizable reserves of crude oil. 

"Corruption, bribery, and nepotism are endemic in Chad," says Freedom House's online profile on Chad. "Corruption charges against high-level officials that do go forward are widely viewed as selective prosecutions meant to discredit those who pose a threat to Deby or his allies."

Deby's opponents accuse him of paralyzing the country's institutions to keep himself in power.

"Everything is centralized around the presidency — [Deby] uses all the weapons of absolute power while tyrannizing society," said Roland Marchal, a fellow at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, told DW.

Western governments, however, largely view Chad as an essential ally in the fight against Islamist militias in the Sahel region. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, is expected to attend the G5 Sahel summit in Chad early next week.

French President Emmanuel Macron inspects guard of honor held by French troops in N'Djamena
France is a key Chad ally in the fight against Islamist terrorismImage: AFP/L. Marin

Opposition backs joint candidate

In the past, ethnic divisions have fragmented and weakened Chad's opposition.

it's trying a different approach though for the 2021 election. 

More than a dozen opposition parties announced on Tuesday that they are supporting a joint candidate, 55-year-old political newcomer Theophile Bongoro, to avoid splitting the anti-Deby vote. 

Bongoro is a notary who has never taken part in any election.

"We want power to be handed over democratically, through the ballot box," AFP reported Bongoro as saying after being named candidate. 

Political analyst Roland Marchal doubts, however, that the opposition alliance will achieve much. 

"In the end, Idriss Deby and his regime are in position to create fictional opposition groups and provoke division that way. So I think there will be more candidates by the time we get to the election," he said.

The presidential election will be followed by a legislative ballot, set for October 24. It has been repeatedly postponed since 2015. 

Blaise Dariustone, Eric Topona and Carole Assignon contributed to this article. It has been translated from German.