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Chad's opposition under siege before election

Philipp Sandner
March 6, 2024

A crackdown on opposition leaders and activists in Chad has intensified, casting a shadow over the country's upcoming election. Political opponents of President Mahamat Idriss Deby have been targeted by security forces.

Chad's former presidential election candidate Yaya Dillo
Opposition leader Yaya Dillo (center) was killed in a shootout with security officers, according to officialsImage: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

The killing of Chad's opposition presidential candidate Yaya Dillo came as a shock to rights activists and critics of interim president Mahamat Idriss Deby.

Dillo — Deby's cousin — was killed under circumstances not fully disclosed when security forces attacked the headquarters of his Socialist Party Without Borders in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, last Wednesday.

"I'm devastated," Max Loalngar, exiled leader of the Chadian League of Human Rights, told DW.

Chad's President Mahamat Deby accompanied by his aides waves.
President Deby is widely expected to win the May 6 presidential electionImage: AFP

'Death of all of us democrats'

"This death is the death of all of us democrats, all of us who fight for human rights," said Loalngar. "They're sounding the death knell for Yaya Dillo today. It could be mine or someone else's under these circumstances in this country."

A statement on the website of the presidency purports that Dillo and his entourage, termed "assailants," used "heavy artillery" inside the party premises, allegedly forcing the security forces that came to apprehend them to defend themselves.

The escalation comes as Chadians prepare to vote on May 6 to end three years of transition following the death of former President Idriss Deby in April 2021.

'This was a political assassination'

Dillo was expected to run for president against Deby, son of the late president.

"Quite clearly, this was a political assassination," said Baidessou Soukolgue, a lawyer and political scientist in Chad. It happened exactly three years after Dillo's home was attacked and his mother killed, added Soukolgue, the executive director at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

"In recent years he had shown a frankness and political consciousness that was never appreciated by his clan, the ruling clan," he added.

German political analyst Helga Dickow recently returned from a trip to Chad, where she met Dillo days before his death.

Chad forces clash with protesters decrying takeover (2021)

Dickow, based at Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg, suspected Dillo's decision to side with the late president's younger brother, Salaye Deby, may have been too much for President Deby to tolerate.

"Yaya Dillo had called for an investigation into the death of Idriss Deby, and Salaye Deby always said he knew what had happened," said Dickow.

In 2021, the Chadian army was fighting an insurgency in the country's north, where former President Idriss Deby was said to have died on the front lines after sustaining injuries.

"There are those in Chad who said that both Mahamat Deby and his personal assistant played a role in Idriss Deby's death," said Dickow.

Political transition without renewal

Mahamat Deby — a military officer who has held leading offices in the country's security hierarchy — has led a junta government following his father's death. Early on, Deby vowed to hand power over to a civil government. However, he extended his 18-month deadline into 2024.

President of Chad's Transition Council Mahamat Idriss Deby (C) casts his vote as others observe
The constitutional referendum in December 2023 left the people with no real choice, experts sayImage: Denis Sassou Gueipeur/AFP/Getty Images

"The transition was not perfect, but the authorities seemed to control the situation," said Soukolgue. "But this assassination comes at the last moment and will no doubt impact the population's confidence in the transition process and the election."

Experts have said the transition process was flawed from the beginning to a constitutional referendum in December 2023.

Opposition groups protested a national dialogue that was not deemed inclusive. In October 2022, a joint civil society and political opposition called a protest march that ended in bloodshed. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed.

Opposition is in tatters

The protest's main organizer, Succes Masra, fled the country after the violent demonstrations. A year later, he returned following a mediation led by Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi. Masra soon endeared himself with the junta, and President Deby appointed him prime minister of the transition.

While Masra, 40, still intends to run for president as a candidate of The Transformers party, which he founded in 2018, his condolences to the Dillo's family were considered hypocritical by some. Many of his former supporters have expressed their disenchantment with the prime minister, which could spell the de facto end of another leading opposition figure.

In addition, Dickow said Masra has little influence on the government. "Masra's announcement to investigate the death of Yaya Dillo should not be taken too seriously," she said.

A nation in 'emergency mode'

And the standoff is far from over, the German analyst warned. "N'Djamena is in emergency mode. The internet is constantly being restricted, houses are raided and electricity is turned off at night. All these are indications that bad things are about to happen," she said.

Dickow suspects this points to a power play between different clans within the elite that is not yet over. If Deby survives this infighting, she said, there is no doubt he will win the election. "I think we are going to see a dictatorship even more brutal than that of his father."

Loalngar, head of the Chadian League of Human Rights, paints a similarly bleak picture. "As we are seeing innocent people dying by the day, we have to expect this country at best to burn, at worst to disappear," he said.

Sandrine Blanchard contributed to this article.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu