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New Chad PM urges dialogue for country 'going up in flames'

Kate Hairsine | Martina Schwikowski
October 17, 2022

With Chad's election pushed back a further two years, junta ruler Mahamat Idriss Deby is now interim president. In an exclusive DW interview, new Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo stressed the importance of national dialogue.

Mahamat Deby in military uniform seated with Saleh Kebzabo
Chad's President Mahamat Deby pictured with Prime Minister Saleh KebzaboImage: Presse- und Kommunikationsdienst der Präsidentschaft der Republik Tschad

Chad's junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby was sworn in as president for a second time on Monday. This time he is head of a transitional civilian government.

Deby has ruled Chad for the past 18 months as the head of a military council. He was installed by the army following the death of his father, the country's long-term president Idriss Deby, in what was called a "dynastic coup."

Deby is now set to stay in power for an additional two years until an election is held around October 2024. The junta had originally promised a return to civilian rule within 18 months.

"This means that the powerful elite, those who are pulling the strings behind the scenes, have a total of three and a half years, and that's a lot of time to establish themselves in power," said Chad expert Helga Dickow, a senior researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Germany. 

The new Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo will lead a unity government for a transitional period of two years. In an exclusive interview with DW, Kebzabo stressed the importance of dialogue.

"The willingness to open up is the most important thing. We have a unity government focused on inclusivity. We will continue in the atmosphere of a national, inclusive dialogue and we must continue in this spirit with those who want to join us," Kebzabo told DW.

Kebzabo said the priorities were unity and internal harmony. "Today we have a country that is going up in flames and is suffering from violence with conflicts between communities that are not acceptable, they are tribal wars. We must fight against them by not only trying to put out the burning fire but by addressing the root of the problem," he said.

About 60% of the conflicts in Chad are between farmers and herders. Floods are currently making the situation even worse. "I think we can find solutions for these problems," Kebzabo was confident.

President Mahamat Idriss Deby wears a white boubou, with a yellow sash at his inauguration
President Mahamat Idriss Deby wore civilian attire at his swearing-in-ceremonyImage: DENIS SASSOU GUEIPEUR/AFP/Getty Images


'Dictatorship in all but name'

On the streets of the capital N'Djamena, many people have had scathing remarks to share about Deby's inauguration.

"What happened has buried democracy in Chad," one man told DW without sharing his name. "We shouldn't impose a president on Chadians illegally."

Another added: "Chad is no longer a country of law. It's a dictatorship in all but name."

The president's authority meanwhile has also been broadened to allow him to name and dismiss the government, a move that has been criticized by opposition parties and pro-democracy groups in the vast Central African nation.

"They have given full powers to a single man ... who will be able to take advantage of this authority to set his agenda, an agenda to confiscate power," said Abdelkerim Yacoub Koundougoumi, the coordinator of the Project for Credible Change (PACT), a citizens' movement. 

"We've ended up with an all-powerful transitional president who can appoint and dismiss ministers, members of parliament and even the parliamentary speaker." 

At his inauguration ceremony, Deby appeared in a traditional white boubou robe instead of his military general's uniform — as if to underline he was now president of a civilian government instead of the military council. But for Koundougoumi, "nothing has changed" with Deby's new clothes.

Ruling elite

The longer transition period and expansion of presidential powers are just two of several resolutions adopted at the national peace dialogue that preceded Deby's inauguration. 

In addition, the dialogue ratified the right of junta leaders to contest elections, opening up the possibility that 38-year-old Deby may run for president, despite originally promising the African Union (AU) and the international community that he would not do so.

President Mahamat Idriss Deby stands surrounded by soldiers
President Mahamat Idriss Deby (l.) normally wears a military uniform, as seen here at the dialogue's opening ceremonyImage: Aurelie Bazzara-Kibangula/AFP/Getty Images

Political scientist Dickow, who spent two months researching in Chad earlier this year, believes the resolutions are about "maintaining power within the regime, that is, the family members of the Zaghawa clan as well as the military, who are still buzzing around even if the military council has been dissolved."

Deby's father, Idriss, ruled Chad for 30 years after seizing power in a coup. During his rule, he promoted relatives and allies from his Zaghawa ethnic group to senior government, business and military positions, creating a corrupt patronage system. One estimate of Idriss Deby's personal wealth before his death was $50 million (€51 million).

This ruling elite is the main beneficiary of a Chad's oil wealth, a sore point in a country that ranks third lowest in the world on the development index and is currently suffering a food emergency following severe drought, widespread flooding and rising food prices.

An estimated two million people out of a population of 16.4 million are facing hunger in Chad, according to UN agencies.

Democratic elections

Mahamat Idriss Deby has promised "elections organized transparently and peacefully to ... ensure the return to constitutional order." 

While Chad has held elections since 1996, not one of these votes resulted in a change of power. Observers widely declared the last election held by Idriss Deby in 2021 a sham in the wake of campaign and protest bans on the opposition. 

But the political space opened up somewhat under the junta. 

Demonstrators hold up placards
Protests are allowed Chad, but security forces may still violently repress themImage: Blaise Daruistone/DW

The ban on political protests was reversed, and there have been "more public opposition or civil society demonstrations against the junta in the past 18 months than in the five years of [Idress] Deby's last term," said Hoinathy Remadji, a N'Djamena-based researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank.

Freedom of expression has improved, he noted, compared to the circumstances under Deby's father, who regularly blocked internet and social media access for months at a time

The junta has also received some praise for signing a peace accord with dozens of rebel groups active in the chronically unstable nation, although the largest armed group, known by its French acronym FACT, refused to take part.

Ally of the West

Deby used his inauguration to ask the international community to help Chad in its "quest for security and stability … particularly in the theaters of peacekeeping operations and the fight against terrorism."

Chad is a strategic ally of the West in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel, especially for France, which maintains a military base in the country.

Chadian soldiers are seen on light armored vehicles
The Chadian army has become an indispensable ally in the war against terrorImage: RENAUD MASBEYE BOYBEYE/AFP/Getty Images

Although the French and EU ambassadors attended Deby's ceremony, EU members, including France, have expressed their concerns about the election delay and the failure to exclude junta members from running in future polls.

Most notably, African Union representatives were conspicuously absent from Deby's inauguration.

Political analyst Mahamat Abdoulaye Kebir said he believed the AU "boycotted" the event because of the junta's broken promises.

Speaking to DW in N'Djamena, Kebir explained that he expected the AU to impose targeted sanctions on Chad, such as the suspension of Chad's membership, at its next meeting. 

The African Union itself, however, has already attracted criticism for not sanctioning Chad immediately when the military took power, as it did in the cases of Mali and Burkina Faso following coups there. 

The AU is "weakening itself" when it proceeds one way with Chad and another way with other countries, said Chad expert Dickow. "That puts the organization in a very difficult position."

The chair of the AU, Moussa Faki Mahamat, is a veteran Chadian politician, who held several posts under former President Idriss Deby. A Zaghawa and close ally of the former president, Faki is also rumored to have ambitions to run for Chad's presidency himself. 

Blaise Dariustone, Reliou Koubakin and Georges Ibrahim Tounkara contributed to this article. 

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson and Benita van Eyssen

Kate Hairsine Senior Editor & Reporter