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An emperor for Chad?

Dirke Köpp im
April 30, 2018

Chad has a new constitution which grants the president absolute power. This is anything but democratic — and the West is looking away, says Dirke Köpp.

Chadian President Idriss Deby
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Marin

Chadian President Idriss Deby crowned himself emperor on Monday — at least in a figurative sense. After lawmakers voted for a change to the constitution which affects the presidential system, the president now has almost unlimited power. He is now like an emperor, who is no longer accountable to anyone and who no one can depose. He is the head of state, head of government and chief of the military all in one.

A 'one-man' show

Chad's new constitution leaves no room for a vice president or a prime minister. The president retains the sole decision-making power. He can dissolve the parliament if his decisions are not accepted by the majority. It's a one man show. And it's not democratic. In the case of Chad, it's especially bad because President Deby is anything but a flawless proponent of democracy. Rather, he silences critical voices by repression or cooptation — the peaceful protests against the vote in parliament on Monday were accompanied by numerous arrests.

Dirke Köpp is the head of the French for Africa service at DW
Dirke Köpp is the head of DW's French for Africa service

Deby's Western partners see him as a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism — and turn a blind eye to repression in Chad. However, Deby has essentially thrown sand in their eyes — on paper, the new constitution reduces the number of presidential terms to two — previously, a president could stand for re-election as often as he wanted. This sounds like a real step towards democracy. In Africa especially, the issue of unlimited terms in office is discussed over and over again and is often considered controversial by Western partners. Too often, African leaders have used this to their advantage in elections. So it would appear that Deby, as a defender of democracy, wants to march in the right direction according to Western standards.

But in parallel to reducing the number of presidential terms to two, the overall length of the president's term in office has been increased from five to six years. So in practice — at least for President Deby — the new constitution means that if his current term of office expires in 2021, he may run again twice and (in the event of re-election) remain in office for another 12 years. He would not have to cede power until 2033. By then he would be 81-years-old and president of Chad for 43 years. But whether or not tenure limits are imposed has little impact on President Deby — he's already feathered his own nest. This, too, has little to do with democracy or diversity of opinion.

The will of the people?

The government claims the people were in favor of changes to the constitution, referring to a national conference back in March. But what it does not say is that critical voices were barred from this conference. Also, the proposal of Chad's Catholic bishops to allow the people to vote on the changes by referendum was rejected by the government. No wonder — in parliament, it still has an absolute majority. Parliamentary elections, which have been postponed since 2015, are scheduled to take place in November.

Despite the many critical voices in the country, Deby no longer needs to worry about the outcome — if he does not like the new parliament, he can simply dissolve it, thanks to the new constitution. It's unfortunate that this does not seem to bother Western nations, so long as they are working with Africa's top fighter against terrorism.