Mahamat Deby's rivals pale in comparison ahead of Chad elections

Wednesday April 03 2024

Chad's interim President Mahamat Idriss Deby. PHOTO | REUTERS


Mahamat Deby Itno was never a politician until his father, Idriss, was assassinated in April 2021. Now he wants the seat proper, and the country is organising elections in May, the first since 2021.

His father was killed in battle, just days after winning a new term that would have made him one of Africa's longest-serving leaders.

That loss has since been made up for by the fact that power has remained in the family. Also, Mahamat's Chad, despite staging a bloodless coup to form a transitional military council, has never been sanctioned by the African Union.

Mahamat is on Thursday expected to launch his autobiography, a great timing that could also be his campaign tool: People will get to know about his "humble" life. The title of the book is "From Bedouin to President". Bedouins are an ethnic group composed mainly of nomadic groups in the deserts of Chad and neighbouring countries.

He is from the Zaghawa group which is spread in Chad, Sudan and Libya. Chadian legend has it that Zaghawa was not originally part of Bedouins, but they settled and assimilated and worked up the ranks by marrying into important families of rulers and also helping these original communities to defend themselves.

Read: Chad violence a new political scare for Africa


Mahamat is expected to launch the book and his website, which he described on Tuesday as “very important events.”

The decision to publish the book and launch the website is reflective of modern times for a man from the community who hardly stayed in one place and was largely an oral society. But it also reflects the growing role of social media and the internet in marketing a politician.

This election is set to put an end to three years of military rule and mark a return to democratic rule. Yet opposition leaders and analysts in the country say the election scheduled for May 6, 2024, is a charade to legitimise the regime of Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno who came to power by seizing it.

On Sunday, Chad’s Constitutional Council announced that 10 of 20 aspirants had been cleared to run in the election including Mahamat, the interim president, and Success Masra, the opposition leader appointed prime minister of the transitional government in January. Former prime minister Albert Pahimi Padacke also cut just like the lone female candidate, Beassenda Lydie.

Mahamat initially promised an 18-month transition to elections after taking power in 2021 following the death of his father. The senior Deby had himself seized power in a coup 30 years earlier. Mahamat did not keep the promise, postponing the elections until this year. He sparked protests that were violently suppressed by security forces.

Read: Chad opposition leader killed in foiled state attack

The Constitutional Council announced that Nassour Ibrahim Neguy Koursami, Rakhis Ahmat Saleh and Ahmat Hassaballah Soubiane, well-known vocal critics of the N’Djamena regime, had been barred from contesting in the polls. It said their applications and those of seven other aspirants had been rejected because of "irregularities.”

Evariste Ngarlem Tolde, a political scientist and researcher at the University of N'Djamena says the upcoming election is an important event in the country’s journey to democracy, but the current military leader has jeopardised it as conditions for the organisation of a free, fair, transparent and credible elections are absent in the buildup to the vote.

“First, the electors’ list that will be used is a corrupted list that has been tailored to suit only the client. It is a list that dates many years back, but many young Chadians have just attained voting age who are not included,” Dr Tolde told Nation.Africa on the phone from N’Djamena.

The expert says a credible election requires credible institutions, but it is not the case with Chad where he says the president, himself a candidate, “practically appoints all” members of the National Election Management Agency.

“They are all (former ruling party) Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) party members or allies, and the interim president is a candidate for the party in presidential elections, the institution cannot be independent,” he explained last week in an interview.

Previously a fierce opponent of Chad’s military rulers, Masra fled the country after dozens were killed when security forces cracked down on protesters in N’Djamena in October 2022 where he was a key organiser. He returned to the country a month after reaching a deal with the junta that included a peace negotiation facilitated by authorities of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Kinshasa.

The opposition leader’s clearance to contest in the upcoming presidential vote means it will be the first time a sitting PM is contesting in an election with the one who appointed him in the country. Yet analysts say it is a make-belief by the junta that the race is open whereas real opponents have either been killed, are in exile or excluded from the election.

Dr Tolde said the regime has successfully eliminated or excluded candidates from Deby’s native northern part of the country from the election to pave the way for victory.

Read: Chad opposition fear arrest, harassment ahead of referendum

“When you look at the 10 rejected candidates by the Constitutional Council, Koursami is leading the Consultation Group of Political Actors (GCAP) that has the potential to quash the MPS in the northern part of the country,” the Political Scientist said explaining that: “It was therefore crucial for the president to put him out of the game for fallacious reasons to ensure he does not obstruct his ambitions."

The central African nation is scheduled to hold a two-round election in May and June with provisional results expected on July 7. The vote is a litmus test on the transition back to civilian rule in the country. In power since April 2021, Chad is one of many countries on the continent under military rule. Africa has experienced at least eight coups – the latest occurring in neighbouring Gabon in August 2023.

Even before the announcement of candidates cleared for the May 6 election, the electoral process was already marred by the brutal killing of a prominent opposition figure, Yaya Dillo Djerou Betchi, the president of the Socialist Party Without Borders. He was widely seen as Mahamat’s main rival at the upcoming elections although we would never know if the Council could approve him.

After the death of Dillo on February 28, N’Djamena authorities said troops were after a member of Dillo’s PSF party who orchestrated an attack on the country’s internal security agency when the leader was killed in an exchange of gunfire. The opposition leader’s supporters said he was executed at point-blank range.

 “The circumstances of Yaya Dillo’s killing are unclear, but his violent death highlights the dangers facing opposition politicians in Chad, particularly as elections approach,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Whoever wins the upcoming elections will have one of the major problems in dealing with insecurity. Chad is located in a volatile area with three of its neighbours, Niger, Central Africa Republic (CAR) and Sudan, all fighting internal crises from coups to wars to general instability. Yet they have close ethnic connections.

For Sudan, in particular, Chad has been both a saviour, for refugees, and a conduit for the war. It is hosting more than 500,000 Sudanese refugees mainly from Darfur, according to UN figures. But rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say it has aided the Rapid Support Forces, one of the fighting factions in Sudan, to get arms by receiving them from the United Arab Emirates and delivering them to RSF. The Sudan Armed Forces, RSF rivals, have gone on to claim RSF was importing weapons disguised as aid.

Back in Chad, the election could raise peace prospects or worsen it. A day after the announcement of candidates by the Constitutional Council, seven soldiers were killed in the country in what authorities suspect was an attack by Boko Haram. The seven soldiers died when their vehicle drove over an explosive device during a patrol in the country's west near Lake Chad on Monday.

Like everyone else sharing Lake Chad, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria have all been victims of Boko Haram and other extremist groups in the area. They began by demanding adequate government service to their localities. Now they take advantage of its very absence to torment people.

Chad is going into elections as neighbouring Niger remains isolated since a coup last year in July.