Chad: Averting the Risk of Post-transition Instability
Chad: Averting the Risk of Post-transition Instability
Electoral agents count ballots at a polling station during the presidential election in N'Djamena, Chad April 11, 2021.
Electoral agents count ballots at a polling station during the presidential election in N'Djamena, Chad April 11, 2021. REUTERS / Media Coulibaly
Q&A / Africa 15 minutes

Chad: Averting the Risk of Post-transition Instability

Chadians will soon elect a new president, concluding a three-year political transition that will almost certainly see the incumbent Mahamat Déby Itno retain power. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Enrica Picco and Charles Bouëssel examine the issues at stake and the possible threats to the country’s stability after the vote. 

Chad is due to hold a presidential election on 6 May. What is at stake?

[Translation from French]

The 6 May presidential election will be the last stage in a transition marked by deep political and social tensions. The election has characteristics of previous contests in 2011, 2016 and 2021, when President Idriss Déby Itno (1990-2021), father of current president Mahamat Déby Itno, easily defeated members of the muzzled urban opposition, who have little support in the rural areas where 76 per cent of Chadians live. The younger Déby is the clear favourite to win this time around. He faces no strong opponent, apart from Succès Masra, head of the Les Transformateurs party. Masra lost much of his popularity in January, however, when he accepted the post of prime minister. A significant proportion of his constituency now considers him to have become a stooge of those in power. He continues to attract large crowds to his campaign events, at which he openly criticises Déby and assures voters that his victory is possible. But few believe the vote will be close. On 23 March, the civil society platform Wakit Tama called on Chadians to boycott the election, describing it as a “masquerade” designed to perpetuate a “dynastic dictatorship”. Post-election protests are possible, though the threat of police repression could dissuade many people from taking to the streets. 

Beyond its democratic significance, this election marks the end of the political transition that began in April 2021, just after the elder Déby’s death. Fearing a power vacuum, a group of generals appointed one of his sons, Mahamat, who was 37 at the time, to head a Transitional Military Council. Initially scheduled to last eighteen months, the transition has gone on for more than three years. Deviating from its usual practice, the African Union (AU) did not sanction N’Djamena for the unconstitutional change of power, arguing that Chad had made a significant contribution to fighting terrorism. In return, the AU demanded that the transitional leaders be ineligible to run in the elections that would follow. 

Pressure on the opposition has increased in recent months, reaching a peak ... with the brutal death of opposition figure Yaya Dillo.

Despite this request, the transitional president announced that he would run. Pressure on the opposition has increased in recent months, reaching a peak on 28 February with the brutal death of opposition figure Yaya Dillo, leader of the Parti Socialiste Sans Frontières and Mahamat Déby’s cousin. The government claims that Dillo was killed resisting arrest but members of the opposition say he was extrajudicially murdered in a military operation. During the same operation, the president’s uncle, Salleh Déby, was also arrested. Dillo’s death is a flagrant example of the growing dissension within the Zaghawa clan, of which the Déby family is a part. This clan represents just over 5 per cent of the Chadian population, but it has controlled the country for 30 years with the support of other northern elites belonging to the Gorane and Arab ethnic groups.

A number of problems in the run-up to the balloting cast doubt on its credibility. The new electoral code, adopted during a parliamentary session lasting just two hours on 22 February, abolishes the National Election Management Agency’s obligation to post the results at each polling station, instead providing only for publishing regional tallies, which will prevent observers from verifying results by adding up the numbers at polling stations. The Agency is mainly made up of members or close associates of the ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS). The Constitutional Council, which validates candidacies and results, offers little guarantee of independence, as the younger Déby has appointed a former MPS executive, Jean Bernard Padaré, at its helm. 

The Constitutional Council also rejected ten candidacies, including those of two prominent opposition figures: Ahmat Hassaballah Soubiane, a politician and diplomat of Arab origin, and Nassour Koursami, a Zaghawa and leader of the Groupe de concertation des acteurs politiques, a platform created in 2021. Following this decision, the opposition pointed out that all ten rejected candidates were from the north and centre of the country. These two rural regions are Mahamat Déby’s electoral strongholds; according to the opposition, the Council sought to eliminate his potential competition there. 

What were the transition’s objectives, and have they been achieved?

When the transition began, many Chadians nurtured hopes of a change of power, after three decades of authoritarian rule dominated by the Déby family. Mahamat Déby showed signs of democratic openness, initiating negotiations with the opposition and civil society, and allowing several long-time dissident activists, such as Abel Maïna, Makaïla Nguebla, Tahirou Hissein Dagga and Habib Ben, to return to the country after years in exile. The president also promised a national dialogue to discuss institutional reform, a new constitution and a fresh presidential election. 

Mahamat Déby also reached out to the many politico-military movements seeking a role in charting the country’s future. He agreed to hold talks in Doha in March 2022, under the good offices of the Qatari authorities, where representatives of 52 movements met to negotiate participation in the national dialogue. The accord struck in Doha allowed the return of more exiles, such as Timan Erdimi, Idriss Déby’s cousin and head of the rebel Union of Resistance Forces. But the two strongest rebel groups refused to sign, arguing that the government had not taken into consideration their demands regarding the conditions of their disarmament and the return of their fighters from abroad. These are the Libyan-based Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad, whose offensive on N’Djamena in April 2021 claimed the elder Déby’s life, and the Conseil du commandement militaire pour le salut de la République, based in the Tibesti region, also on the Libyan border.

Launched in August 2022, the national dialogue was short-lived, dashing the democratic hopes of the early months. In the absence of a guarantee that Mahamat Déby would not run for president, one of their main demands, the main leaders of the civil and political-military opposition refused to take part. The dialogue therefore took place without the forces most in favour of regime change, such as Masra’s Les Transformateurs and Wakit Tama, both of which have considerable constituencies in urban areas. The dialogue wound up extending the transition by two years. It also allowed the transitional leaders, including Déby, to stand for election. Despite this violation of its conditions imposed at the transition’s outset, the AU member states were unable to reach consensus on sanctioning Chad. 

In reaction to what it perceived as a betrayal, the opposition opted for a show of strength, calling for mass mobilisation against the regime. On 20 October 2022, the day that was to mark the end of the planned eighteen-month transition, thousands took to the streets, storming public buildings in N’Djamena and provincial towns such as Moundou, Doba, Koumra and Sahr. The brutal repression by the security forces resulted in 128 deaths, 518 injuries and over 900 arrests, according to the Chadian Human Rights Commission, creating a climate of fear and driving most prominent dissidents to go silent, return to exile or join the government. 

The Economic Community of Central African States launched a mediation led by the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Faced with this crisis, the Economic Community of Central African States launched a mediation led by the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Félix TshisekediBut this effort failed to create the conditions for genuine national reconciliation. The agreement signed in Kinshasa in October 2023 between the Chadian government and the opposition involved only one party, Les Transformateurs, and consisted mainly of allowing Masra’s return after a year in exile. This gesture had great symbolic significance, considering the polarisation of political discourse in the country following the previous October’s crackdown. But there was more to the story: a few days after Masra came back to N’Djamena, parliament passed a general amnesty covering the 2022 events. This law dropped all charges against opposition figures who had been arrested, but it also buried Chadians’ demands for enquiries shedding light on the responsibility of political and military leaders for the repression. Two months after this amnesty, Mahamat Déby appointed Masra as prime minister, greatly disappointing the erstwhile dissident’s supporters. 

The previous month, a constitutional referendum had enshrined the country’s hyper-centralised presidential system, despite the opposition’s objections. The national dialogue had envisaged that Chadians would be able to choose between a unitary but decentralised state and a federation. But the commission in charge of drafting the new constitution, made up largely of people affiliated with the regime, offered them no such choice; indeed, their draft strengthened the existing system. Notwithstanding images of largely empty polling stations on 17 December 2023, the government declared the new constitution approved by 86 per cent of voters, with a participation rate of 62 per cent. National and international observers, who had noted very low turnout at the polling stations they visited, expressed doubts that the official results were credible.

Finally, at the end of February, Mahamat Déby announced that the presidential election, initially scheduled for October, would take place earlier in the year, presenting this measure as fulfilling his pledge to complete the transition faster than neighbouring countries that have undergone unconstitutional changes of government. Opponents denounced the move as an attempt to speed up his own consolidation of power by burnishing his legitimacy as president on the national and international stage. It also decoupled the presidential and legislative elections, which were to have been held at the same time. The parliamentary vote is still slated for October, but there has been no confirmation for some time. Chadians have not voted for parliamentary representatives since 2011, and many fear that the decoupling is, in effect, another indefinite postponement. 

What has happened to Chad’s foreign policy over the past three years of transition?

Mahamat Déby has focused on security, looking to ensure that rebel movements cannot use neighbouring countries as rear bases. He has strengthened links with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the Central African Republic and with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya. These closer ties have enabled Chad to carry out military operations against rebels on Central African and Libyan territory. Déby has also positioned himself on the regional chessboard by preserving his relationship with France while opening the door to new security and economic partnerships with the United Arab Emirates, Hungary and, more recently, Russia, although the contours of this last agreement remain unclear.

The recent wave of coups d’état in western Sahelian states, along with the outbreak of war in Sudan ... have made Chad look like an island of stability in the greater Sahel.

The recent wave of coups d’état in western Sahelian states, along with the outbreak of war in Sudan in April 2023, have made Chad look like an island of stability in the greater Sahel, as well as one of the few reliable allies for Western powers. Chad also prides itself on being the first country among those in the region that are undergoing political transitions, such as Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon, to organise elections. N’Djamena has used its position to pre-empt international criticism of the transition’s authoritarian drift. 

Positioning himself in the Western camp has not prevented Mahamat Déby from playing an ambiguous geopolitical game. There are some 3,000 French soldiers in Chad and, aware of the unpopularity of France and the West, particularly among Chadian youth, Déby has purposely cast doubt on whether he will let such arrangements continue. About a hundred U.S. special forces personnel stationed at the Adji Kosseï air base near N’Djamena have been assisting the French army in fighting jihadists in the Sahel. On 4 April, the chief of staff of the Chadian air force, Amie Ahmed Idriss, asked the U.S. to halt these activities, claiming that the U.S. has not provided the necessary documents to justify its presence. (The request came on the heels of a similar one from the junta in Niger, where the U.S. has about 1,000 troops and is negotiating the terms of their withdrawal.) The U.S. special forces personnel left the Chadian capital a few days later. Washington now awaits the election result, after which it will reassess its partnership with N’Djamena. 

Does regime continuity pose a risk to Chad’s stability?

Even if the measures taken by Mahamat Déby to reinforce his power have enabled Chad to enjoy relative stability, they have not shielded it from other threats, internal and external, which are closely interlinked and whose evolution is unpredictable. 

Inside the country, the balance among the ruling elite has never been so delicate, for several reasons. Mahamat Déby’s tight grip on the army during the transition led more than a hundred generals close to his father to retire. Meanwhile, the younger Déby set up a new praetorian guard, the Rapid Intervention Force. These moves have heightened tensions within the Chadian government, due to the place that members of non-Zaghawa groups, especially Goranes (from whom Mahamat’s mother is descended) and Arabs loyal to Mahamat Déby, have acquired in the army. Although Mahamat Déby has so far used the existing patronage system to calm tempers, these decisions could exacerbate frictions within the Zaghawa clan, whose cohesion has been put to the test since Dillo died, triggering a struggle for control of the country.

Chad’s position in the Sudanese conflict is another major source of tension within the regime in N’Djamena. After first adopting a position of neutrality, Mahamat Déby subsequently authorised the UAE to supply arms and equipment to General Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) from Chadian territory. In parallel, Chad obtained a $1.5 billion loan, representing over 80 per cent of the state budget, as well as military equipment of its own. Intense disputes ensued within the Zaghawa clans. With strong family ties in both Chad and Sudan, this ethnic group is sharply divided. While some in N’Djamena approve of supporting the RSF, the Sudanese branch, based in North Darfur, has chosen the camp of its enemy, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s regular Sudanese army. If clashes between the RSF and Zaghawa militias in Darfur escalate, the latter may seek revenge by backing a coup against the government in N’Djamena, as has happened in the past. The rumours of impending fighting in North Darfur, particularly around the town of El-Fasher, which is home to a large part of Darfur’s Zaghawa community, greatly increase this risk. 

In addition, social and communal tensions remain high in Chad. The transitional government has offered no real solution to the socio-economic crisis that has afflicted Chadians for years. Recent measures, such as an agreement with teachers, a reduction in transport taxes and subsidies on utilities, have not calmed social discontent. On the contrary, civil service wage arrears, rising fuel prices and water and electricity cuts have provoked repeated strikes. At the same time, inter-communal tensions are on the rise throughout the country. The south and centre are beset with conflict between herders and farmers, exacerbated by longstanding identity-based divisions, leading to the resurgence of secessionist grievances. The eastern provinces, meanwhile, are under unprecedented pressure from the arrival of over 600,000 Sudanese refugees, despite efforts by Chadian authorities since Sudan’s war began to allow national and international humanitarian organisations to deliver aid. Competition for access to resources, particularly land, and rising inflation are likely to increase tensions in one of the country’s poorest regions, where in March inter-communal clashes claimed dozens of lives in the space of a few days. 

The struggle among world powers for influence in the Sahel is both an asset and a risk for Chad.

The struggle among world powers for influence in the Sahel is both an asset and a risk for Chad. President Déby used a trip to Moscow in January not only to send a strong signal to Paris, which immediately reaffirmed its security commitment to Chad, but also to play domestic politics. Aware of rising anti-French sentiment, he described his meeting with President Vladimir Putin as a “historic act of sovereignty and independence”. Part of Chadian civil society welcomed these words, but also called on him to go further and join the Alliance of Sahel States, a bloc formed in September 2023 by the pro-Russian juntas of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with which Déby maintains good relations. While for the moment the diversification of security partnerships has helped consolidate the regime through funding and military equipment, new fronts of instability could open. Divisions could emerge between pro-Russian and pro-Western regime elements, while the politico-military opposition could decide to seek support from either Moscow or Western capitals. In other words, the Chadian authorities’ mixed messages vis-à-vis the anti-French sentiment in the country could backfire by making the country’s alliances a source of domestic contention. 

Chad’s future beyond the 6 May election will depend on the measures taken to address these threats. Within Chad, social and political tensions are fuelled by the governance deficit that has plagued the country for decades. Young people in particular are demanding a more inclusive and equitable state. Organising legislative elections, the date of which has yet to be firmly set, will be the first major test for the president elected on 6 May. These elections’ credibility will depend on them being held within a reasonable timeframe and according to the principles of transparency, notably with an audit of the voter roll. Such measures could be the first step toward re-establishing the rules of the democratic game in the country and laying the foundations for genuine national reconciliation. In the medium term, these efforts could also enable the new president to restore social confidence and break the cycle of violence linked to the inter-communal conflicts that are multiplying throughout the country, by involving local communities more in dispute resolution and strengthening the capacities of the security and judicial apparatus. 

With so much turmoil in its vicinity, N’Djamena will have to adopt a cautious stance in the short term with regard to its positioning in the Sudanese conflict and its relations with Sahelian countries. If the new president decides to continue diversifying his security partners, he will have to lay his cards on the table and ensure coordination among the various players, such as French and Hungarian military personnel (and, possibly, Russians as well if the agreement between the two countries allows for it), particularly in training and supporting the army. Doing so will help avoid the rise of misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric in the country or, even worse, direct confrontation between its allies.


Project Director, Central Africa
Analyst, Central Africa

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