Will Chad’s Protests Catch Fire?

An oil worker in Kome, Chad, 2002. A tripling of oil prices in Chad ignited violent protests on November 11, 2014. (Tom Stoddart/Getty)

Last month, protests led to the swift fall of Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré after twenty-seven years in power. What echoes, if any, will Burkina Faso’s protests have elsewhere in Africa, particularly in countries with long-serving rulers?

Chad is one country to watch. On November 11, hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Chad’s three largest cities–the capital N’Djamena, and two other southern cities, Moundou and Sarh. Some protesters threw stones and burned gas stations. Authorities intervened to disperse them. Reports of casualties vary, with most accounts listing two wounded in Sarh, but some counting three deaths there.

These protests are not the only expressions of dissent in Chad in recent years. In 2012, workers’ unions organized a general strike to protest unpaid salary increases. The government responded with arrests of top leaders, leaving many civil society actors outraged. Major opposition leaders have repeatedly boycotted elections, including the last presidential vote in 2011.

The proximate cause for the recent protests was a three-fold increase in the cost of fuel, reflecting fuel shortages caused by a production halt at the country’s sole refinery, the Djermaya facility near N’Djamena. The spike in fuel costs activated other grievances, with some protesters decrying a lack of services in Chad. Anger over corruption also surfaced. Even as Djermaya looks to restart production in December, some voices accuse high-placed bureaucrats and businessmen of conspiring to impose an artificial shortage and thereby profit.

Gallingly to the protesters, the fuel shortage occurred even though Chad produces 130,000 barrels of oil per day. The government hopes to double that figure by 2016. Yet production, which began in 2003, has not brought widespread prosperity. The government has used some revenues to purchase weapons (causing the World Bank to pull out of Chad in 2008). The government has also undertaken infrastructure projects, but some Chadians complain that the projects are hollow–that there are not enough workers to run the new hospitals, for example. In rural Chad, many still live in extreme poverty, and cities have seen widening economic disparities. So when protesters in Moundou attacked a Total gas station, one might read their action as a symbolic blow against a system where oil wealth is visible, but has not uplifted ordinary people. Indeed, when fuel prices soar, it is ordinary people who find their budgets stretched past the limit.

The protests point to other forms of dissatisfaction with the government. Protests occurred alongside strikes by teachers, lawyers, and judicial workers. The teachers’ strike has a long history. The Teachers’ Syndicate of Chad says the government has failed to fulfill a 2010 agreement that promised additional pay. Striking teachers helped organize the fuel protests in N’Djamena, and they had significant support. Authorities arrested a number of students who protested at high schools in solidarity with their teachers. The government quickly promised to pay overdue teachers’ salaries, and the teachers agreed to suspend their strike for two weeks; lawyers and other government workers announced their own suspension a few days later.

Do these protests and strikes threaten the regime of President Idriss Deby? At present, it appears they do not. Deby, who came to power in a 1990 rebellion, has faced more severe tests of his rule in the past. In 2006 and again in 2008, rebels based in Darfur and eastern Chad swept into N’Djamena and battled Deby’s forces. Many accounts suggest that it was French political and military support that enabled Deby to withstand these rebellions. Since 2008, Deby has sought to boost his position domestically, especially by making use of oil revenues. He has worked to become an even more valued regional partner for France, and to a lesser extent, the United States.

For example, Chadian troops fought in northern Mali in 2013, when France led an intervention seeking to break a jihadist coalition that had taken control of several Malian regions. When France wound down its intervention and Mali and launched “Operation Barkhane,” which aims to counter terrorism across the Sahel region, France headquartered the operation in N’Djamena.

Deby’s strategy of projecting leadership resembles the strategy of Burkina Faso’s Compaoré, although the latter cultivated the image of a mediator rather than a military ally. But regional status did not help Compaoré when the protests broke out, and Deby’s regional clout does not render him immune to domestic discontent.

Celeste Hicks recently wrote of Chad’s “surprising rise and enduring weakness.” She argues that while the threat of rebellion has receded in the wake of a 2010 rapprochement between Chad and Sudan, there is a threat of a military coup that would take some impetus from unresolved rivalries within the government and within Deby’s extended family. She adds that the presidential elections scheduled for April 2016 could bring domestic discontent with Deby into the spotlight. Unlike Compaoré, Deby will not need to tinker with his country’s constitution in order to run–the tinkering already occurred in 2005, when Chad passed a referendum removing constitutional term limits. Nevertheless, 2016 could offer an occasion for a dedicated effort to unseat Deby.

Turning back to the protests, some protesters did connect their actions to events in Burkina Faso. According to one report, students from one high school chanted, “Burkina Faso! Burkina Faso!” The Chadian press has closely followed events in Burkina Faso, and stories online discuss the “Burkinabé syndrome” elsewhere in Africa. Opposition voices have invoked Burkina Faso as they call for Deby to step aside in 2016.

Yet the drivers of Chad’s protests appear primarily national in character, and the protests aim at securing redress for specific grievances (costs of living, unpaid salaries) rather than demanding Deby’s immediate exit. Deby’s government has tried to assuage protesters’ anger, a strategy that may work, at least temporarily. Symbolically, Deby visited the Djermaya refinery last Friday.

What future, then, for the protests? Demonstrations have occurred recently in places like Boctchoro, in southern Chad, but for the moment, the November 11 protests do not appear to be the beginning of a larger protest wave. Still, Burkina Faso saw several waves of protests (in 2008 and 2011) before the regime-toppling events of this year, suggesting that momentum toward a regime’s downfall can build in fits and starts over a period of years. This episode may not be the last time Deby hears anger from the streets.