Chad’s Protests Fade Into Memory as Deby Renews Power

Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno pictured during a meeting with United States Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. N'Djamena, Chad, April 20, 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

The claim by Chad’s best-known opposition figure that a group of soldiers was “disappeared” after refusing to vote for President Idriss Deby Itno in recent presidential elections took some of the shine off the announcement of Deby’s victory on April 21st. Saleh Kebzabo, who according to official results gained about 13% of votes against Deby’s 61.5%, said that about 60 soldiers were detained in a secret prison, and that some of them have since vanished without a trace.

While the Chadian authorities immediately denied the allegations, there is precedent for the case. In 2006 and 2008, during devastating rebellions that reportedly saw Deby coming within hours of being toppled, a number of opposition figures were arrested and detained; at least one, Ibni Oumar Mahamat Salah, has never been seen again. Two well-placed sources in the capital, N’Djamena, say they have spoken directly with families and confirmed that several people are still missing.

These allegations contrast with the wave of popular optimism that spread across Chad just a few months ago, when protests broke out following the alleged rape of a teenage girl by a gang including the sons of several high profile public figures. The “Je Suis Zouhoura” protests saw thousands of people from all walks of life taking to the streets and social media, decrying a purported sense of entitlement in Chad’s elite and hinting at possible change after 26 years of Deby rule. Many ordinary people feel unhappy about the way associates from Deby’s Bideyat Zaghawa clan have been able to dominate the heart of power in Chad throughout his rule— and it was alleged that the son of the Zaghawa Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat, and those of two senior military figures, were among those arrested and charged in the rape case.

The protests were interesting because it is highly unusual for large crowds to take to the streets in Chad. A long history of security force brutality and human rights abuses under Deby’s predecessor Hissene Habre has led many to fear open protest. Nevertheless, in February and March 2016 young people seemed to be unconcerned about the ban on public demonstrations and continued to protest even after at least one person was killed when police fired on the crowds. And, in the days before the election, a number of opposition activists allowed themselves a sliver of hope that things might really be changing after 26 years of Deby’s rule.

“I really think things could be different this time,” one activist working for Kebzabo told me in March. Although almost nobody could conceive of a scenario in which Deby would not win the election, there was still a feeling that the protests might continue on polling day. There was also hope that when consolidating his victory, Deby would be forced to pay greater attention to the deep sense of frustration with his management of the country’s myriad problems.

One of the poorest countries on earth, Chad is dependent on oil for about 75% of government revenue, and has undergone a severe economic crisis in the last 18 months as the world oil price has tumbled. In early 2015, the International Monetary Fund was forced to step in with emergency measures and government spending was slashed. Oil has failed to stimulate development: after 13 years of production, the country still comes out almost bottom in the United Nations Human Development Index. Politics is closed and many people feel elections are a sham, human rights groups have struggled to carry out their work in Chad, and free speech is frequently challenged. Since early 2015, the country has also been hit by a wave of terrorist attacks which appear to have been in retaliation for the Chadian army’s intervention in northern Nigeria against the Islamist group Boko Haram. Hundreds have been killed in refugee camps and villages on the border with Nigeria and also in the streets of the capital N’Djamena.

Although the problems are obvious, the protests are likely to have come as something of a shock to Deby, who has been riding high in recent years. From the dark days of 2008, when rebels were able to drive up to the gates of the presidential palace in N’Djamena and throw grenades over the wall, the president has done much to stabilize the country and transform its image as a war-torn desert backwater. In 2013, Chadian troops were sent into northern Mali in support of the French Operation Serval to oust Islamist militants, who had taken vast swaths of territory. Just months later, more troops were sent to try to stabilize Central African Republic in the aftermath of the overthrow of Francois Bozize. Then, in early 2015, Chad’s Army took a leading role in the regional fight against Boko Haram, which included following it into northern Nigeria. This is a conflict it has yet to extricate itself from.

The rewards for these efforts have been handsome and likely justify the challenges in Deby’s eyes: in 2014, France chose to base the headquarters of its regional counterterrorism program Operation Barkhane in N’Djamana; in early 2016, Deby was elected Chair of the African Union; and in April 2016, United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power visited the country, praising Deby’s efforts in the regional fight against terror.

In the end, however, Deby does not yet need to call on these high profile friends. It seems that a formidable challenge to his rule may still be some time coming. The presidential vote went ahead as scheduled on April 10th with no serious disruption. Turnout figures have been contested, but could have been as high as 70%. Although there was a brief hint of something untoward when the announcement of the results were delayed for two weeks, it soon became clear that the protests against his rule had run out of steam.

And if anyone had been under any illusion as to how Deby would react to the open revolt against his rule, Kebzabo’s claims of the missing military personnel suggest that the state still exerts a high degree of control. Phone lines and internet connections to the country were also cut for more than 24 hours on the day of the vote, and a number of activists arrested in the lead-up to the vote are still in jail. Further steps to crack down on open protest can be expected.

“Hope is dead and buried. It’s curtains,” said one journalist, who wished to remain anonymous.

Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist and author of Africa’s New Oil. Follow @ChadCeleste