President Idriss Déby of Chad has taken significant steps over the last year to secure his hold on power. While these measures along with external support for his rule are likely to secure this position, the past year has been characterised by the rise of numerous internal and external challenges to stability. EXX Africa explores these threats and their manifestation over the coming year.
Current Chadian President Idriss Déby is facing various internal and external challenges to his power, threatening stability within the Central African country. While Déby has been president since 1990 and has gone to great lengths to consolidate his position – including amending the constitution in 2018 to extend his tenure and cracking down on freedom of expression by implementing a yearlong social media ban – anti-government sentiment remains strong. The lack of political change, coupled with the implementation of austerity measures, have resulted in numerous protests and strikes over the last year.
However, the greatest threat to Déby has emerged from outside the country. Not only do ongoing insurgencies in the border areas to the south and north raise the risk of war and terrorism, including in the capital, but external political forces opposed to the president also attempted to topple the regime in a coup earlier this year.
While Déby is expected to weather these challenges, particularly given extensive support from France, such developments have highlighted significant weaknesses in the political and military structures of Chad – once perceived to be some of the strongest in the region.
The creation of a de facto monarchy
President Déby and his party – the Patriotic Salvation Movement (PSM) – have dominated Chadian politics since rising to power via rebellion in 1990. In controversial elections held in 1996 (the first multi-party elections), 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2016, Déby has always won a majority. However, the president has taken further steps over the past year to consolidate his power.
In one of the most significant developments, Chad’s parliament approved a new constitution in April 2018 that expanded Déby’s powers. In particular, the new constitution changed the presidential term limits from five to six years; reintroduced a two-term presidential limit; abolished the post of prime minister; and, created a presidential system of governance. Because these changes cannot be implemented retroactively, the president can now stand for two more terms after the next presidential elections in 2021. As such, Déby can technically remain in power until 2033, prompting critics to note that Chad has become a de facto autocracy.
Beyond extending his term limits, Déby has also cemented his rule by repeatedly postponing parliamentary elections. Although the mandate of the current legislature ended in March 2015, Déby announced in February 2017 a postponement of the vote for another two years given budgetary constraints. However, at the time of writing, minimal progress had been made in this regard despite securing funds and promises to hold the elections in the first half of 2019. On 4 April 2019, members of the Independent National Electoral Commission were sworn in before the Supreme Court but those appointed were rejected by an opposition coalition. At the end of May 2019, the UN Security Council noted that “questions surrounding the electoral calendar, the budget and financing were yet to be clarified”, casting further doubt on the prospect of elections this year.
The above measures and delays have been coupled with an ongoing social-media ban to silence critics and suppress freedom of expression. The block, which began on 28 May 2018 and targeted social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Viber, and Whatsapp, was first implemented as politicians and traditional chiefs debated the constitutional amendments. However, as the ban passed the year-mark (surpassing social media shutdowns in Cameroon and Ethiopia), officials have successfully prevented an estimated 400,000 Chadian internet users from expressing their views online as political and security challenges across the country emerge.
Anti-government sentiment drives civil unrest
Anti-government sentiment has mounted in Chad not only as a result of the aforementioned political changes but also because of the implementation of austerity measures that have adversely affected the livelihoods of thousands of Chadians.
The combined effect of the drop in the oil price in 2014 and a worsening security environment pushed Chad into recession, with GDP contracting from USD 14 billion in 2014 to an estimated USD 11 billion in 2018. In response to the onset of the recession, Déby’s government implemented various austerity measures. However, a 2018 report by Amnesty International revealed that these measures – adopted since 2015 – have adversely affected local Chadians. Between 2013 and 2017, for example, Chad’s health budget was reduced by more than 50 percent. The education budget was similarly cut by 21 percent between 2014 and 2016. As a result of these changes, poverty rates are now expected to rise to 39.8 percent in 2019, according to the World Bank.
These political and socio-economic conditions have prompted various social and professional actors (students, young unemployed graduates, teachers, and civil servants) to take to the streets. Notably, between May and October 2018, public sector workers launched an indefinite countrywide strike, accusing the government of failing to implement a wage agreement reached in March 2018 and in opposition to a 50 percent reduction in their salaries because of austerity measures. Throughout the strike, classes and hospital services across the country were disrupted. Numerous protests have also been held over shortages in the capital, N’Djamena. In late April 2019, for example, the Chadian Collective Against the High Cost of Living staged a protest outside the National Assembly and the Ministry of Energy and Oil over shortages of butane gas.
Such actions are not authorised, however, and are often met with a swift response by government. Critics are frequently arrested or jailed without charge and security forces tend to violently disperse protesters. However, while Déby seems able to contain unrest from within, threats on and over the border are likely to expose weaknesses in state structures.
A resilient and dynamic Boko Haram
Like most Sahelian countries, Chad sits in a dangerous neighbourhood. The primary threats to security along its borders emerge from the south as a result of the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, and the north, as a result of militants in Libya and communal tensions in the province of Tibetsi.
Boko Haram has been active in Nigeria since 2009 and staged its first cross border attacks in Chad in 2012. While the cross-border activities of the group have ebbed and flowed over the past decade – as a result of offensives by the Nigerian military as well as the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) which comprises troops from Chad, Niger and Cameroon – there has been a significant shift in attacks over the past year. Notably, Boko Haram attacks in Chad have increased since 2018 following a relatively quiet 2017.
According to the UN, between 1 December 2018 and 30 April 2019, there were 24 Boko Haram-related security incidents in Chad. These incidents were characterised by a change in modus operandi. Where previous attacks largely consisted of suicide bombings, militants have now opted for direct assaults on villages and pastoral camps – primarily around the northern area of the Lake Chad Basin – during which they kill and loot as many goods as possible, or conduct raids against army positions. Among these incidents, five suspected members of Boko Haram were arrested in N’Djamena in February, raising concerns over the threat posed to the capital.
This increase in attacks follows a split in Boko Haram in 2016, when a faction broke away to form what is known as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). While the split, coupled with MNJTF operations, initially weakened the group, gaps in security measures and intense rivalry within and between the various Boko Haram factions have likely inspired each group to stage more attacks and establish a territorial presence across the border. This comeback and proliferation in attacks speaks to the resilience of the militant group and its potential to attract combatants among local communities, perpetuating the risk over the medium to long term.
Coup attempts from Libya
While Boko Haram has long posed a threat on Chad’s southern border, another threat re-emerged in the north earlier this year in a direct challenge to Déby’s rule. In February 2019, a militant group known as the Union for the Resistance Forces (UFR) attempted an incursion into Chad from Libya; however, France thwarted the assault by launching air strikes at the request of Déby himself. Composed mainly of Zaghawa fighters from Déby’s own ethnic community, the UFR – which reportedly intended to overthrow the president and “set up a transitional government uniting all the country’s forces” – is directed by the president’s nephew, based in Qatar. According to the Chadian army, an estimated 250 militants were captured and 40 vehicles destroyed in follow-up operations. The border with Libya was also closed on 3 March.
The incident marks the third and most significant attempt by the UFR to depose of Déby, with the first such assaults attempted in 2008 and 2009. However, the timing of the recent incursion is important, as the UFR likely sought to take advantage of rising anti-government sentiment and overstretched security forces in its attack. Indeed, recent interviews with army officers conducted by International Crisis Group, reveal that the army is overworked and soldiers are demoralised – worsened by cuts to soldiers’ allowances in recent years (up to December 2018). The UFR therefore likely thought it could encourage defections within the army, and encourage an internal uprising.
Déby’s call on France for assistance further points to weaknesses as well. While the response by the former colonial power highlights external support for Déby’s’s rule, the need for such intervention also reveals that the military – often portrayed as one of the strongest in the region – was unable to mitigate the threat. The call itself was also a clear indication that Déby viewed the attempt as a significant threat to his rule.
In addition to the above security threats, Déby and the military are engaged in containing community tensions in the country’s northern Tibesti province. The region borders Niger and Libya and is rich in gold, attracting numerous outsiders to the area. In light of instability in Libya, Chadian authorities have attempted to militarise and control the area, prompting clashes with local communities. At the end of 2018, clashes between the army and a self-defence militia were reported in Miski. Unable to secure victory, the government has now opted to station troops 100km outside the town and have blocked access to it – raising the likelihood of another backlash and a potential humanitarian crisis.
The actions by the Chadian government in the north are likely to further stretch the already overburdened military forces, resulting in additional security gaps across the country. Moreover, business operations in the area have also been impacted, as commercial gold mining has ceased.
In January 2019, the Chadian government received approval for the third tranche (USD 49 million) of its Extended Credit Facility with the International Monetary Fund. Such funding will be used to support ongoing economic reforms and help maintain geopolitical stability in the country giving the rise of both internal and external threats. Déby is nevertheless expected to weather these challenges, bolstered not only by new funds but also by seemingly unwavering support by France who has indicated that Chad is a strategic ally and that preserving stability in both Chad and the sub-region is of critical importance.
However, while these measures will help to contain the various threats to stability, anti-government sentiment in the form of protests and strikes and the threat of militant attacks on the southern and northern borders – and potentially into the capital as groups compete for primacy – are highly likely to persist over the coming year. Government personnel, buildings and other infrastructure remain the most likely to be targeted during such incidents, although a risk of collateral damage, death and injury to commercial operations remain.