It’s been three years since Chad’s former president Idriss Déby Itno died. A transitional authority took over after his death. Yet the transition to democracy that was on the cards following his 31 years in power has failed to materialise.
What Chadians hoped for was:
a referendum on whether they wanted to be a unitary or federal state
a return to constitutional order once that had been decided
a return to democracy with elections being held by October 2024.
But the fulfilment of this plan has hit the wall. Chadians are concerned that the transitional authority isn’t acting in their interests but rather in the interest of transitional president Mahamat Idriss Déby.
Concerns were sparked by the way the referendum was run. Chadians and international observers had assumed that voters could choose between two constitutions, a unitarian and a federal one. But the national commission in charge of running the referendum presented the option of approving or rejecting the complete draft for a centralised constitution. The vote was to be Oui (yes) or Non (no).
In the run-up to the referendum, it became clear that nothing had changed under the rule of transitional president Mahamat Idriss Déby, one of the sons of late Idriss Déby. Critics of the process argue that the main aim of the referendum was in fact to legitimise the transitional authority’s policies at national and international level.
The appointment on 1 January of the former opposition leader Succès Masra as the new prime minister raised fresh concerns. Masra is a controversial opposition figure who has recently endeared himself to Chad’s president.
Under these circumstances, Chadians could once again go into rebellion. Chad is a country that is prone to a cycle of violent rebellion and repression. In this context some observers fear the outbreak of violence. Peace and unity may continue to evade Chad.
Who benefits from a centralised Chad?
Chad is an ethnically, religiously and politically divided country. On top of this, the question of the kind of state it should be has been a divisive issue since independence from France in August 1960.
Under the late Déby’s reign, only politicians of the south repeatedly asked for federalism. Politicians used federalism to express their opposition to Idriss Déby’s authoritarian rule and to demand an equal share of state revenues.
The opposition has always argued that a unitary state has not advanced the country since independence. Furious at the way in which the referendum was being organised, the opposition, which included representatives from all parts of the country, rejected the new constitution.
As before, they argued that a unitary state had not advanced the country since independence. In addition, they argued that the proposed constitution did not comply with the national dialogue’s propositions and would perpetuate the Déby clan and the transitional authorities in power.
The referendum results, confirmed by the Supreme Court, put voter turnout at 63.7%. Out of this number, 85.90% voted Oui, 14.10% Non.
On 1 January Masra was appointed as the new prime minister by the transitional president.
Masra is a controversial figure. His appointment came as a surprise and raises a host of concerns, including the fact that it sidelined the transitional prime minister, Saleh Kebzabo.
Kebzabo had led the coalition that was formed ahead of the referendum. It was made up mainly of members of the transitional authorities and more than 200 political parties.
Masra, president of the party Les Transformateurs, joined the coalition during the last days of the campaign and toured his native south.
Masra invokes strong passions in Chad. He was the main organiser of demonstrations in October 2022. These were organised in protest against a decision taken by the transitional government to extend the transition to democracy, and the announcement that Mahamat Déby would stand in the next elections. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed by security forces, and the day was named Black Thursday.
Prior to the tragedy, intermediaries had pressed Masra to cancel the demonstrations. It was known to insiders that special forces would react without any mercy for protesters, even peaceful ones.
Masra fled the country. For the next year he toured the world, vehemently denouncing Mahamat Déby and his regime at every opportunity.
Since then the two men, almost the same age, have called each other brothers.
But relations between Kebzabo and Masra are extremely bad. This was evident in the icy atmosphere at the handover ceremony.
Kebzabo labelled Masra a terrorist after the Black Thursday protest and accused him of planning a coup d'état. Kebzabo was clearly unhappy having to vacate his office in favour of a man 35 years younger.
Masra, known for his presidential ambitions since he wanted to run against Idriss Déby in 2021, will certainly stand for office this year. He faces major handicaps, though.
Firstly, now seen as Déby’s close collaborator, he has lost many of his followers and allies.
It’s also clear from the publication of his cabinet that he has very little room for manoeuvre. With a few exceptions, the most important ministerial posts of Kebzabo’s cabinet have been confirmed in office.
Masra could only appoint a few companions to state secretariat positions.
As a prime minister, he has to organise the elections this year. At the same time, as a potential presidential candidate he needs to satisfy the poverty-stricken Chadian population. But the 2024 budget was approved before his appointment.
In his first statement he announced, among many things, that he would address the country’s dilapidated school system. But, without any budget and little room to manoeuvre, it is doubtful whether he will be able to reconcile his ambitions with his new post.
It seems that Mahamat Déby is not only the winner of the referendum. He has also managed to embed his most dangerous political opponent into the transitional structures and under his authority.
Déby can wait calmly for the presidential elections and will most likely win the race against his prime minister and newly found brother.
Chadians, for their part, could well have lost the last bit of trust in politicians and democratic procedures.