Why is Chad boiling over ahead of long-awaited elections — and what’s next?

Opposition party members have been killed or injured as the ruling military government continues a crackdown.

Chad referendum
Members of the security forces patrol Chad's capital N'Djamena following the battlefield death of President Idriss Deby in N'Djamena, Chad on April 26, 2021 [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

Heavy gunfire erupted in Chad’s capital N’Djamena on Wednesday, just hours after announcements of a long-awaited election date in the central African country.

The Chadian government said its security forces pushed back against members of the opposition Socialist Party Without Borders (PSF), who led an attack on state security forces early Wednesday after an altercation with a party member.

PSF leaders denied those accusations in Facebook posts, but local newspapers reported more gunfire and a possible bombing of the party’s headquarters later on Wednesday. Local authorities said Thursday that “dozens” of people had been wounded or killed. PSF leader Yaya Dillo was among those killed.

Internet services in the country remain cut since Wednesday, adding to the uncertainty.

Chad has long been in the grip of political tensions arising from shifting allegiances and familial and tribal relations within the political elite. Uncertainty following the death of longtime ruler Idriss Deby in 2021 and the installation of his son Mahamat as leader have escalated the problems.

Here’s a breakdown of who was involved in Wednesday’s violence, and the tensions that have gripped N’Djamena for months:

Chad's Interim President and Chairman transitional Military Council, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby, left, is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron for a meeting on the Sahel crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
General Mahamat Idriss Deby, Chad’s interim president and chairman of its Transitional Military Council, is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron for a meeting on the Sahel crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Friday, November 12, 2021 [Michel Euler/AP Photo]

Who was Yaya Dillo Djerou?

Known as Yaya Dillo, he was related to the Deby father-son duo. Some reports suggest he was Mahamat’s cousin; others that he was Mahamat’s nephew.

Once a part of the ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) party founded by the older Deby, Dillo defected and founded the opposition PSF party. He was a vocal critic of both Debys and was targeted in government raids. On February 28, 2021 — exactly two years before the latest attack — Chadian forces attempted to arrest the politician at his home in N’Djamena for unclear reasons, and killed his mother during their assault.

On Wednesday, authorities accused Dillo’s PSF of attacking the headquarters of the National Agency for State Security (ANSE) in retaliation for the earlier arrest and killing of a PSF member, Ahmed Torabi. Authorities said Torabi had tried to assassinate Supreme Court President Samir Adam Annour. PSF leaders, however, said they were shot at after trying to retrieve Torabi’s body from the ANSE building.

Oxford Analytica’s Nathaniel Powell said personal rivalries between Deby and Dillo may have escalated after Saleh Deby Itno, younger brother of Idriss Deby, defected to Dillo’s PSF in January, signalling that the ruling family was fracturing further. Deby Itno is also reported to be in custody following Wednesday’s chaos.

Ethnic tensions over who backs the warring Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan might also have caused rifts between the two, Powell said. The ruling family is from the Zaghawa group, which spreads into Sudan’s Darfur, and which has suffered attacks from RSF-allied militias based on their ethnicity. While Deby backs the RSF, Dillo has opposed that support.

“Much of the security apparatus [in Chad] is Zaghawa and dissension over the Sudan issue is one possible trigger for coup plotting,” Powell said. “So, in one sense Deby’s targeting of Dillo also aims to weaken Zaghawa voices opposed to the regime’s policies, and his presidency.”

What tensions existed before Wednesday?

Before the violence on Wednesday, Chad appeared to be inching out of months of uncertainty and tense politics, at least on the surface. Hours before the gunfire and bombing, the election agency announced that presidential elections would be held on May 6. It’s what many Chadians and opposition parties had been protesting for in the past two years.

Interim President Mahamat Deby took office in April 2021, after his father died fighting a rebel group in the north. Critics have described his takeover as an unconstitutional power grab. And the 39-year-old has faced challenges to his claim to power. His iron-fisted father ruled Chad for 30 years, and many Chadians and opposition groups saw the older Deby’s death as a chance to immediately hold elections and transition the country into democracy.

But with military loyalists backing him, Deby announced a transitional council just hours after his father’s death and installed himself at the helm. He also announced a referendum to amend the Constitution, and proposed presidential elections in 18 months – by September 2022. Those moves were likely aimed at placating the many opposition parties who were active but had little say in the previous government. The opposition, however, denounced Deby for essentially staging a palace coup.

France, which has about a thousand troops in Chad, appeared to back the regime. President Emmanuel Macron was present at the late Deby’s funeral – the only Western leader there. Mahamat Deby has also  visited Paris for security talks as Chad’s leader.

What happened on Black Thursday?

Under mounting pressure from both the opposition and a myriad of Chadian rebel groups who have battled for years to seize N’Djamena, Deby called for a national dialogue and signed an August 2022 peace agreement in Qatar. Several opposition groups boycotted the agreement, though, the loudest of them being the Transformers party led by Succes Masra, a former chief economist at the African Development Bank. With no serious opposition at the talks, Deby announced that the September 2023 elections would be further shifted to October 2024.

That move triggered street protests by Chadians, led by Masra and other opposition leaders on October 20, 2022, calling for immediate elections. N’Djamena was packed with tanks and gun-toting, balaclava-clad soldiers. The army cracked down with deadly force. Soldiers killed between 50 and 200 people in what is now known as Black Thursday. Hundreds of others were detained in the hostile Koro Toro prison out in the remote desert. Masra, the economist, fled to the United States.

Why has Deby pulled his enemies closer?

In December 2023, Chadians voted “yes” in a referendum that proposed changes to the Constitution, such as the creation of local councils to devolve power from the centre; a presidential term limit reduced from six to five years; the lowering of the minimum age limit for the president from 40 to 35 years; and the strengthening of the electoral agency by making it independent of the government.

Many opposition members and analysts have called the referendum a sham, and say it’s Deby’s way of sealing his government’s legitimacy. However, the government claims that voter turnout was 64 percent.

Masra, who was exiled to the US, has surprised many, however. After returning to the country to take part in the referendum, he subsequently accepted an appointment as prime minister on January 1. Amid the violence on Wednesday, the one-time government critic has supported the regime.

“I would like to bow to all the dead because their blood is the flowing Chadian blood and express my total and unconditional support to the Head of State, our defense and security forces and our republican institutions,” he wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter. In the comments, many denounced his stance.

Analysts say Deby’s alliance with Masra is not surprising, as it echoes similar tactics his father employed to wield power over three decades.

Is Deby setting the stage for May elections?

Troels Burchall Henningsen of the Royal Danish Defence College said that although an insurrection by the PSF is possible, Deby could also be pulling a Deby, having inherited his father’s repressive methods, including possibly staging events that make it easier to eliminate political rivals.

“Chadian politics under Idriss Deby Itno was characterised by disappearances, a possibly faked coup in 2013 to eliminate political rivals, and manipulative practices that guaranteed the victory of the president and his party,” Henningsen said.

Many opposition parties have publicly denounced the ruling party’s decision to name Deby as its candidate for the May elections, even though it was expected. But with fewer critical voices in the way, May could deliver an easier win for Deby at the polls.

“Truly free and fair elections were never likely,” Henningsen said of the coming vote, adding that Deby will likely win resoundingly, and offer opposition members juicy government positions.

“Succes Masra is a first sign that Mahamat Deby will continue that practice,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera