• Chad’s army-backed president claims a disputed victory in an election meant to restore civilian rule.
  • The disputed vote poses new risks amid efforts to stabilize the Sahel region against its violent crises.
  • Chad’s partners should promote transparent elections, a depoliticized judiciary and peaceful dialogue to support democracy.

A disputed presidential election in Chad last week is making few global headlines, but poses new risks to African and international efforts to reverse the Sahel region’s spreading instability, conflict and human displacement. Chad is centered in the world’s largest belt of military rule: six nations across Africa that have suffered armed coups since 2020. Among them, Chad is the first to hold elections to restore civilian rule. But a string of setbacks to a fully credible vote has yielded a contested result that risks further domestic conflict and a narrowing of popular legitimacy for the next government, led by the incumbent transitional president, Mahamat Idriss Deby.

Chadian troops parade in the capital after a 2020 fight against Boko Haram extremists. A year later, the army backed Mahamat Idriss Deby in a coup. Deby now claims victory in a disputed election meant to restore civilian rule. (Andre Kodmadjingar/VOA)
Chadian troops parade in the capital after a 2020 fight against Boko Haram extremists. A year later, the army backed Mahamat Idriss Deby in a coup. Deby now claims victory in a disputed election meant to restore civilian rule. (Andre Kodmadjingar/VOA)

Three years after Deby and the army took power, his government casts this election as the nearly final step in ending army rule. Democracy advocates call it a facade to keep Deby in power. International partners should firmly press all sides for dialogue and negotiation to resolve the election disputes, and for human rights protections for peaceful dissenters. The past week increases the urgency of such steps: Deby’s only real electoral rival, Prime Minister Succes Masra, declared victory in a vote he said the government had tried to steal. Hours later, Chad’s election commission — which varied political and civic leaders have said lacks true independence from the government — declared Deby the winner. Masra then announced a formal appeal to the Constitutional Council, a senior court, to annul the vote.

A Disputed Election

Ample experience in Africa and beyond shows the risks of disputed elections in post-coup transitions. To usher in stability, such transitions and elections need to earn a broad sense of public legitimacy. By that principle, Chad’s transition, and the May 6 election contain significant flaws that will fuel continuing challenges to peace and security:

  • Over 10 weeks before the election, a series of events eliminated or intimidated much of Deby’s political opposition. Chad’s army killed a prominent Deby rival (and cousin), Yaya Dillo, in a February attack on Dillo’s party office. The army said Dillo died in a shootout, but forensic experts said photos showed he was shot once in the head at point-blank range. Chadian and international human rights organizations called for an independent investigation into Dillo’s killing.
  • In March, the Deby-appointed Constitutional Council barred 10 of about 20 candidates, including other potent rivals to Deby. A prodemocracy civic alliance, Wakit Tama (“Time is Up”) then urged a boycott of the election.
  • Days before the vote, civil society organizations reported, the election commission refused to accredit nearly 3,000 Chadian election monitors — and it prohibited a plan by civic groups and political parties to photograph voting tally sheets at polling stations to independently check the accuracy of the eventual vote count.
  • Last week, Masra declared victory, saying the government had interfered in vote counting. The election commission, which had announced it would issue preliminary results in latter May, then quickly declared that Deby had won, with 61% of votes to 18.5% for Masra, his main rival among 10 candidates. On May 12, Masra’s party appealed for annulment of the vote and announced it had gathered video and other evidence of widespread election fraud. Soldiers and police deployed in many streets of N’Djamena, the capital, and in some southern cities.

The election dispute came after six months in which Deby’s transitional administration had signed a reconciliation agreement with Masra and allowed his return from exile. Masra’s return raised hopes among some observers that the transition process might shift toward greater political inclusivity, reconciliation and democratic reforms. In January, Deby appointed Masra prime minister and then allowed his candidacy as Deby’s election opponent. Some Deby opponents said Deby used Masra’s presence to claim a semblance of a competitive election. Chadian civil society groups — the national bar association and the Chadian Human Rights League, as well as the International Federation for Human Rights and the European Union — say conditions for the election fell short of those needed for a demonstrably fair vote.

Chad’s Transition, Continued Turmoil

Deby’s father, Idriss Deby Itno, ruled Chad, a former French colony, for 30 years until he was killed amid fighting with rebels in 2021. Chad’s constitution called for the National Assembly speaker to act as president for 90 days to hold new elections, but Deby and the army seized power instead.

Deby initially promised an 18-month transition to civilian rule, but in 2022 extended it for two further years, triggering protests in which security forces killed more than 70 people. The long transition since then has given the appearance of some efforts toward meeting the need for political inclusion and conciliation. A 2022 formal national dialogue convened some 1,400 Chadians from varied sectors of the nation, but it excluded others whose presence was vital. As in this month’s election, many Chadians described that 2022 dialogue as offering more the appearance than the substance of what was required.

Now, the dispute over the presidential election risks greater turmoil, notably ahead of local and legislative elections still needed to complete the transition process. That risk is heightened by economic crises: 42 percent of Chad’s 18 million people live below the nation’s poverty line. Chadians lack jobs, schools and health services. They endure a “lean season” of food supplies every June to August; 3.4 million people are expected to suffer hunger and “acute” food insecurity this year, the World Food Program projects, up from 2.1 million last year. Amid these emergencies, Chad hosts more than 1 million refugees from the war in neighboring Sudan.

Violence has grown under military rule. Intercommunal conflicts and bloody clashes between farmers and herders have worsened. Extremist violence and armed rebellions continue, 21 months after disparate armed groups signed a peace agreement with Deby’s government. Armed actors commit banditry, kidnappings for ransom and other assaults.

Supporting Chadians’ Desire for Democracy

In public protest and private discourse, Chadians are clear about what the broad majority wants: a government responsive to people’s deep, unmet needs. They seek greater transparency in government; access to jobs and basic services; more representative local governance; a more nationally representative military; and an independent, depoliticized judiciary.

Amid the spread of violent extremism across the Sahel, Chad has been a reliable partner for U.S. and French military responses. From 2014 until 2022, Chad provided the headquarters for France’s Operation Barkhane. It participated in a French-led counterterrorism coalition, the G5 Sahel, and the U.S. Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.

In January, Deby followed other Sahel military rulers in building ties with Russia, visiting Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin. In April, his government questioned the legality of a small U.S. military presence at a base in N’Djamena, leading U.S. forces to withdraw about 100 troops. The U.S. military says it expects to hold talks with Chad soon about revising an agreement to let U.S. military operations continue. Whatever the evolution of Chad’s military relations, the United States is a vital voice in maintaining efforts to bolster the democratic substance of Chad’s current transition — and thus its hopes for long-term stability.

After years in which international responses on Chad led with military counterterrorism operations, a USIP-convened expert study group on the Sahel’s crises recently recommended prioritizing initiatives to promote transparently credible elections, the national human rights commission and general food security. Amid this new election dispute, the United States and other international partners can quickly take important steps:

  • Work with Chadian civil society and authorities to promote transparency and rule of law in the management of complaints, irregularities and fraud, and respect for human rights.
  • Press firmly for peaceful dialogue in case of electoral disputes and oppose any violence.
  • Engage Chad’s authorities to ensure that planned legislative and local elections are held on time. Also, strengthen capacities of the election commission and courts to manage those votes transparently and credibly.
  • Work with Chadian civil society and government to sustain civic debate and energies to shape democracy, and a durable peace, from the grass roots up.

Despite the shortcomings of Chad’s transition so far, Chad’s builders of democracy must stay committed to what is a long-term process that often must advance on a sinuous path. Their international allies must stay engaged, supporting Chadians’ efforts to improve their governance and living conditions, and reduce corruption, injustice and the impunity of elites. International partners should ally with African democracies, the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States to keep Chad on a path toward democracy, stability and peace.

Dr. Yamingué Bétinbaye is a researcher at the Center for Research in Anthropology and Human Sciences (CRASH), a think-tank in N’Djamena, Chad.

PHOTO: Chadian troops parade in the capital after a 2020 fight against Boko Haram extremists. A year later, the army backed Mahamat Idriss Deby in a coup. Deby now claims victory in a disputed election meant to restore civilian rule. (Andre Kodmadjingar/VOA)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).