Libreville – Prospects of a swift return to civilian rule in Chad seem to be fading nearly a year after the son of the country’s veteran leader took the helm after his father died fighting rebels.
The international community, led by France, swiftly endorsed Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, a 37-year-old four-star general, after Idriss Deby senior’s dramatic demise.
Both his father’s death and his son’s succession as “transitional” leader at the head of a 15-member junta were announced on April 20 2021 – a day that deeply shook the volatile Sahel region.
Previous coups in other countries in the region had triggered a stern response from France and the international community.
But Chad – a key ally in the fight against jihad insurgents – escaped any such retribution. The younger Deby was immediately embraced as Chad’s interim leader.
His first acts were to dissolve parliament, sack the government and repeal the constitution.
He promised to hold “free and democratic elections” after an 18-month “transition” – a period that could be extended once – and vowed not to stand in the future presidential ballot.
France, the European Union and African Union have called for the junta to uphold the 18-month deadline.
But cracks emerged in Deby’s plan soon after it was announced.
They have since widened, and today experts doubt the initial timetable can be sustained.
Within a couple of months, Deby said he might have to invoke the 18-month extension clause if Chadians proved “unable to agree among themselves”.
As for his “destiny” in the presidential ballot, he added ambiguously, this lay with “God”.
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The cornerstone of Deby’s plans is a national forum that will approve the path back to civilian rule.
Due to start on May 10, this “inclusive national dialogue” would bring together the various parties and armed factions from across the nation.
However, Chad’s political opposition has already threatened to boycott the forum.
“Pre-cursor” talks between the junta and a constellation of rebel groups in Qatar’s capital of Doha began on March 13 after delays.
But the talks have been bedevilled by suspicion and discord among the rebels themselves.
“The transition timetable won’t be met,” predicted Thierry Vircoulon, a specialist at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) think tank.
“Doha isn’t progressing – an agreement (there) will be hard to achieve and this will delay the transition period,” agreed Roland Marchal at the Centre of International Research (CERI) at the Sciences Po school in Paris.
As recently as Saturday, the junta insisted that it would stand by the May 10 date.
“The dialogue which everyone is expecting absolutely has to lead to democratic institutions,” said the transitional government named by Deby.
A vast arid country in central-northern Africa, Chad has a long history of volatility since gaining independence from France in 1960.
It has a large and shifting array of armed opposition groups, which have varying ethnic affiliations and goals as well as sometimes rivalries.
The elder Deby himself came to power at the head of a rebel force which rolled into the capital N’Djamena in 1990.
In 2008 and again in 2019, columns of fighters came close to forcing him out, but each time were thwarted by France.
Despite the problems, his son’s grip on power – based on powerful armed forces controlled by members of his own Zaghawa ethnic minority – does not seem in doubt.
He swiftly “surrounded himself with stalwarts of the previous regime,” said Vircoulon.
“There’s a real continuity from father to son – the Deby system is still in place.”
Unlike his father, who cracked down on shows of dissent, the youthful Deby “leaves a bit of space for the opposition to express themselves”, said Marchal.
“He is less impulsive than his father – he’s more level-headed, and listens more than he talks,” a close adviser to Deby said.
Deby senior was mortally wounded in a successful operation to fight rebels in the north of the country, according to the junta.
“As far as security is concerned, things are quite manageable for the moment… (and) armed groups do not represent a threat,” said Vircoulon, noting there had been no new offensive by the rebels.
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