Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno, who has ruled since 1990, is gearing up to take on his sixth mandate as head of state. Elections are scheduled for 11 April 2021. And the country’s 2018 constitution allows him to stay in office, if elected, until 2033.
Déby is an experienced military man who first joined the army in the 1970s during the former French colony’s civil war. He eventually became commander in chief of the armed forces under former president Hissène Habré who served from 1982 to 1990.
In that year, an insurrection led by Déby hounded President Habré out of office. Déby promised to establish a functioning multiparty democracy and to put an end to the previous regime’s lawlessness and violence. That promise was short lived. Déby’s ambitions quickly shifted to staying in power by any means and enriching his extended family.
Thirty years later, he is governing a population that has long suffered from extreme poverty despite the country’s oil wealth. The country also has an inadequate healthcare system, poor educational opportunities, lack of career prospects among the youth, and high unemployment. The United Nations Human Development Index (2020) ranks the country 187 (out of 189).
Political liberties are almost non-existent; human rights violations are part of everyday life, and opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists and trade unionists live under permanent threat.
Over the years, various protests have been staged against Déby’s rule. Opposition parties and trade unions have held repeated demonstrations to demand free and fair elections, and also to bring attention to the poor socio-economic status of ordinary Chadians.
Northern Chad has also witnessed a number of rebellions against Déby’s rule. And in 2006 and 2008, members of Déby’s Zaghawa clan and former allies who defected to the opposition tried to overthrow him by military force.
Most recently, protests broke out in February 2021, when Déby announced that he would run for a sixth term. The president dispatched his security forces to disperse them immediately.
Run-up to the elections
The resistance during this election cycle is even more passionate than in recent years. Chadians are turning to the example set by Burkina Faso and Mali, where presidents Blaise Compaore and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita were ousted following protests in 2014 and 2020, respectively.
Prominent opposition politician Succès Masra, who leads The Transformers party, has been at the forefront of the protests against Déby. Masra gave up a post at the African Development Bank to join politics in 2018.
But Chad’s revised constitution of 2018 barred him from running for president because he is 38. Presidential candidates must now be 40 or older, despite the majority of the population being younger than 45. The cutoff age in the previous constitution was 35 years.
Déby does not have a serious challenger for the presidency because the opposition is splintered. Initially, 17 opposition leaders registered interest to contest. But when candidate and former minister Yaya Dillo’s mother was killed by security forces, some candidates withdrew their bids. Dillo, a Zaghawa like Déby, has since gone into hiding.
One opposition heavyweight who withdrew is veteran opposition leader Saleh Kebzabo, who leads the National Union for Democracy and Renewal party, and was runner-up in the 2016 presidential elections. The official results, which were questioned by the opposition, showed that he won just 12.8% of the vote. Kebzabo is now calling for a boycott of the elections and regime change.
But despite a groundswell of opposition against Déby’s candidature, four factors stand in his favour.
One, Chad’s substantial oil producing capacity. Two, the precarious security situation in the Sahel region, which has been under siege by Islamist terrorists. Three, France’s unconditional loyalty to the regime, and four, Déby is a strategic diplomat.
First, Chad’s oil revenues have given Déby the means to arm the military. He uses the Chadian military to counter attacks on his rule, which has helped him remain in power.
Second, for more than a decade, the Boko Haram terror group in neighbouring Nigeria, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Islamic State in the Sahel have plagued the region with violence. The Chadian army under Déby’s command has shown itself to be an indispensable partner in the international fight against extremism in the Sahel.
Third, in 2013 when then French President Francois Hollande provided military support to fight Al-Qaeda and the militant Islamist group, Ansar Dine, in northern Mali, Déby and his military stood by the French.
Since independence in 1960, France has used Chad’s capital N’Djamena as a military base for the entire Sahel region. And from 2014, N’Djamena has hosted the headquarters for Barkhane, a France-led mission to fight terrorists. French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Castex visit Chad regularly.
Fourth, Déby is a strategic diplomatic. For years, he has successfully placed his loyal followers in influential regional and international positions. For example, his former Foreign Minister Moussa Faki was recently re-confirmed as president of the African Union commission.
His longtime ambassador to the European Union and Special Representative of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, will soon move to Dakar as the United Nations representative for West Africa.
And in February 2021, Déby took over as the rotating chair of the G5 Sahel, an institutional framework for coordination of regional cooperation in development policies and security matters in west Africa.
Why Déby should worry
But Déby still faces a threat to his reign. For one, Chadians had hoped for better access to resources, especially when Chad joined the list of oil-producing countries in 2003. But only the corrupt elite around Déby and his clan have benefited from the revenues.
Second is the lack of political freedom. During this election period only Déby and his ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement have been allowed to campaign. Citing pandemic protocols, his government has restricted the opposition from campaigning. Opposition leaders have called for the international community to intervene.
If anti-Déby sentiment gains momentum, the opposition, youth, and some members of Déby’s Zaghawa clan could for the first time march together despite the fear of state violence.
Whether they succeed will depend on the loyalty of the security forces, which are dominated by Zaghawa – and on the political leanings of France.
Thirteen presidential and legislative elections are scheduled to take place in Africa during the course of 2021, despite the presence of COVID-19.
While fear of contracting COVID-19 has possibly contributed to lower voter turnout, it is not the only reason people are staying home from the polls. Across the continent, there have been many reports of security crackdowns on public rallies, intimidation of opposition parties their leaders fleeing into exile if they have not been arrested and much of the media has been muted with many journalists being harassed, threatened, and imprisoned.
The legitimacy of a country’s electoral process is closely tied to its prospects for stability.
In a number of countries, such as Uganda, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, and Djibouti, leaders have held their seats for decades, and are holding onto their positions by any means necessary including force removal of term limits, and giving limited operating space to opposition parties. Increased internal conflict in many countries as a result of increased corruption, lack of accountability, and lack of reform, is threatening to undermine the economic stability of the entire Horn of Africa region.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, for example, ranks Uganda and Djibouti at 142 out of 180 countries; Chad at 160 out of 180; the Republic of Congo at 170 out of 180.
In it’s CPI 2020: SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA Report it reveals that Sub-Saharan Africa with an average score of 32 is the lowest performing region on the CPI, showing little improvement from previous years and underscoring a need for urgent action. There is a desperate need for reform in every sector of each of these countries, if their economies are to be salvaged, security improved, and youthful populations employed.
In January 2021, Uganda’s national electoral commission declared President Yoweri Museveni the winner of a sixth term with 58% of the vote, but the results have been widely contested. The main opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi was placed under house arrest for 12 days post-election, and opposition parties called for national defiance of Museveni’s government. Human rights groups and foreign governments slammed the government for shutting down the internet during the election, and banning outside voting observers.
Elections in Somalia which were scheduled for the 8th of February 2021, are yet to take place due to lack of agreement on how the vote should happen. As protests and tensions grow in the country, the U.N. Security Council has urged Somalia’s government to organize elections “without delay” in a resolution that stressed the pressing threat to the country’s security from al-Shabab, and armed opposition groups. The UN resolution, which was adopted unanimously, authorized the African Union to maintain its nearly 20,000-strong force in Somalia until the end of the year, with a mandate to reduce the threat from the extremist groups.
In Niger, accusation of election irregularities have led to mass protests and government repression. On February 23rd, 2021, the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) declared, Bazoum, the ruling party’s candidate and a former minister of the interior, the winner with 55.75 percent of the vote. Ousmane, who won 44.25 percent of the vote, carried the opposition strongholds of Tillabéry, which includes the capital, Niamey, and Zinder. Despite CENI’s announcement, however, Ousmane declared himself the winner.
Republic of Congo’s election held on 21st March 2021 was the first time that voters went to the polls in two phases since the first multi-party presidential election in 1992. In power for 36 years, the country’s 77-years old incumbent president Dennis Sassou Nguesso is one of the longest serving presidents in Africa. His challengers included Mathias Dzon, the former Minister of Finance between 1997-2002 and just until recently, the late Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who died of COVID-19 complications.
Up next - elections in Djibouti
Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of democracy, and are one of the major drivers of foreign investment into any country.
On the 9th of April 2021, Djiboutians go to the polls, as President Omar Guelleh attempts to extend his tenure to a fifth term in the country’s presidential elections. Guelleh has been in power since 1999, a total of 22 years. Term limits that stated that Presidents could only serve two terms were lifted in 2010, just prior to his third term.
The media is not free in Djibouti. The 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks the country at 176th place out of 180, down three places since 2019. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report that there is no privately-owned or independent media outlet operating in the country. Media outlets that are operating are used for propaganda purposes by the government.
Djibouti journalists live in fear. There is one exile station, La Voix de Djibouti that broadcasts from Belgium, but the signal is often jammed and its website blocked. In 2019, a La Voix de Djibouti reporter, based in Djibouti, was badly beaten and arrested several times.
Members of opposition parties even those recognized by the electoral commission are harassed, arrested, and prosecuted. In September 2020, several opposition parties joined together under the banner of the USN Coalition aimed at blocking a fifth Guelleh term. They want elections delayed until the Election Commission is reformed, and until that happens, they are calling for a transitional government.
Djibouti is strategically located near the Bab al Mandeb, and its access to maritime traffic through the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea has resulted in the country hosting naval bases of France, China, Japan, and the United States. This has meant there is little international pressure on the country to reform.
The government draws much of its revenue from port and basing fees and it took on external debt of 103 percent of GDP to support rail, port, and the requisite power projects. Between 2019 and 2021 Djibouti’s debt service payments have increased by around 120 percent leaving the country and its people in high risk of debt distress. There are high levels of inequality and poverty in the country, unemployment sits at 48 percent, and as the youth continue to struggle to find employment, their discontent is rising.
In order to overcome these challenges, the country needs to court foreign investors who are intent on improving infrastructure, facilitating international trade and creating jobs in a dampened economy.
While in theory there are no laws practices or mechanisms that discriminate against foreign investors, navigating their bureaucracy can be complicated. According to the US Department of State’s 2020 Investment Climate Statements: Djibouti, “Government policies are sometimes not transparent and do not foster competition on a non-discriminatory basis. Likewise, the legal, regulatory and accounting systems are not always transparent nor are they consistent with international norms.” This poses a potential threat for foreign investors like DP World who are currently pursuing all “legal means” to defend its claim to a Djibouti terminal, after the African nation nationalized the facility.
According to recent reports, the concession agreement between DP World and Djibouti signed in 2006 is governed by English law through the London Court of International Arbitration. The decision by Djibouti to nationalize the Doraleh Container Terminal came after the government scrapped a 50-year concession contract with DP World, triggering a dispute between the two sides.
DP World is believed to have won three rulings from Britain-based courts over the matter, most recently an injunction at the High Court in London on August 31, 2020, however Djibouti’s government is failing to accept and implement the rulings from the British-based courts. When you consider the financial losses DP World faces, since the terminal was nationalised, as well as the legal costs that continue to mount, one must carefully consider whether investing in Djibouti would be a safe bet.
While DP World clearly continues to see value and invest in the Horn of Africa recently signing an agreement worth US$442 million to expand and operate a regional trade and logistics hub at the Port of Berbera, in partnership with the Somaliland Port Authority and Ethiopia there are perhaps strong reasons for international investors to hold their breath and adopt a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the results of presidential elections not only in Djibouti but in Benin, Chad, Sâo Tomé and Principe, Zambia, and other countries who are going to the polls nearer the close of the year.