On April 20, Chad’s longtime ruler Idriss Deby died after sustaining wounds while visiting the frontlines of a fight against rebels. Deby’s son Mahamat quickly took power at the head of a transitional military council whose formation contravenes Article 81 of the Chadian constitution, which envisions a civilian-led transition and new elections in the case of a president’s death. Mahamat Deby’s takeover thus amounts to a coup and an apparent effort to perpetuate his father’s three decades of authoritarian rule. The appointment of a civilian prime minister and the formation of a transitional cabinet do not change the underlying fact of ongoing military rule.
The U.S. government now has a window of opportunity to help Chad take a different path, one that would privilege democracy and the common good of the Chadian people over narrowly defined counterterrorism priorities. In the wake of Deby’s death, France – the most important external actor in Chad – has already made its policy clear: at Deby’s funeral on April 23, French President Emmanuel Macron sat beside Mahamat Deby – a none too subtle hint that Paris will support the succession. “France will not let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and integrity,” he declared.
U.S. policy has been more ambiguous, with the State Department committing only to “support[ing] a peaceful and democratic transition of power to a civilian-led government.” While Washington’s leverage in N’Djamena is limited, it isn’t negligible either. And it should use what it has to press Deby to step aside in favor of a civilian. The U.S. could also offer to help mediate between Chadian authorities and the rebel Front for Change and Accord in Chad (French acronym FACT).
Current U.S. policy towards Chad is predicated on the idea that, as the Foreign Assistance website puts it, “Chad is a strong U.S. partner in helping to maintain regional stability.” Indeed, Chadian forces played leading roles in counter-jihadist operations in Mali in 2013 and in Nigeria in 2015. Those actions reinforced the image of Chadian soldiers as hardened “desert warriors” to whom France and the United States could outsource tough counterterrorism missions. In many ways, U.S. policy has simply mirrored and supported French policy. A sort of bargain developed in which France would support Deby, even militarily, while Washington would also treat Deby as an essential element of the regional security architectures. Under Deby, Paris and Washington were routinely accused of overlooking the Chadian leader’s authoritarianism, corruption, and brutal human rights record.
The present moment offers an opportunity to reassess that policy, especially amid last week’s African Union fact-finding mission in Chad, one of whose goals is to “examine strategies to facilitate a swift return to constitutional order and democratic governance.” When Washington chooses to, it has shown that it can successfully pressure coup-makers in the region to cede power to civilians. Amid coups in Mali in both 2012 and 2020, the United States invoked Section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations to suspend aspects of foreign assistance. In both cases, military leaders formally ceded power to civilians within weeks. Although few observers would hail Mali — the epicenter of the Sahelian crisis — as a success story, these policy choices helped preserve a shred of respect for constitutional order and the rule of law.
What leverage does Washington have over Chad? It provides humanitarian and economic assistance, particularly to help alleviate the complex humanitarian emergency in the Lake Chad Basin (nearly $574 million in assistance in 2019-2020, covering Chad but also Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon). That aid should not be cut or suspended, as doing so would only hurt the most vulnerable. Yet Chad is also one of the top six African recipients of “train and equip assistance” from the Department of Defense. It also receives State Department funding for military training and counterterrorism. By some measures, U.S. assistance that Chad receives peaked recently at roughly $48 million in fiscal year 2019, a not insignificant sum for one of the world’s poorest two or three countries. The request for fiscal year 2021 is a mere $2.9 million, but that amount does not capture the tens of millions of dollars in military assistance delivered to Chad in the context of broader regional programs, such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and the G5 Sahel Joint Force. These programs offer Chad and the same army that just mounted the coup critical military hardware, training, and logistical support. This is the aid that should be suspended.
If, as indicated in Chad’s constitution, elections occur soon, Washington should support electoral integrity. Deby won election after election in an atmosphere of intimidation, with Washington and Paris rarely condemning authorities’ restrictions on the opposition, demonstrators, and journalists. More scrutiny could help make elections more democratic: as argued recently by Christina Cottiero, U.S. policymakers rely on African regional organizations such as the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS, of which Chad is a member) to monitor elections in Africa. Yet such bodies, dominated by heads of state have incentives to overlook the abuses of their peers. In the April 11 elections in Chad, the ECCAS mission ignored glaring problems in Deby’s treatment of the opposition. If and when new elections are held, Washington should instead provide assistance to local NGOs to act as monitors. The United States could, moreover, threaten to impose travel bans and asset freezes on any military or political actor in Chad who subverts or otherwise interferes with the elections.
Having a freely elected civilian as Chad’s head of state will not solve all the problems of this desperately poor country, much of whose history has been marked by internal and cross-border warfare. Chad is not Tunisia or even Sudan, whose own bumpy paths to transition away from authoritarianism were bolstered by relatively strong economies and vigorous civil society organizations.
But U.S. support for a citizen-oriented transition in Chad could help give its people more of a say in their own affairs. And helping to prevent a dynastic succession in Chad would send a region-wide signal that the United States envisions a future with more political freedom in the Sahel, rather than, as one Sahelian commentator put it, a situation where Western countries “transform the countries of the Sahel into vast barracks entrusted to military leaders [who are] more effective, in their eyes, than the democrats.” French strategy in the Sahel, predicated on the idea that aggressive counterterrorism campaigns will pave the way for political stabilization, is flailing. Washington can show that another kind of prioritization is possible.
Finally, the United States can offer itself as a mediator between Chadian authorities and the FACT rebels. Throughout Deby’s rule, there were periodic rebellions, including one in 2019 that was put down with the help of French airstrikes. Deby clearly took the FACT’s recent incursions very seriously. The new military council’s refusal to dialogue with the FACT sets the stage for more conflict. When a U.S. Special Envoy to the Sahel is named, brokering peace in Chad should be a priority — until then, the embassy in N’Djamena should pressure the authorities to change their mind.
The violent manner of Idriss Deby’s death is the ultimate repudiation of the model he incarnated — a model where the authoritarian strongman supposedly stands as a bulwark against violence and chaos. If the Biden administration and French President Emmanuel Macron attempt to replicate Deby’s authoritarian bargain, the result will likely be even more instability. Chaos in Chad — whether in the form of a counter-coup, mass protests, or more insurgency — would undercut whatever fleeting contributions Deby’s successors might make to regional security. Deby’s passing offers not just risks but also opportunities to move away from dictatorship and toward greater political inclusion across the Sahel.