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2022-10-20t104329z_81625167_rc2y4x9ttaur_rtrmadp_3_chad-politics-scaled

Junta’s massacre of protesters in Chad reveals sordid Western blind eye

The first thing the US should do is yank military aid — but it likely won't, having largely ignored such abuses before.

Analysis | Africa

On October 20, security forces in Chad killed approximately 50 protesters and wounded 300;  that is, according to the government’s own estimates. The real toll may be higher.




Protesters were decrying the Chadian military junta’s recent decision to “renew” its mandate for up to two more years. The state violence challenges the image of Chad as a stable autocracy and reliable security partner, an image that has been popular in Washington and Paris for many years.




The current junta in Chad is a dynastic extension of the regime of Idriss Deby, who ruled the country from 1990 until his battlefield death fighting rebels in 2021. Deby had placed sons, clan members, and trusted associates all through the military, government, and diplomatic corps, and the system functioned as intended on his death — one of his sons, Mahamat, quickly seized power in a coup backed by Deby’s inner circle. 




The ruling Transitional Military Council, or CMT, set up what appeared to be an orderly transition, but also made clear it had little patience for civilian dissent. Protests have been repressed at several junctures over the past eighteen months, especially those by the Wakit Tama (“the time has come”) protest collective, a coalition of dissidents, human rights groups, and opposition parties. In the wake of these latest protests, the government forbade Wakit Tama from conducting any more activities in Chad, and gave three-month suspensions to seven political parties.




The CMT’s repressive approach is in keeping with longer themes in Chad’s political history, where power has always changed hands through force and where ordinary people have had little say in political affairs. Under Idriss Deby, elections were held regularly, but the key challengers were often past, present, or future insiders, easy to co-opt by offering them ministerial positions or other inducements. 




The CMT has repeated that pattern, recently appointing one of the country’s most prominent opposition politicians, Saleh Kebzabo, as transitional prime minister, while greeting street-level dissent with tear gas and sometimes with live ammunition. That it was Kebzabo who announced the death toll from the October 20 protests shows the gap between the elite, co-opted opposition and the more vigorous pro-democracy movement in Chad — a movement it is clear the CMT wants to quash.




The CMT has spent much of its energies wooing former and current armed rebel groups, which Mahamat Deby appears to see as the real threat to his power. The CMT made extensive preparations for a “national inclusive dialogue” — an exercise that became part of the justification for the CMT extending its time in power — and that offered ordinary people little voice in shaping the country’s future. The dialogue, and deals inked with rebels in the runup to it, are also part of the CMT’s self-presentation to the outside world. The CMT appears keen to be perceived as a stabilizing force for Chad and indeed for the surrounding region.




The international context is crucial to the regime’s survival. The April 2021 coup — which contravened the Chadian constitution — elicited almost no pushback from France, the United States, the African Union (where a former Chadian diplomat is chair of the AU Commission, the body’s executive branch), or indeed any other major power. In a demonstration of Western support for Mahamat Deby, French President Emmanuel Macron pointedly sat next to him at Idriss Deby’s funeral. 




Eulogizing Deby the father, Macron made clear the nature of the partnership between France and Chad, one of its former colonies: “I share the bereavement of a loyal friend and ally because you were the first to respond to the call of regional countries to defend Africa against armed terrorism in the Sahel in 2013.” 




For the past decade, the relationship has largely rested on Chad’s willingness to use force beyond its borders, a role for Chad that the United States has directly supported




The U.S. response to the April 2021 coup was meek. “We support a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution,” read part of a State Department press statement upon Idriss Deby’s death. Yet in the face of pointed questions from journalists at that day’s press briefing — “Do you think that the appointment of now the late President Deby’s son is in keeping with this Chadian constitution?” — Department spokesman Ned Price merely repeated the line about a “peaceful transition” and said vaguely that “our thoughts are with the Chadian people at this time.” 




The U.S. has not treated events in Chad as a coup that would trigger a suspension of assistance under Section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act — even though Washington has suspended aid to nearby countries that have also suffered recent coups, such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Sudan. Statements and visits by senior State officials since April 2021 have focused on supporting the dialogue and encouraging eventual elections, a posture that confers de facto legitimacy on the CMT. 




The most recent statement by State, following the October 20 violence against protesters, is much more critical of the CMT, referring directly to the CMT’s decision to prolong the transition and to allow its own members to run in the upcoming election. 




Yet the statement also lapses into a kind of “both-sidesism,” twice pinning responsibility on “all parties” for the violence. The U.S. now also faces keen dilemmas about how and whether to follow up on its words, especially as the initial shock of the death toll fades. The obvious thing to do would be to suspend assistance. Yet the most likely outcome still appears to be that, despite intermittent bloodshed, the CMT will complete its extended transition timetable, run an insider as president, re-hat itself as a civilian regime, and enjoy tacit acceptance from the Western powers all along the way.    




At Idriss Deby’s funeral, Macron warned, rather menacingly, “France will not let anybody put into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and integrity.” These are not idle words. For decades, France has intervened militarily in Chad to promote or protect its favored clients. One recent intervention came in 2019, when French airstrikes — under the banner of counterterrorism — disrupted a rebel advance into Chad, one of several occasions when Paris responded to a severe threat to the Deby regime. 




The “stability” that Paris has long supported for Chad rests on a considerable degree of internal violence, as last Thursday’s events made clear. The Chadian people deserve better, but as long as external powers tolerate successive leaders’ abuses, they are unlikely to get basic freedoms any time soon. 


People walk as they protest in Moundou, Chad, October 20, 2022 in this picture obtained from social media. Hyacinthe Ndolenodji/via REUTERS
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