France’s embarrassing endorsement of the political transition in Chad
France’s embarrassing endorsement of the political transition in Chad
On Tuesday 20 April, Chad’s President Idriss Deby died whilst engaging in military combat against rebel troops in the north of the country. The news of his death was a serious blow for the French government. During the 30 years of his reign, Idriss Debey managed to transform Chad into a regional military force, mainly by appropriating lucrative oil revenues from citizens, but also by opening his territory to French military bases. In so doing, Chad became France’s main ally in its wars against terrorism in Sahel.
A few hours after Idriss Deby’s death, his son—Mahamat Idriss Deby—took over as President of the Republic and opened an 18-month military-led transition. France, as well as the United Nations and the African Union, immediately recognised his legitimacy to conduct the political transition. Emmanuel Macron renewed his support to the regime at the burial of the deceased President.
A transition at risk
This political transition is a transition at risk. It evolves in a political context that is deeply uncertain, both externally and internally.
Externally, Idriss Deby’s death could redefine the whole strategy of the G5 Sahel, the consortium of countries involved in the war in Mali. This fragile group has survived mainly due to the considerable efforts of the French government and the stability of Chad.
The internal situation is also delicate. Since 2002, the central government has signed six peace agreements with around ten rebel groups. However, as illustrated by the circumstances of Idriss Deby’s death, internal struggles in the country are far from being pacified.
Moreover, the political opposition considers the military-led transition a coup d’état that violates the few democratic mechanisms left in the country. On 27 April, a week after the beginning of the transition, violent demonstrations shook the capital city of N’Djamena.
The nomination of a civil government on 2 May did not end the military’s seizure of power.
Under these conditions, France’s endorsement of the transition is both morally problematic and strategically risky. The current management of the political transition might indeed exacerbate an already unstable internal situation and weaken France’s objectives in the long run.
A coup d’état—not a democratic transition
In 2011, Chad ratified the African Charter on Democracy and Good Governance, a regional treaty which aims at preventing “illegal means of accessing or maintaining power” on the African continent. Since the entry into force of the Charter in 2012, the African Union (AU) can sanction any infringement on the principles of democratic changes of government. One of the infringements is a putsch against a democratically elected government (Article 23).
Is the establishment of the political transition in Chad a putsch?
At minimum, it violates the 2018 Constitution, which foresees that the President of the National Assembly would take up the interim should the office of the President of the Republic become vacant (Article 81). It also specifies that new elections shall be held between 45 and 90 days after the declaration of vacancy, and prevents the interim President from dissolving the national assembly or amending the Constitution.
Instead of following this procedure, Mahamat Idriss Deby proclaimed himself interim President, at the expense of Haroun Kabadi, the then-President of the National Assembly. Mahamat Idriss Deby then suspended the 2018 Constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and expanded the transition period from three months to three years.
One could object that as the previous regime was a dictatorship, Mahamat Idriss Depy’s military coup is not a putsch but rather an endeavour to re-establish democracy. Yet, that is not how the AU has considered similar situations in the past. In 2014 for example, popular protests in Burkina Faso forced President Compaoré to step down after 27 years in power. The army took over to organise the transition and, in their words, to preserve democracy. Nevertheless, the AU, together with the ECOWAS and the UN, activated the sanction mechanism of the Charter to force the military to give power back to civil society.
In the case of Burkina Faso, the dictatorial nature of the previous regime held no weight in the debates—it is difficult to understand why that should be the case for Chad.
The risk of a perpetuation of power and internal turmoil
The AU can also take sanctions if constitutional revisions alter the principles of democratic change of government.
This is the case for the current transition in Chad. Chad’s Charter of the Transition, which is the legal ground for the interim regime, contains many anti-democratic elements. With it, all power is concentrated in the hands of Mahamat Idriss Deby. He is a non-elected President of the Republic, head of state and supreme chief of the army (Article 37). He presides over the Military Council of Transition, an organ exclusively composed of military bodies that is in charge of the general orientation of the transition (Article 35). As head of government, the new President may appoint or dismiss any minister, without further justification (Article 51). Above all, he may appoint all 69 members of the National Council of Transition, which is the new legislative body of the regime (Article 57).
With no separation of powers, the time-span of the interim period can be easily altered. A two-thirds majority of the National Council of Transition can prolong the interim period once, leading to a three-year transition, instead of the eighteen months foreseen in the Charter (Article 89). The same majority can amend the Charter (Article 90). There are no proper checks and balances that could stop an indefinite prolongation of the dictatorial nature of the interim regime.
Why does France support Mahamat Idriss Deby?
French endorsement of the military transition is a short-term choice dictated by the country’s priorities in the region: Chad’s stability is key for the success of military operations in Sahel.
Yet, the history of democratic transitions shows that internal stability is more likely to prevail if the interim regime is inclusive and democratic. It is not enough to promise free and fair elections, or a democratic constitution adopted by referendum. Political opposition must be present upstream, when the type of elections, the shape of the constitution and the form of government are discussed.
Without inclusion, political transitions such as that we are seeing in Chad lack legitimacy. In the long run, it can backfire, thus ultimately compromising France’s actions in Sahel.
Théo Fournier is a PhD researcher in Law at the European University Institute. His work focuses on democratic transitions and populism as ways to understand current challenges to liberal democracy. He has worked with several NGOs in the past and has teaching experience at Sciences Po and the Università di Bologna.