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New constitution, old playbook: Chad’s Deby continues his power play in the Sahel | Policy

Millions of Chadians voted last week for a controversial new draft constitution, despite resistance from critics of the military government who accuse it of perpetuating itself in power.

According to the National Commission responsible for organizing the constitutional referendum (CONOREC), 86 percent of voters chose “yes”. Turnout for the December 17 referendum, in which 8 million people were eligible to vote, was 64 percent.

The referendum is the second part of a three-stage process for the landlocked central African country’s return to democratic rule following the death of former longtime leader Idriss Deby Itno, who was succeeded by his son Mahmat Idriss Deby in 2021.

The new constitution, like the one it replaced, establishes a unitary system in place since independence in 1960.

Ahead of the referendum, opposition parties called for an outright boycott of the process, with one of the major points being the campaign for a federal system, allowing a delegation of powers from the center.

One party, Les Transformateurs, argued that removing the unitary system would enable progressive democracy and boost economic development. But supporters of maintaining the old system – including supporters of the transitional government – ​​say a federalist system would lead to disunity. The party’s protests led to its banning and mass arrests of its members.

The transitional government made some concessions by inserting into the new project the creation of local governments and local legislatures, with citizens allowed to vote for their representatives. But the opposition said that was not enough.

Experts say the referendum committee was made up mainly of Deby’s allies and offered the opposition no real chance of success or compromise. In last Sunday’s vote, the options were simply “yes” or “no” for a unitary constitution.

And the debate that began before the referendum continued inside and outside the country.

“When we look at how the referendum process unfolded, there are many signs that the transitional authority intends to retain power as has always been the case,” Remadji Hoinathy, expert at the Institute based in Chad. security studies, told Al Jazeera.

“Long-term game”

Upon coming to power in a coup in April 2021, Déby, now 38, promised to return to democracy within 18 months. After that deadline expired, a national dialogue committee granted the army an additional 24 months and removed a constitutional provision barring Déby’s participation in the 2024 elections.

In October 2022, opposition parties and pro-democracy protesters took to the streets to demand elections, but came under fire from the army. Dozens of people were killed and several others injured and arrested.

Déby has not yet said whether or not he will run, but it remains a possibility.

Although the Deby dynasty has been in power for more than three decades, there has been no corresponding economic development in the central African country.

According to the World Bank, extreme poverty increases every year and 42.3 percent of the country’s 18 million people live below the national poverty line. The country is also plagued by conflicts, mainly caused by multiple armed groups.

Experts say the referendum had a predetermined outcome as part of a plan for Déby to stay in power longer.

“Deby’s ‘long game’… is to entrench himself atop an autocratic political system dominated by the military,” Chris Ogunmodede, a foreign affairs analyst who has worked in diplomatic circles, told Al Jazeera Africans.

Ogunmodede says Déby is using the same model as his father, a wily leader who twice amended the constitution to circumvent term limits while suppressing dissent from the opposition and civil society.

However, several rebel groups remain opposed to his government. Even under Déby’s former regime, rebels using Libya and Sudan as a base had repeatedly challenged the government, raising the possibility of greater consequences from the referendum from aggrieved parties.

“In any case, the current trajectory does not bode well for the establishment of “peace” in Chad, yet this word is defined. It is possible that this “referendum”, to the extent that it offers real choices, will trigger a chain of events that creates another major dilemma in this country,” Ogunmodede said.

Members of security forces patrol the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, following the battlefield death of President Idriss Debyin N’Djamena, Chad, April 26, 2021 (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Support from France

In recent years, French influence in its former colonies has increased. This resulted in coups in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

But unlike countries where relations between military governments and the French have deteriorated, Déby has embraced Paris and is helping to quell any threats to France’s continued influence in the country.

In 2021, Paris supported his rise to power and remained tight-lipped on state tactics aimed at blocking a credible return to democracy, a different stance from its critics of coups elsewhere in the Sahel.

Analysts like Hoinathy say that because of Chad’s strategic position in regional security as the last bastion of French military presence in the Sahel, Déby is now seen as a key ally for Paris. In return, France helped support the Chadian elite.

“The big difference is that it is the leaders in power who are leading this anti-France movement (in the Sahel),” Hoinathy said. “In Chad, the leaders in power remain very strong partners of France and they know that this relationship with France is essential for them to remain in power because they receive military and diplomatic support.”

Double-sided deby?

Even as Déby continues to manage internal conflicts in Chad, attention is now turning to the geopolitical fireworks that some of his actions have set off abroad.

In neighboring Sudan, the army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been at war since April. The first accused Déby of having authorized the use of Amdjarass airport, in the north of the country, to transport weapons to the second by the United Arab Emirates.

Chad – which has also been part of an international coalition aimed at ending the conflict and has hosted millions of Sudanese refugees – and the United Arab Emirates have denied the accusation, but the diplomatic divide continues to widen, with Sudan and Chad mutually expelling their diplomats.

The development has complicated Sudan’s disastrous conflict, which has killed more than 10,000 people in nine months.

“(Deby’s support) makes the situation very dangerous not only during the war but also in the post-war period,” said Cameron Hudson, senior associate of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If the Sudanese army wins, it will remember for a very long time that its neighbor helped its enemy to try to defeat it,” he added. “People forget that 15 to 20 years ago there was a series of coups launched against each other by Chad and Sudan. Both countries have a long history of interference in each other’s internal affairs.”

But the other outcome of the war also carries dangerous possibilities for Déby – and for Chad. Déby comes from Chad’s Zaghawa ethnic minority who have accused RSF of murdering some of his relatives in Darfur. Some Zaghawa are fighting against the RSF and experts say this is indicative of the dangerous dilemma Déby finds himself in and the weakness of his leadership.

And the complications arising from this situation could lead to new episodes of conflict in an already unstable region.

“If Chad were to descend into a prolonged period of fighting and instability, that fighting and instability would spread to an already very unstable region,” Hudson said.

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