The 19th of October does not mark any particular anniversary or festivity in Chad, and neither will it in the future. However, this date took on a symbolic meaning, last year when two men representing the past, the present and possibly the future of the country ideally, met each other in a Dakar court.
One was former president Hissène Habré, under trial at the Extraordinary African Chambers, an ‘ad hoc’ tribunal set up in 2012 to judge the atrocities committed during his regime. Between 1982 and 1990, according to the charges laid against the former head of state, more than 40,000 people were killed at his order, 54,000 detained and others tortured or abused in many ways. The second man, testifying in the dock about what happened on 1st April 1989 in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, was one of such victims. Even a quick look at his personal details, however, made clear that he wasn’t an ordinary person. A child on the afternoon when he was forced to leave his home to escape death, Oumar Déby is now a state official and, what is more important, the brother of the current president of the country, Idriss Déby Itno, who unseated Habré after leading a rebellion against the same regime he had been part of.
The ambivalent link between Déby and Habré can be taken as a representation of the ambiguity of today’s Chad. An oil producer which has failed to deliver the benefits of economic growth to the majority of the people, a once shaky government which is now playing a major role in regional geo-politics; a mostly Islamic but secular state which is at odds with the Catholic Church on issues of social justice and yet finances maintenance works in the capital’s cathedral: Chad is all these things at the same time. And it’s also a country led by a man who overthrew his predecessor to end a wave of horrible human rights abuses and then established his own regime, staying in power for 25 years and more.
Déby’s rebellion against Habré, in fact, wasn’t the result of a long-standing desire for democracy. The current head of state had even served as the dictator’s army chief of staff until Habré suspected him, Mahamat Itno, (the then minister of the Interior) and Hassan Djamous (a powerful commander of the Chadian army) of plotting a coup against him. While Déby managed to escape, the other two were killed and the president also turned on the rest of the Zaghawa ethnic group, to which the three men belonged. So, defeating his former mentor literally became for Déby a question of life or death.
Given this background, one should not be surprised that the new head of state’s main aim, when he finally seized the presidential palace in N’Djamena, was consolidating his power:something he did also by joining forces with some of his predecessor’s closer aides and allies. Only time will tell if Déby’s regime has been brutal to the same extent of Habré’s. What is clear, nevertheless, is that the current president has been far more successful in staying in power.
Despite risking several times to be unseated by various rebellions, in fact, he always managed to crush them, and the same can be said of internal dissent. ‘Trade unions and political and human rights groups were frequently denied the right to peaceful activities or protests. Most demonstrations were violently disrupted by security forces’, Amnesty International writes in its latest country report. In November 2014 even teachers, demonstrating against the high cost of living in N’Djamena and the towns of Moundou and Sarh, were attacked by security forces: one person was killed. A month before, the mere broadcasting of a statement by 12 human rights NGOs over the absence of fuel on the market in this oil-rich country led to the suspension of a community radio, FM Liberté. Not even constitutional provisions stopped Déby from perpetuating his rule on the country. The fundamental charter was amended in 2005 in order to remove presidential term limits and last August Déby officially announced that he will be running for another mandate – his sixth – in the 2016 presidential elections. At the time, he justified the decision quoting security concerns and the menace of Boko Haram: “I would never abandon power leaving Chad in the midst of disorder”, he said. The consolidation he is mainly interested in, however, appears to be that of his own status. For it, he relies mainly on his fellow Zaghawa tribesmen: they also are the backbone of the army, and the president’s son, Mahamat Déby Itno, has been named second in command of one of the main military operations on foreign soil, in Mali.
If he finds it useful for his power, however, the president does not hesitate to act against his own relatives: in October, his younger brother, Salaye Déby, who was in charge of the customs office, was removed from his post. The decision followed allegations of mismanagement and corruption, but has been seen by most analysts as a mere propaganda move in an electoral perspective. Safe on both the internal and the military plan – especially after a peace deal was signed with neighbouring Sudan in 2009 – Déby’s power might however be threatened by another factor. In a bizarre twist of fate, in fact, the current president could soon face the same accusations as his enemy, Habré. In September, Senegalese lawyer Mbaye Jacques Ndiaye filed a complaint against the current leader at the Extraordinary African Chambers. Due to the statutes of the court, no further investigation can be triggered by this accusation but, given Déby’s role during the former regime, it is not unlikely that his name will resurface again during the trial. (D.M.)