Political tremors in Chad are felt much further afield

Political tremors in Chad are felt much further afield

Political tremors in Chad are felt much further afield
Chadian soldiers take position at the Chadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in N'Djamena on March 2, 2024. (AFP)
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The Sahel, a region stretching 4,000 miles along the southern fringe of the Sahara, is notorious for its volatile nature, with Chad emerging as the latest flashpoint in this troubled landscape.
The country, long considered a fulcrum of relative stability, survived a close call last week after the escalation of political violence in the capital, N’Djamena. The situation in the country offers yet another compelling reminder of what can happen when pressing domestic challenges intersect with a convulsing region, exacerbating precarious security dynamics.
A potent mix of sociopolitical unrest, economic desperation, and the expanding contagion of junta regimes, from Sudan to the Sahel, have created an environment fraught with tensions. Chad’s short-lived brush with a descent into chaos rightfully caused alarm in the West and the Arab region, with concerns that the prospect of the country falling into chaos is no longer a matter of “if” but a foreseeable and inevitable consequence of a permanently restless region.
Internal strife in Chad has been fueled by years of authoritarian rule, ethnic divisions, and economic disenfranchisement. After the death of President Idriss Deby Itno in April 2021, the military in the country suspended the constitution and installed his son, Mahamat Deby, to lead an 18-month Transitional Military Council.
Unlike his father, who commanded respect and authority thanks to his charismatic leadership and military prowess, Deby has struggled to consolidate his rule amid growing dissatisfaction among the military elite and the civilian population.
The mandate of the TMC was extended, controversially, by two years in October 2022, despite the prior promise of a transition to civilian rule, and that incited deadly protests. Unperturbed, Deby has persisted in his attempts to consolidate power within the military and the ruling Zaghawa ethnic group, mirroring the trajectory of neighboring countries in which juntas seized control at the expense of all else.
This regional pattern of military ascendancy over democratic processes has only succeeded in plunging the Sahel into chaos, fostering an environment ripe for prolonged strife and conflict. It is a far cry from the promises of a pan-Sahelian utopia following the exorcism of overt French influence.
Deby’s single-minded pursuit of a monopoly on power eventually created internal fissures that culminated in his paternal uncle, Saleh Deby Itno, defecting to the opposition Socialist Party without Borders, or PSF.
During the turmoil in the country a few days ago, the leader’s uncle was detained and the leader of the PSF, Yaya Dillo, killed. This outcome is consistent with Deby’s efforts to tighten his grip on power and quell dissent ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May and June — if they take place at all.
These tremors in Chad shone a spotlight on the political volatility in the nation and fears for a future rife with conflict that could destabilize it, likely spilling over into neighboring countries.
The violent suppression of the opposition, including the death of the PSF leader and Saleh Deby Itno’s detention, set the stage for potential armed confrontations between government forces and factions aligned with the PSF, particularly within the Zaghawa ethnic group. The specter of military engagements, especially near the capital, threatens to derail the presidential election and deepen the political and security crises the country faces. 

The fragility of the political landscape in Chad is undeniable and the recent clashes might well be a harbinger of more trouble ahead.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

The possibility that anti-Deby elements might seek assistance from Wagner Group, the Russian private military company, adds another worrying dimension to the turmoil. Wagner’s presence in the neighboring Central African Republic, Libya, and Sudan presents an opportunity for elements in these places to gain support from a rogue force with a history of intervention in African conflicts.
Moreover, the unrest at the end of February underscored the precarious nature of Chad’s internal stability. The growing public and military discontent could energize protests and potentially precipitate another coup, given the divisions within military ranks over the orders to suppress the PSF.
Externally, these developments might hasten French President Emmanuel Macron’s purported plans to reduce the presence of his nation’s troops in Chad. A swift withdrawal in response to the growing instability could result in a security void at the worst possible time, given the existing crises in Sudan, Niger, Libya, and the Central African Republic.
This comes against the backdrop of a broader French military drawdown across Africa, including a recent exit from Niger, that has left about 1,000 French troops in Chad with an uncertain timeline for withdrawal.
Meanwhile, an extended nationwide strike called by major trade unions in Chad in protest against rising fuel prices adds an economic dimension to the country’s escalating woes. While the PSF might attempt to court Wagner for support, it remains to be seen whether the TMC will similarly engage, especially after Deby’s meeting with Putin in January.
The fragility of the political landscape in Chad is undeniable and the recent clashes might well be a harbinger of more trouble ahead, which would threaten domestic stability and the security of neighboring countries entangled in their own complex crises.
The nation’s internal dynamics have been significantly influenced by a combustible mix of local grievances and international geopolitics. The instability of the Sahel region is not only the product of poor governance and economic deprivation, it is increasingly a consequence of external military and political interventions.
The crisis in Chad illustrates the ways in which internal instability can be exacerbated by the regional contagion of conflict, providing a bridge for the flow of arms, fighters, and insurgencies across borders. The interplay between internal discontent in the country and regional upheavals, especially given the involvement of external powers, highlights the fact that the Sahel is a battleground for local conflicts and international geopolitical rivalries.
The unfolding crisis in Chad necessitates a reevaluation of the strategies employed both by regional actors and international stakeholders. It is clear that a military-first approach, focused on counterterrorism and maintaining the status quo, is insufficient to address the underlying causes of instability.
Instead, there must be a concerted effort to tackle governance issues, economic deprivation, and ethnic grievances that fuel discontent. This will involve a nuanced engagement that goes beyond mere security assistance to include support for democratic governance, economic development, and conflict-resolution mechanisms.
Furthermore, international actors, particularly Western powers, must reconsider their alliances and intervention strategies in the region. Support for autocratic regimes for short-term security gains has proven counterproductive, fostering resentment among local populations and perpetuating cycles of violence. There is a pressing need for a more balanced strategy that aligns security interests with support for human rights and democratic norms.
The situation in Chad is a clarion call for a fundamental rethink of the ways in which stability and security are pursued in North Africa and the broader Sahel region. Addressing this challenge will require a comprehensive approach that considers the intricate web of local grievances, regional conflicts, and international geopolitics.
If one recognizes the limitations of a security-centric strategy, and prioritizes governance reforms, economic development and regional diplomacy, there is yet hope for restoring stability to the Sahel.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
X: @HafedAlGhwell

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