Civil unrest awaits Chad as Idriss Déby likely to remain unchallenged

Civil unrest awaits Chad as Idriss Déby likely to remain unchallenged

Chad will hold parliamentary elections in 2018, three years after the end of the initial parliamentary term. No major political change is expected, but continuing socio-economic problems are likely to result in civil unrest and armed factionalism.   

Chadian President Idriss Déby, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, has recently announced the tenure of parliamentary elections in 2018. The legislative election of a new parliament has been postponed since 2015, but in order to secure international aid, Idriss Déby has agreed to organise an election later this year. This announcement is not a sign of compromise; far from any form of concession to other interests, Déby will remain politically unchallenged. However, the crumbling economy coupled with the current austerity measures could generate civil unrest in 2018.  

A country in crisis

Since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, Chad has sunk into economic crisis. Money from oil extraction has dried up from $1 billion three years ago to merely $60 million in 2017. This is a disaster for the country, where oil production accounted for 75% of state revenue in recent years. The loss of oil revenue, a key driver of the economy, has had a huge impact on economic growth. The economy has entered into recession; Chad’s GDP growth contracted by 3.40% in 2016 from the previous year.

Consequently, state expenditure has been halved and major infrastructure projects are on hold. For instance, the construction of a $500 million business zone in the capital city is now pending. The situation in rural areas is not much better; Boko Haram has blocked trade with Nigeria and Cameroon, hitting the Chadian herders who used to cross the border of Nigeria to sell their livestock hard. On top of this, the government has to face the repayment of the debt owed to the commodity broker Glencore; more than $2 billion was borrowed between 2013 and 2014.

Staying afloat

Despite this catastrophic situation, Idriss Déby has managed to avoid bankruptcy. In September 2017, the Chadian President received $20 billion in investment pledges to revive the economy. The round-table held in Paris was attended by a mixture of both public and private partners. To satisfy the few calls for more democracy expressed by the European Union, Germany and the UN Special Representative, Déby accepted that he should organise elections.

Yet the promise of elections is a small trade-off. In Chad, the ruling elite is in practice unchallenged, which means that opposition can be tolerated because it is largely ineffective. From time to time, the main workers union, l’Union des syndicats du Tchad, is able to mobilise and express popular discontent, but overall the civil society’s activities remain under surveillance. The arrestation of one of the opposition leaders in July 2017 suggests that Déby will not tolerate any serious criticisms against his regime. Within that context, it is very unlikely that Déby’s party, Le Mouvement patriotique du salut (MPS), will lose ground at the 2018 elections.

A high risk of civil unrest and armed factionalism

To what extent international aid will be used to fund Chad’s national development plan will determine whether peaceful protests turn into civil unrest. In the most likely scenario, Idriss Déby will prioritise his survival over economic development. His regime relies upon the use of force and militarised governance to function. As such, a large part of the resources made available by the relationship with international partners will be used to buy more weapons. Furthermore, there is a good chance that Idriss Déby could divert some of these new funds to bolster his hold on power through a patronage network and to also enrich himself further.

The question then becomes; how long will the population tolerate the extravagant lifestyle of the ruling elite, a weakened economy, widespread corruption and the current belt-tightening policy – all which could lead to an explosive situation. It seems that the population has already reached a breaking point. For example, in June 2017, the announcement of the sixteen austerity measures resulted in mass protests against austerity. Within that context, the elections could trigger extreme social unrest.

Furthermore, the usage of informal patron-client networks as a means to stay in power and the inherent corruption amongst the elite have the potential to generate armed factionalism. Timane Erdimi, the nephew of Déby and leader of the Chadian rebel group, l’Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), could be tempted to exploit this outburst of popular anger against the regime. Defeated in 2008, the UFR is currently not able to conduct a major offensive, but rumours suggest that affiliated movements based in Libya and Darfur are attempting to rebuild alliances, increasing the risk of instability in the eastern and northern parts of the country.

Idriss Déby is here to stay

Despite the numerous threats, Idriss Déby is set to remain in power. The Chadian army is the most powerful in the region and much of the effective leadership is drawn from President Déby’s Zaghawa ethnic group. Furthermore, the Chadian regime continues to enjoy protection from France, a key ally in the fight against terrorism. In 2008, Déby was already saved from a coup by French military forces. The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, is pursuing the same policy as his predecessors and as such, Idriss Déby remains out of reach for his enemies, or at least in the short-term.

It is clear that militarisation does not tackle the root cause of economic, political, or social insecurity. In the midst of the economic crisis, only military expenses have remained steady, furthering the weakened budgetary situation and constraining short-term growth prospects.  

Although the announcement of parliamentary elections can be seen as a step towards a more democratic society, it is likely a small concession to secure funds for the furtherance of Déby’s own ambitions. The question of the allocation of financial aid will bring simmering tensions to the fore, and without improvements to social welfare, Chad is at risk of civil unrest in 2018.

About Author

Adrien Couderc

Adrien Couderc is a London-based analyst specialising in African political risk dynamics. Prior to joining GRI, Adrien worked for Britain's leading cross party think-tank, Demos, where his research focused on a future UK-Africa trading relationship. He was also a trainee at the European Union (EU) Delegation in Manila and was involved in the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations between the EU and the Philippines. Adrien has a BA in History from Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, University of Paris and an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.