Chad’s Coup Leader Stops Democracy in Its Tracks

Chad’s transitional government asserts its power with violent repression.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Chadian interim-President Mahamat Idriss Déby attends a forum.
Chadian interim-President Mahamat Idriss Déby attends a forum.
Chadian interim-President Mahamat Idriss Déby looks on during the closing ceremony of the Inclusive and Sovereign National Dialogue forum in N’Djamena, Chad, on Oct. 8. Denis Sassou Gueipeur/Getty Images

On Monday, after four days of legal proceedings at the Koro Toro prison in northern Chad, the country’s public prosecutor announced that 262 people had been sentenced to between two and three years in prison and another 80 people to one to two years on charges of unauthorized gathering, destruction of property, arson, and disturbing public order during pro-democracy protests on Oct. 20.

Calling it a “parody of justice,” the Chad Bar Association boycotted the trial and suspended all activity throughout the proceedings. In the wake of the deadly demonstrations, hundreds of people were sent to Koro Toro, a maximum security prison that the interim head of the Chadian Human Rights League has called a “Chadian Guantánamo.”

Oct. 20 was meant to be the end of Chad’s political transition after the death of longtime President Idriss Déby in April 2021. Opposition groups and civil society instead took to the streets to protest the continued denial of democracy—and then things got worse. Chadians have begun to refer to Oct. 20 as “Black Thursday.” In addition to the mass arrests, scores of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed and injured in some of the worst repression in the country’s history. Images posted on social media show bodies covered in the country’s tricolor flag. Among the casualties that day was journalist Orédjé Narcisse, who, witnesses said, was shot and killed in front of his home by people in military attire.

On Monday, after four days of legal proceedings at the Koro Toro prison in northern Chad, the country’s public prosecutor announced that 262 people had been sentenced to between two and three years in prison and another 80 people to one to two years on charges of unauthorized gathering, destruction of property, arson, and disturbing public order during pro-democracy protests on Oct. 20.

Calling it a “parody of justice,” the Chad Bar Association boycotted the trial and suspended all activity throughout the proceedings. In the wake of the deadly demonstrations, hundreds of people were sent to Koro Toro, a maximum security prison that the interim head of the Chadian Human Rights League has called a “Chadian Guantánamo.”

Oct. 20 was meant to be the end of Chad’s political transition after the death of longtime President Idriss Déby in April 2021. Opposition groups and civil society instead took to the streets to protest the continued denial of democracy—and then things got worse. Chadians have begun to refer to Oct. 20 as “Black Thursday.” In addition to the mass arrests, scores of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed and injured in some of the worst repression in the country’s history. Images posted on social media show bodies covered in the country’s tricolor flag. Among the casualties that day was journalist Orédjé Narcisse, who, witnesses said, was shot and killed in front of his home by people in military attire.

The government officially reported roughly 50 deaths, including 10 members of the security forces, but opposition parties and civil society organizations have said around 200 people were killed in the violence. In the days after the massacre, the government suspended seven political parties; bodies appeared in the two rivers that flow through N’Djamena, the capital; and hundreds of people were jailed.

“We have hundreds of people that are unaccounted for. The jails in N’Djamena are full. People don’t know where their family members are,” said Ndolembai Njesada, vice president of opposition party Les Transformateurs. “It’s a very dark time in Chad.”

Darkness has been looming since the unexpected death of Déby in battle against an armed opposition group in 2021. Immediately after the dictator’s death, a military junta led by his son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, seized control of the country. The Transitional Military Council suspended the constitution but committed to oversee an 18-month transition period that would end with a transition to civilian rule via elections. Instead, what Chad got was a two-year extension of the transition, the swearing in of Mahamat as president, eligibility of the junta to run in future elections, and Black Thursday.

Despite some early signs of potential compliance with the rules of the transitional charter, Mahamat’s regime has now shown its cards. The extension of his rule and the violent crackdown on those who publicly oppose it—in a speech after “Black Thursday,” Mahamat blamed the organizers of the protest for the violence—has signaled that democracy is not around the corner.

If he feels unafraid to rule with impunity, then it could be because the international community has let him. Mahamat, like his father, evades retribution thanks to Chad’s reputation as a bulwark of stability in an increasingly insecure Sahel. Boasting one of the most powerful militaries in the region, Chad has long been a key partner in international security strategies, including France’s Operation Barkhane, the United Nations-backed counterterrorism G5 Sahel Joint Force, the U.N.’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, and the Multinational Joint Task Force created to fight Boko Haram.

The Sahel faces increasing challenges to its stability with the continuing insurgency in the Chad Basin, ongoing conflict in Sudan’s Darfur, political instability in Libya, and a spate of coups across West Africa. Maintaining stability in Chad, even at the cost of democratic state-building, seems to be the priority for the international community. France, the United States, and the African Union swiftly condemned the repression on Oct. 20, but the Chadian government has not faced sanctions or suspensions.

French President Emmanuel Macron attended Idriss Déby’s funeral and declared that France would “never let anyone, either today or tomorrow, challenge Chads stability and integrity.” At the United Nations, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged a democratic transition in Chad but paid tribute to the late Déby, whom she called “a leader and a partner who dedicated his life to the fight against violent extremism.” In May 2021, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who also attended Déby’s funeral, urged a return to constitutional order based on democratic values but said it was “necessary to ensure that the country remains stable so that it can continue to play a role in the fight against insecurity in the region.”

“The French declarations and the continued French military presence buy [Mahamat Idriss] Déby a degree of security that gives him a lot of political leeway domestically that allows him to do whatever the hell he wants,” said Nathaniel Powell, author of France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa. “At the end of the day, this is about security, and the contribution that Chad makes to regional security is appreciated by France, the U.S., and the EU.”

Even African organizations are giving Chad a seeming free pass. The African Union suspended Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Sudan for their recent “unconstitutional changes of government.” But despite the fact that the junta’s power grab violated the Chadian Constitution’s stipulation that elections be held within 90 days after the death of a seated president and that the president of the National Assembly should serve as interim president, the AU agreed to support the Chadian transitional council so long as it organized elections within the 18-month transition period and barred the members of the junta from running in the election. Neither happened.

In a report presented to the AU’s Peace and Security Council on Nov. 11, Moussa Faki, a former prime minister of Chad who currently serves as chairperson of the African Union Commission, called on the regional body to punish the transitional government for its actions. Members of the young Déby’s inner circle dismissed his fervor as a strategy for his political aspirations, and the Peace and Security Council has so far declined to suspend or sanction Chad.

“The position of the African Union from the onset of this transition has been very ambiguous,” said Remadji Hoinathy, a Chadian researcher at the Institute for Security Studies Africa. “They have not been loyal to their principles in the face of an unconstitutional power change.”

Going forward, Mahamat’s position may only grow more secure. Throughout the transition process, the regime has strategically co-opted most of its opposition. Beginning in March, dozens of armed groups and members of the junta gathered in Doha, Qatar, for “pre-dialogue” peace talks. After months of negotiations, the junta signed a peace accord with many of the groups, promising protection for rebel leaders in exchange for a cease-fire and participation in the national dialogue in N’Djamena.

Not everybody has taken part. Opposition groups, including Les Transformateurs and the civil society coalition Wakit Tama, declined to participate in the dialogue, and other key players, including the Catholic Church, withdrew after it began.

“The history of this country has shown us that we like staging political dialogues. We like staging democracy. We like staging elections,” Hoinathy said. “But behind that, the agenda remains the same: keeping power.”

Mahamat has further incorporated the opposition by appointing key civilian opposition leaders to important positions within the government, including interim Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo, the head of a main opposition party who twice ran against Idriss Déby for the presidency. The government has also named ex-rebels to ministerial positions, including to the posts of minister of higher education and minister of urbanism.

“He’s neutered the two strands of the opposition: the armed opposition and the civilian southern opposition,” Powell said. “He has an unobstructed field of advance for running in the next election and then winning it. He’s going to have the support of the entire state apparatus to do that.”

Political repression is just one of many challenges Chadians currently face. The day before “Black Thursday,” Mahamat declared a state of emergency due to historic flooding that affected more than a million people in the country. Earlier in the year, the government declared a food and nutrition emergency as Russia’s war in Ukraine intensified a food security crisis. Clashes between herders and farmers in the rural south contribute to an already delicate regional security situation.

As these pressures intensify, Chadians will likely continue their campaign for a system of democracy and governance that can handle these challenges. “The really crucial thing to note about the Oct. 20 mobilizations is that they were indicative of the demand for democracy across the country,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. “They were also extremely large in scale despite everyone having very clear knowledge of what the risks were.”

Leaders of the opposition groups have fled the country, including Succès Masra, the head of Les Transformateurs, who has been meeting with democracy promotion organizations in Washington. The events of “Black Thursday” have only galvanized those who seek to transform Chad.

“We are burying our people. We are trying to keep track of who’s missing,” Njesada said. “This fight will never end until there is justice and equality in Chad. We are at the crossroads. Now we’re waiting for the international community to choose their side.”

Katie Nodjimbadem is a former intern at Foreign Policy.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.