A Narrow Escape, a Massacre, an Invite to Washington

U.S. officials hatched a plan to smuggle Chad’s pro-democracy leader to safety—while Washington planned to fete his tormentor.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Chad police officers patrol in the capital.
Chad police officers patrol in the capital.
Chad police officers patrol in a vehicle during clashes with opposition demonstrators in N’Djamena, Chad, on April 27, 2021. Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. diplomats organized a plan to help smuggle Chad’s pro-democracy opposition leader out of the country as security forces from Chad’s transitional president hunted him down in a wave of deadly crackdowns against protesters in October.

The plan, dubbed “Operation Moses” by some officials, entailed ferrying Succès Masra to the border of neighboring Cameroon using the U.S. ambassador to Chad’s own embassy vehicles, according to accounts from Masra and other current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter. But after staying in hiding for over a week—avoiding the security forces of transitional President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno—Masra successfully escaped the country before “Operation Moses” could be implemented.

The account of the proposed escape plan reveals a sharp split-screen in U.S.-Africa policy. As U.S. officials in Chad were scrambling to find a way to help Masra escape and witnessing some pro-democracy protesters be slaughtered at the gates of the U.S. Embassy, other officials in Washington were preparing an invitation to fete the very man who orchestrated this bloody crackdown at a major summit in Washington.

U.S. diplomats organized a plan to help smuggle Chad’s pro-democracy opposition leader out of the country as security forces from Chad’s transitional president hunted him down in a wave of deadly crackdowns against protesters in October.

The plan, dubbed “Operation Moses” by some officials, entailed ferrying Succès Masra to the border of neighboring Cameroon using the U.S. ambassador to Chad’s own embassy vehicles, according to accounts from Masra and other current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter. But after staying in hiding for over a week—avoiding the security forces of transitional President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno—Masra successfully escaped the country before “Operation Moses” could be implemented.

The account of the proposed escape plan reveals a sharp split-screen in U.S.-Africa policy. As U.S. officials in Chad were scrambling to find a way to help Masra escape and witnessing some pro-democracy protesters be slaughtered at the gates of the U.S. Embassy, other officials in Washington were preparing an invitation to fete the very man who orchestrated this bloody crackdown at a major summit in Washington.

The Biden administration’s decision to invite Déby to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, which occurred over three days this past week, drew immediate criticism and backlash from regional experts and human rights advocates. “Everybody saw that this man killed more than 200 people. They arrested over 2,000 people. Despite all this, he is invited here,” Masra told Foreign Policy in an interview in Washington.

Former U.S. officials say the decision to invite Déby punches a significant dent in U.S. President Joe Biden’s stated human rights agenda. “It really questions the sincerity of Biden’s human rights agenda,” said J. Peter Pham, the former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes region of Africa during the Trump administration. “I realize sometimes you have to make messy compromises in foreign policy, but there’s a difference between a messy pragmatic compromise and totally turning the world upside down on the values you loudly proclaim.”

“Human rights will always be on the agenda, and the president will not shy away from raising these issues with any foreign leader anywhere in the world,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson wrote in response.

Masra’s escape began on Oct. 21, the day after so-called Black Thursday, when Chadian security forces slaughtered scores of pro-democracy protesters. Masra, a former senior economist at the African Development Bank, resigned from his banking job in 2018 to return to Chad and begin organizing a pro-democracy political movement known as the “Transformers,” which quickly became the country’s leading opposition group.

Masra said he received word on Oct. 21 to stay clear of the Transformers’ political campaign’s headquarters. That night, he said, Chadian security forces raided his headquarters, ransacking the facilities and either killing or imprisoning his colleagues. The whereabouts of more than 20 opposition party members remain unknown. Masra hid in Chad for 10 days while security forces organized a dragnet to find him. “I was in hiding completely. They were looking for me everywhere,” Masra said.

“I was informed that the order was very clear: Masra in jail, killed, or in exile. This was the point,” he added. “And they wanted to kill many people at the time.”

Chad’s embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

While Masra was in hiding, U.S. officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Chad Alexander Laskaris, grew increasingly alarmed over whether he would survive the dragnet. A possible plan was hatched to offer Masra safe passage to the Chad-Cameroon border in U.S. Embassy vehicles. But just when the U.S. ambassador reached out to him with the plan, Masra said, he safely smuggled himself across the Cameroonian border—on his own.

Masra’s account was independently verified by several current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter, who did not speak on the record to discuss sensitive matters candidly.

After successfully escaping Chad, Masra traveled to Washington, where he attended meetings on the sidelines of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to garner support for his country’s embattled pro-democracy movement. During the course of the three-day summit, Masra and Déby, his would-be executioner or jailer, were circling the same several blocks in downtown Washington.

Afterward, Masra said they never ended up running into each other. Déby, meanwhile, dined with Biden and other African leaders as well as took several photo-ops with the U.S. president. The State Department spokesperson wrote that U.S. officials “expressed our continued disappointment with the lack of progress in Chad’s promised transition to democracy” during their meetings with Déby in Washington.

Whether or not Déby received an invitation was subject to intense debates within the administration in the months leading up to the summit, current and former officials said, offering a window into how the administration balanced its human rights agenda with the summit’s goal of including as many leaders as possible and maintaining ties to the leader of an important counterterrorism partner in West Africa.

To minimize controversies and diplomatic fallout on who and who didn’t make the invite list, the administration decided to invite all countries in good standing with the African Union, the political bloc that represents the continent.

This excluded countries that recently underwent military coups—Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Sudan—but the African Union sidestepped that designation on Chad despite Déby’s move to take power in 2021 and extend his role as “transitional president” for two years in October, even though he backtracked on promises to hold elections.

The administration ultimately invited Chad’s leader to Washington despite some misgivings from officials in the U.S. National Security Council and State Department. Other autocrats and leaders whose governments have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity also got an invite. Chad is viewed as a critical security partner for the United States and other regional powers trying to stem the rising tide of Islamist terrorism that has gripped the Sahel region.

Some experts defended the administration’s decision to invite Déby given Chad’s importance in the region. “Chad is an important partner when it comes to security in the Lake Chad Basin, and it has a geopolitical important position between East Africa, Central Africa, and the Sahel region,” said Kamissa Camara, Mali’s former minister of foreign affairs from 2018 to 2019—before Mali itself underwent two back-to-back military coups in 2021 and 2022. “I believe that because of the strategic position that Chad has in the region, it was important that the country be invited [to the summit]. Its just being realistic.”

Déby took power after his father, Idriss Déby, was killed in April 2021 while organizing an offensive against rebel groups. When the senior Déby was killed, Biden’s U.N. envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, offered glowing praise for the late Chadian leader’s commitment to fighting extremism but made no mention of Chad’s checkered record on human rights, corruption, and rule of law.

The junior Déby, his 38-year-old son and a five-star general in the Chadian military, took power on the same day that his father’s death was announced in 2021, and he pledged to only keep the job as a transitional leader temporarily before ceding power to a civilian-led government. He backtracked on those promises in October, declaring himself “transitional president” for two more years in a move decried as effectively a coup by international democracy advocates.

Yet the United States and France, the other regional power most directly involved in the region, lean heavily on Chad for counterterrorism cooperation. Some analysts said Déby’s invitation to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington was an early sign that the Biden administration would eventually, if grudgingly, accept the new Chadian leader’s rule, favoring an autocratic ally in the fight against terrorists over isolating him for the sake of its global democracy and human rights agenda.

The United States has not formally declared the power grab in Chad a coup, a determination that would legally compel Washington to cut security assistance funding to the country under legislation that has been in place since 1986. “The Department carefully reviewed the events in Chad and concluded that the military coup restriction … had not been triggered with respect to Chad,” the State Department spokesperson wrote in their statement.

“The State Department has consistently supported the aspirations of the Chadian people for democracy and advocated for an inclusive and timely transition to democracy in Chad,” the official added.

On Oct. 20, a day initially meant to signal the beginning of democracy but was hijacked by Déby, thousands of people across the country gathered to protest. Déby’s security forces opened fire on demonstrators in NDjamena, killing by some accounts 200 people, and arrested thousands more. Four protesters were killed at the gates of the U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. ambassador posted photos of the bloody scene outside the embassy gates on the embassy’s Facebook page, comparing it to atrocities his parents faced in Europe during World War II. “May none of us ever again have to clean our streets from blood,” he wrote.

Some former officials highlighted an irony: Some of the coup leaders shunned from the summit took power in bloodless coups, a stark difference from how Déby cemented his hold on power that day.

“If you’re one of the leaders who staged a bloodless or nearly bloodless coup and since then [have] been engaging in a transition process, however bumpy, you may be scratching your head wondering why you’re not invited while another coup leader who has slaughtered people literally in front of the gates of the U.S. Embassy gets feted in Washington,” Pham said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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