On 8 August 2016, Idriss Déby Itno was installed as president for his fifth term. The electoral victory was celebrated exuberantly and was well attended by international guests. Present, inter alia, were the presidents of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, the Minister of Defence of France, and several representatives of the European Union and the United States of America. Their particular presence shows how power is divided in the world.
The leaders were guided through the beautiful and luxurious hotels in the cleaned-up Sabangali neighbourhood along the river Chari, where they were received in one of the high-end Hilton hotels. The airport roads were cleaned, as was the entrance to a beautified N’Djaména.
In the meantime, out of the spotlight of the public ceremony, there were protests and all-out strikes despite the ban on demonstrations. On the morning of 8 August, after a protest march had already been dispersed with tear gas, a young man was killed, and another man was wounded somewhere else in N’Djaména. According to the testimony of a motor taxi driver, the wounded man had nothing to do with the protests. He had simply arrived by bus at the wrong place at the wrong time, intending to visit his family. These were casualties to be accepted for the comfort of the important visitors, so it seems. Not much publicity was given to it. Musicians were invited to celebrate by singing louanges [songs of praise] for the regime at the different roundabouts in the city. One of the musicians asked for more attention to the problems the population is facing in Chad. As a response, the national TV broadcasting the ceremonies and events was taken off the air, and the musician was kindly asked to move on.
These two faces of the day of the reinstallation of the president are an effective metaphor for the contradictions of the new political season that started with the fifth mandate of Idriss Déby as president of Chad. The outcome of the elections in Chad is heavily contested, but protests and other manifestations of dissent are suppressed in the country, and there is silence in international debate in the favour of a clear interest: stability and security in Central and West Africa. A friend in N’Djaména told me: ‘We do not matter; they forget us; we are non-existent.’ In the coming five years, Chad will not raise itself out of poverty, and movements and protests will be a monthly occurrence. Such is the forecast of pessimists. The signs are there that they may be right.
This is not surprising if we consider the recent developments in Chadian politics. Déby built his electoral campaign on the optimistic slogan of ‘le Tchad émergent’ (lit. ‘the emerging Chad’), pushing the idea of Chad as a rising country and himself as a guide towards a bright future of prosperity.
The rhetoric of the Tchad émergent finds widespread support in the region and even internationally. Both for the states of Central and West Africa and for the West, Chad is a key ally in the fight against the activity of terrorist groups destabilizing the region. It is no coincidence that the war on terror was one of the central topics in Déby’s campaign, which he also remarked on in his speech during the ceremony on 8 August. The involvement of Déby in the chessboard game of the fight against Boko Haram in the region grants him the legitimacy at the international level that he desperately needs to counteract accusations from the opposition against the legitimacy of his fifth mandate.
In fact, the narrative of a strong and promising Chad, ready to take on its role as a bastion in the fight against terror in the region, has proved to be effective insofar as the country has passed from being a theatre of conflict and instability to being a key partner in the stabilization of the region. It is therefore not surprising that the optimistic rhetoric of a Tchad émergent is crucial for Déby’s presentation of a powerful image to his international partners.
The interest of Déby in seeking legitimization in the eyes of the international community is also an explanation for the beautification of the capital city N’Djaména. Since the revenues from oil started to flow, huge investments have been made to make the capital city appealing to international partners and investors, and buildings, hospitals, new streets, and so on quickly appeared in the city. Déby has made no secret of the huge expenses he has incurred with public money for the beautification operation. On the contrary, pursuing his goal of making the city la vitrine d’Afrique is one of the core themes of his new mandate.
In spite of the seductive promises of the government, the country remains in what has now become a prolonged and apparently inescapable crisis. The situation is critical. Hit by the collapse of the price of oil, the country is floundering in a deep financial crisis, paying the price of the uncontrolled expenditure of the last years. This situation is exacerbated by huge expenses incurred by the government in supporting the leading role of the Chadian army in the securitization of the region. The involvement in the Central African Republic and in Nigeria and Cameroon was possible only with huge outlays of public money, the other side of the story that is never mentioned in the official political discourse.
The country is now facing the worst crisis of the last years, and the situation has assumed the tone of a ‘permanent emergency’, in which public servants have not received their salaries for months. The measures taken by the government to handle the crisis had the result of worsening the state of economic insecurity of Chadian society. On 31 August 2016, the government announced its 16 mésures de réforme d’urgence to deal with the economic problems. These measures have met a strong rejection from civil society, especially the measure that mandates the abolition of aid for university students. Eventually, the measures led to a domino effect that exacerbated instability in the country, with a wave of strikes of magistrates, trade unions, and of course students. The whole month of September 2016 was marked by protests, which in some cases continued into October when a number of universities re-opened their doors.
The protests of the youth in Chad are an expression of people’s exasperation. After months of crisis, the widespread feeling among civil society is that Déby is using the narrative of the ‘crise financière’ to portray the ‘16 mesures’ as a way to save the nation from bankruptcy only in order to avoid addressing the deeper problems of corruption and re-distribution of wealth in Chadian society.
On the contrary, the opposition sees the current crisis as a clear demonstration of the mistakes of an elite which did not fulfil its own responsibilities to the country. These mistakes are particularly evident now under the impact of the crisis in the price of oil. Since the start of the exploitation of the oil fields in 2003, the elite of the country has used the oil revenues as private assets, sharing them only among the circle of a small group clustered around the government and acting as though the value of oil would always be the same. Now that the bubble of oil revenues has burst, the whole country is paying for it.
Chadian youth feel that this financial crisis is a fake crisis, used by the government to tighten power and hide the impact of its previous mistakes. After all, in a time of the so-called fight against terror, any act against the government is seen as a terrorist one and is heavily opposed. In a context in which people cannot express their anger, most people feel helpless. The lack of access to salaries—and thus to the basic resources to create a Tchad émergent—combined with the impossibility of expressing dissident opinions has fostered the feeling of Chad as a country in decline. The feeling of the opposition is clear: behind the slogan of a Tchad émergent lies a country in a state of emergency, in which the president is rejected, the financial crisis is used by the government as a weapon against society, and the opposition and youth have to survive in the tight space between anger and despair.
Photo: Sjoerd Sijsma