The political exile of Succes Masra, leader of a main opposition party to the military junta in Chad, has recently come to an end after over a year away from the country. What is still unclear is how the militarily appointed President Mahamat Idriss Déby Into will react to the welcoming of a former rival to the country again with voting on a new constitution set to take place in a month.
Chad had been ruled for more than 30 years by an autocratic leaning elected president, Idriss Déby Into, who came to power after leading a rebellion against the national government in 1990. During his sixth term in office, President Into was killed by Islamic militant forces while leading troops into battle in northern Chad in April of 2021. Following his death, a military junta took power and appointed his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby Into, to the presidency on a supposed temporary basis until elections could be held within a supposed two year time frame. This is despite the constitution including a provision for the speaker of the National Assembly to assume the presidency until the next election takes place. Those two years have passed, and no election has been held for a new president. While the temporary president and his military advisors claim to be upholding democracy, data from Freedom House suggest otherwise as Chad’s global freedom score has been on a steep decline since General Into was installed as president of the African nation.
Succès Masra, the leader of the main opposition party in Chad, was forced out of the country following mass protests against the transitional government in October 2022. Masra had hoped to return to Chad a year later in October 2023, but was told he would be arrested upon entry to the country as he had “incited rebellion” and was a criminal. After a month long delay, a deal was reached between the government and Masra that allowed him to enter the country. No date is in place for his reentry. It remains unclear if he will face arrest once entering Chad or if he will be allowed to conduct normal activities and participate in politics. Regardless of the outcome, this situation still presents as a clear example of a democracy in decline. Some political supporters of President Into will claim that Masra was participating in an attempt to weaken the government to allow for a coup attemtpt. However, the activities Masra was involved in were focused on peaceful demonstrations over the military junta not scheduling elections that they were required to. The right to protest and speak out against the government should be protected in any functioning liberal democracy.
Threatening to arrest political rivals is a classic example of autocratic leadership. As Ozan Varol found in his research, this is a popular tactic among authoritarian leaders to employ the use of existing laws and counterterrorism policies to target opposition groups. There does exist a valid concern to fight rebellion and coups, but no evidence has been made publicly available to support claims that Masra was provoking or leading a rebellion against the state. Terrorism is also a major threat across Africa and within Chad, as Chad’s military has been involved in several campaigns against groups like ISIS and Boko Haram over the past several years. Both Idriss Into and Mahamat Into have abused existing criminal laws to eliminate opposition. Idriss Into had rival political party leaders arrested before the presidential election in 2021 over allegations of planning an assassination attempt and conspiring to bomb polling stations. Similar to President Mahamat’s actions against Marsa, former President Idriss offered no evidence of their crimes and stated he was trying to protect the election and democracy in Chad.
The goal for both examples of authoritarianism is to delegitimize opponents by exploiting legal methods of policing. Labelling another politician as a criminal who was trying to attack the integrity of democracy, such as by inciting rebellion or bombing polling stations, means to paint one’s opponents as the true autocrat and oneself as a defender of democracy. In reality, these leaders are the true autocrats and are attempting to undermine democracy themselves. Simply having elections is not enough to make a country a liberal democracy. Elections must be fair and free, and the liberties of all political groups are upheld. An election can never be fair if opposition party leaders are thrown into jail before elections and accused of baseless crimes.
Even before the installation of the military junta, Chad lacked adequate checks and balances to prevent such abuses of power. Chad does have a written constitution with established limits on executive power however these restrictions are not enforced by the legislative or judicial branches. If the limits were in place, then neither of the past two president would have been able to unilaterally order political opponents imprisoned. The inability to counter the growth of presidential power has allowed the executive to become almost dictator like in the scale and scope of authority that the president has. The military junta had voided the existing constitution after the death of President Idriss Into which finally eliminated any semblance of checks on the president. This means that the only real check on the power of the president is military leaders, who are selected by the president himself.
These developments do not mean that democracy is dead in Chad. Voting on a new constitution is scheduled to take place this December and the presidential election in 2024 could led to a stronger democracy and eventual end of military rule under current President Into. Opposition leader Succès Masra could be welcomed into Chad and allowed to retake his position in politics. He could also be arrested immediately and thrown into prison without a fair trial. One outcome would signal a possible democratic future for the Africa nation, while the other would point to a further erosion of democracy. Only time will tell what direction Chad will take.