Chad’s leader, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby, is currently overseeing a complex political transition that is supposed to culminate in elections planned for next year. To do so, he has successfully coopted most of the country’s many armed groups and part of the political opposition. Combined with French commitments to protect him from armed overthrow, this has brought a measure of security to his regime.
Nonetheless, Deby faces significant longer-term challenges to his rule. Armed opposition persists, largely in the form of rebel groups based in Libya and the Central African Republic. The regime faces potentially serious internal fault lines, both among members of Deby’s immediate family and within the ruling clique’s narrow political and ethnic base. The Sudanese civil war and especially its dynamics in neighboring Darfur threaten to exacerbate these tensions, even as eastern Chad is already suffering a major humanitarian crisis due to the influx of refugees from the Sudanese conflict, adding a further threat to stability.
If he can navigate these challenges, Deby is almost certain to win the planned October 2024 presidential election, thus “civilianizing” his rule and returning it to a formally constitutional regime that benefits from full regional and international legitimacy. In the meantime, the day-to-day mechanics of repression and governance will remain intact.
Seizure of Power
Deby came to power in April 2021, following the death of his father, Idriss Deby, who died in combat fighting an incursion from a Libyan-based rebel group, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT. The elder Deby had been in power since overthrowing his predecessor, Hissene Habre, in 1990. Though the succession process that ushered Mahamat Deby into power two years ago was unconstitutional, it was backed by the powerful presidential guard, which Mahamat commanded, and a powerful clique of generals.
Deby initially announced a transition to elections and civilian constitutional rule within 18 months, with the possibility of extending this period by a further 18 months if deemed necessary. To consolidate his power and ensure regime continuity, Deby needed to address several major challenges: the immediate rebel threat posed by the FACT; the related threat posed by a galaxy of other rebel groups, largely based in Libya and Sudan; the need to secure at least the partial adhesion of a range of civilian opposition figures; and the need to gain international legitimacy and support.
As part of this process, and after long delays and lengthy negotiations in Doha, Qatar, the regime reached a major peace deal in August 2022 with over 40 armed groups. This agreement restored property that had been confiscated from rebel leaders, offered some lucrative government positions to major rebel figures and promised a comprehensive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program for rebel fighters.
The Doha agreement served as the prelude for the subsequent Inclusive and Sovereign National Dialogue, or DNIS, which began two weeks later, bringing together regime figures, the former ruling party, opposition parties, civil society organizations, armed group representatives and others. The goal of the DNIS was to reach broad agreement over constitutional changes, elections, governance and other questions.
Deby managed to obtain the participation of several prominent opposition and civil society figures in the DNIS. However, most of the main civilian opposition players boycotted it, pointing to the predominance of Deby allies and the government’s effective control of the process. A variety of other participants, including the Catholic Church and the president of the National Human Rights Commission, pulled out in the middle of the proceedings for similar reasons.
In October 2022, the DNIS released its final conclusions, which extended the transition period by two years and made Deby eligible to contest the subsequent presidential election, now scheduled for October 2024. Opposition movements rallied against the plan, organizing major demonstrations in the capital, N’Djamena, and other large towns on Oct. 20, 2022. These protests were brutally suppressed, with the Chadian government claiming they amounted to an insurrection.
"There are few imaginable scenarios in which Chad’s democratic civilian opposition can coalesce and become real agents of change in the near future."
Deby has attempted to use this threat to exploit Western fears over the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company that has a major presence in CAR. His intelligence chiefs have claimed that Wagner may offer critical support to these rebels in an effort to subvert another Western-backed government in the region. Western intelligence agencies have taken the threat seriously, as revealed in leaks earlier this year.
However, despite repeated appeals from these Chadian rebel groups, Wagner has apparently refused to offer them any aid. This may reflect Wagner’s own political and economic difficulties in CAR due to Western pressure and organizational uncertainty after the June mutiny and August death of its chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in Russia.
It may also reflect Deby’s diplomatic rapprochement with CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who himself is seeking to move away from reliance on his heavy-handed Russian partners, including through warmer relations with France and the United States. Perhaps as part of this shift, Touadera has authorized Chadian troops to strike rebel encampments in northern CAR and given the Chadian military the right to operate in CAR territory when in hot pursuit of the rebels. Contrary to prevalent ideas about Wagner’s role in CAR, it would have difficulty defying Touadera’s authority and thereby undermining the political foundations of its own presence in the country.
The Doha Signatories
One final difficulty for Deby may be keeping the armed groups that signed the Doha agreement—or their fighters—onside. In October, Timam Erdimi, the Zaghawa leader of a major armed group who also happens to be Deby’s cousin, publicly complained about the lack of progress in the promised disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or DDR, program for his and other former rebel groups. He warned that the continued failure to implement the DDR process could jeopardize next year’s elections. Though the government has in the past pointed to difficulties in raising funds to explain the delay, it promptly announced the official launch of the DDR process following Erdimi’s declaration.
Effective implementation of the DDR program is important for ensuring the longer-term benefits of the Doha peace agreement. The deal involves dozens of armed groups whose leaders have been relatively well taken care of through amnesties, property restitution and government positions. The thousands of fighters covered by the deal, on the other hand, still need to either be integrated into an already bloated Chadian military or given resources so they can demobilize and enter civilian life.
In practice, however, this is a tall order. The violent regional environment means that participation in an armed group can prove more lucrative than other professions, to say nothing of endemic unemployment. Moreover, high levels of corruption and limited available funds—only $5 million out of a budgeted $32.5 million have been raised—mean that even in the best of circumstances, rank-and-file rebels are unlikely to see promised benefits. While the current adhesion of the rebel leadership to Deby’s political settlement will likely ensure peace in the short term, there are clear longer-term dangers.
The Overall Outlook
The most serious threat to Deby’s rule appears to be internal tensions linked to the Sudanese civil war. Proactive diplomatic and military measures seem to have neutralized the imminent threat posed by armed groups outside of the country, at least in the short term. France’s security guarantee affords an additional layer of security in this regard.
Domestically, despite serious longer-term threats, Deby is also likely to retain the Doha signatory armed groups on his side for the time being. Moreover, the combination of repression and cooptation has limited the political opposition’s ability to effectively mobilize against the coming constitutional referendum and subsequent consolidation of Deby’s authority that will almost certainly follow.
Even if Deby is toppled, whether through a palace coup or by armed groups, power will remain concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. In a worst-case scenario, it could trigger a civil war. By contrast, there are few imaginable scenarios in which a democratic civilian opposition can coalesce and become real agents of change in the near future.
Deby will do his best to legitimize his rule with the trappings of democratic processes, like the upcoming constitutional referendum and next year’s presidential election. His international partners will in all likelihood sign off on them. But none of this will be enough to obscure the fact that any opportunities for a real democratic opening in Chad have effectively been closed off.
"Although French forces could prevent an armed group from descending on N’Djamena, they can do little to help manage internal regime tensions, which pose the most immediate threat to Deby’s rule."
Figures vary, but credible independent human rights reporting suggests over 200 people were killed by security forces, some 1,300 were arrested and many were tortured, making it one of the bloodiest incidents in the country’s history. Opposition figures—including one of the most prominent among them, Succes Masra—fled into exile. Yet the international outcry was limited. France condemned the violence but not the Chadian government’s role in it, and the U.S. called on “all parties” to show “restraint.”
Following the violence, the Chadian government banned opposition political activity for several months. This, combined with the brutal repression of Oct. 20 seems to have demobilized for a time those parts of the political opposition that had not been coopted by the regime.
Even Masra, after a year in exile, returned to Chad in early November 2023, as part of an agreement brokered by Congolese authorities. Formerly one of the most intransigent anti-regime voices, he has now agreed to tone down his criticisms of the transitional authorities and not oppose a constitutional referendum planned for Dec. 17. In exchange, and in advance of the referendum, Deby has passed a comprehensive amnesty law for those arrested and convicted in the October 2021 protests. However, the law has been criticized for offering impunity to those involved in the repression of the protests as well.
The upcoming referendum appears set to pass without much drama. Deby is officially staying out of the “yes” campaign, which is being led by Prime Minster Saleh Kebzabo, himself a former opposition heavyweight coopted by the regime. The new constitution, based on the conclusions of the controversial DNIS, offers some concessions to opposition demands, including an increased measure of political decentralization with local elected assemblies. It also removes some presidential authority over the judiciary and provides for an independent electoral body.
From Deby’s perspective, the constitution’s limited concessions are little more than cosmetic. Institutional formality does not often reflect the reality of political power in Chad. Nothing in the new document prevents him from maintaining his authority, especially after next year’s presidential election.
This has not gone unnoticed by the opposition, much of which has opted to either boycott the referendum or vote “no.” They accuse the electoral authorities overseeing the poll of lacking independence. They also oppose the decision to hold a yes/no vote on a constitution embodying a “unitary and decentralized” state, instead of offering the choice of the opposition’s preference for a federal state.
For Deby though, the important outcome is less the content of the new constitution than the appearance of a democratic process surrounding it, which will boost his domestic and international claims to legitimacy. His international partners, with France in the lead, are likely to accept the resulting fiction in order to maintain their security commitments in the country.
These commitments—most importantly the presence of some 1,000 French troops in Chad—are a key pillar of security for Deby’s regime. With the exception of several short interruptions, French forces have been continuously present in Chad since they colonized it in 1900. They have intervened on numerous occasions to save sitting regimes, including that of Deby’s father, who owed his longevity in power in part to decisive French support against rebel incursions in 2006, 2008 and 2019.
Following Idriss Deby’s death, French President Emmanuel Macron not only offered full-throated support to Mahamat Deby’s unconstitutional seizure of power, but proffered a public promise to continue protecting the regime moving forward. This will make it difficult for rebel groups like the FACT to overthrow the government and may deter some coup-plotting against Deby from within the regime.
The French presence is stabilizing in the sense that it provides a degree of regime protection against overthrow by armed groups, potentially reducing the risk of civil war. But it is potentially destabilizing as well, as the protection it provides helps remove incentives for reform, delegitimizes the government and provides effective international cover for the regime’s repression.
However, after France’s military withdrawal from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger amid a wave of coups and rising popular anger at French regional policies—notably in support of illegitimate political orders—French authorities are discussing a substantial drawdown of their military presence in Africa. This may include reductions in Chad. While this is unlikely to entail any immediate loss of a French security guarantee for Deby, it has nevertheless given him cause to diversify his foreign security partnerships.
One of the most recent—and surprising—of these to emerge is with Hungary, which in October agreed to deploy 200 troops along with helicopters alongside Chadian special forces. Hungary’s official justification for the mission is to reinforce Chad’s ability to help limit migration flows to Europe. However, few migrants traverse Chad. As a result, some analysts see the deployment as an effort by Deby to boost regime security in the context of growing domestic tensions.
Although French forces could prevent the FACT or another armed group from descending on N’Djamena, they can do little to help manage internal regime tensions, which pose the most immediate threat to Deby’s rule.
One issue is that Deby, who is ethnically Zaghawa on his father’s side, inherited a state in which much power, especially in the army, was concentrated in the hands of powerful Zaghawa figures, as well as a number of Arabs, mostly from eastern Chad. But because the Zaghawa only represent 3-5 percent of Chad’s population, this represents a very narrow power base. That has been a major factor of instability over the past 30 years, one that has been compounded by divisions among Zaghawa leaders themselves over the Deby dynasty’s rule.
The escalation of the Sudanese conflict has also exposed serious rifts within the Chadian regime. Although officially neutral since the outbreak of Sudan’s internal conflict in April, Deby’s proximity with the RSF-allied UAE—and his authorization for the UAE to supply the RSF via Chad—has inflamed internal regime tensions.
Many Chadian Zaghawa vehemently oppose what amounts to complicity with the RSF, which threatens Sudanese Zaghawa communities around the town of El Fasher in Darfur. Some important Zaghawa political and military leaders in Chad have personal and family connections to these Darfuri communities, and their Sudanese Zaghawa counterparts have called for military assistance. At the same time, however, some of the Deby regime’s Arab representatives advocate continued support for the RSF, with which they have connections, including with its leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.
For the moment, Deby appears to have managed these tensions. But if fighting escalates around El Fasher, he may not be able or willing to stop Zaghawa fighters from crossing the border to join their Darfuri counterparts. He may also have trouble managing competing pressures over the Emirati-RSF supply pipeline running across the border.
Deby’s French patrons are apparently concerned about the problem and raised it with him in an October meeting in Paris. Deby allegedly argued that an RSF defeat could be destabilizing for Chad. While his reasons for believing so have not been made public, Deby may fear an influx of defeated RSF fighters, some of whom are themselves Chadian, into eastern Chad, which could disrupt delicate intercommunal balances there and pose a potential threat to the regime.
French influence over the question is limited though. Moreover, the presence of an Emirati official at the meeting between Deby and Macron not only highlights France’s own proximity to the Emiratis, but also suggests Paris has limited interest in pushing Deby on the RSF issue.
As matters stand, Chad already hosts over 500,000 refugees who have fled from the fighting in Darfur to eastern Chad. Not only are their humanitarian needs underfunded by international donors, but they also risk placing additional economic and social strains on a region already marred by intercommunal conflicts.
Regional Armed Groups
Beyond these internal threats to the regime linked to the conflict in Sudan, Deby still faces serious threats from armed groups. First and foremost, the FACT and smaller armed groups continue to operate out of southern Libya and northern Chad. The French deterrent will likely prevent another raid southward of the kind that cost the elder Deby his life. But the FACT retains more than nuisance capacity, and there remains a risk of a more sustained guerilla insurgency in the far north, especially in areas of artisanal gold production.
Deby’s regime has reportedly taken proactive steps to neutralize this threat. In recent months, it has launched airstrikes on FACT positions in Libya and secured defections from some of its leadership. It has also reached agreements with Libya’s various competing authorities, including Gen. Khalifa Haftar, to expel the group from Libyan territory. Although this will be difficult to accomplish in a definitive manner, the FACT has already been forced to move its base of operations to territory straddling the border zone between Libya, Chad and Niger, lessening its immediate threat to N’Djamena.
Perhaps more concerning to authorities in N’Djamena is the emergence of rebel groups in northern Central African Republic, or CAR, which borders Chad to the south. These groups, comprising fighters hailing from southern Chad, raise the possibility of a southern insurgency, something the country has not experienced since the 1980s.