Neighboring countries have successfully managed political change without the military stepping in
In April, Gen. Azem Bermendao Agouna announced that Chadian President Idriss Déby had died on the battlefield fighting rebels. During the same broadcast, Agouna declared the establishment of a transitional military council, and dissolved the executive and legislature, replacing the constitution with a transitional charter. In effect, analysts including myself argue, he announced a military coup.
Idriss Déby’s son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Déby, sits at the head of the transitional council, which is a military junta composed of 14 other generals. Under the transitional charter, the junta functions as the executive with Mahamat Déby as head of state. He has appointed an interim government led by civilian Albert Pahimi Padacké as prime minister, but the military retains control.
My research in Chad and Burkina Faso investigates political stability, transitions and the role of the military in politics. In light of Chad’s recent developments, what does this research tell us about Chad’s political transition? And what do we make of the military’s role in it?
The international community has prioritized regional security
The African Union has called for increased power-sharing between civilian and military leaders. However, its decision not to apply sanctions effectively allows the military to oversee the transition. The U.S. government has followed the African Union’s lead, giving its support to these recommendations. From the start, France, Chad’s former colonial power, has supported the junta in the name of stability, though not a hereditary succession plan or the violent repression of protests.
Reportedly, these decisions were taken to mitigate broader concerns about regional security. The Chadian military plays an important role in counterterrorism efforts in the Lake Chad Basin and western Sahel. Facing rebellion from insurgents based in southern Libya, Chad’s own security is far from guaranteed. Chadian stability also reverberates across its borders, influencing conflicts in the Central African Republic and Sudan’s Darfur.
The military often plays a role in Africa’s political transitions
Yet, neighboring countries facing security threats have successfully managed political change without the military stepping in to abolish the constitution. Niger, for instance, just achieved its first political turnover between civilian leaders, despite a coup attempt and ongoing Islamist insurgencies. And Nigeria — notwithstanding ongoing internal security challenges and debates over whether it should be called a “failed state” — has increasingly institutionalized its democratic system, holding regular elections since 1999.
Chad is the latest African country to proceed with an extralegal political transition. Given the increasing number of African leaders sidestepping term limits, it is unlikely to be the last.
Political transitions with significant military representation in Africa are common, in part because of the dominant role the military has played in post-colonial politics. In 2014, after a widespread social movement forced Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré to resign, the country’s military exerted its influence over the subsequent transition by securing the office of prime minister and seats in the interim legislature. In that case, citizens maintained sufficient pressure to see the prospects for democratization increase, despite an attempt by military loyalists to restore Compaoré’s authoritarian system.
It’s a different story in Mali and Sudan, though both of these transitional governments include substantial numbers of military and civilian leaders. Mali entered its transition following a military coup that some Malians celebrated after protests and civil unrest against the previous regime. Mali’s military leaders then entrenched themselves in transitional institutions to maintain their influence. A government reshuffle in May sought to reduce the junta’s role, but when the new government excluded two of the coup leaders, the military arrested interim authorities and reclaimed power.
Perhaps learning from the Burkinabè case, Sudan’s military preemptively moved to secure its dominance in politics. After months of popular demonstrations, the armed forces arrested former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April 2019. Confronted by sustained protests for political change, the military negotiated with civilian leaders, producing a fragile civilian-military government that is set to gradually transfer power completely to civilians by 2024. Still, questions persist over the Sudanese military’s commitment to the transition, even if civilian governance is in the military’s long-term interests, as some analysts point out.
But what happened in Chad is different
The situation in Chad diverges from the Mali and Sudan cases entirely — it’s not a response to popular demands. In fact, the ongoing protests in Chad are directed against the coup, with protesters calling for a return to constitutional order. Security forces have violently suppressed efforts to organize and mobilize these demonstrations.
It also isn’t a potential transition away from an autocratic system. Rather, Chad’s authoritarian elite appear to be ensuring regime continuity and avoiding the constitutional process for the clear and peaceful transfer of power. The military’s need to take power is a consequence of the internal instability inherent to the authoritarian regime built around Idriss Déby.
As president, Déby routinely manipulated the constitution and political institutions to centralize power around himself. In turn, his death created an immediate power vacuum that his civilian and military allies needed to fill to secure their own political interests. The coup has accomplished this objective, averting a succession crisis, at least temporarily.
Chad’s transition maintains armed, centralized power
In Chad, politics has often meant living by the gun. Many contemporary political leaders who fought against Idriss Déby later rebranded themselves as allies after years of armed opposition, then exile and, eventually, amnesty and return. Many in Chad’s transitional government, including the ministers of communication and national reconciliation, followed that trajectory.
But this process of doling out political positions encourages rebellion and exclusion, rather than peace or dialogue. And Chad’s transition path does not guarantee stability, simply because centralized power is vested in people willing to take up arms for control. As I’ve written elsewhere, international support for such a system, ostensibly for internal stability in the short term, may encourage longer-term regional instability at the expense of Chadian civilians.
There is nothing inherent about Chad, or Chadians, that precludes a peaceful political system, but such a system will require a transition. Just not the current transition underway.