Chad’s Deby seeks sixth term as calls for change mount

Longtime president looking to extend three-decade rule as several opposition leaders urged supporters to boycott poll.

Idriss Deby is one of the longest serving leaders in Africa [File: Reuters]

Ndjamena, Chad – Chad’s President Idriss Deby is looking to extend his three-decade rule in an election on Sunday, despite mounting calls for political change.

Opposition leaders on Thursday urged their supporters to boycott the poll and called for fresh protests against Deby’s sixth term bid.

“There are those who say a sixth term is too much; I say they’re wrong,” Deby, 68, told a rally in the capital, Ndjamena.

“I’m confident we’re going to win.”

A former military officer, Deby came to power spearheading the rebellion that overthrew longtime military ruler Hissene Habre in 1990. He won elections in 1996 and again in 2001 before pushing through a constitutional change in 2018 that could allow him to stay in power until 2033.

On Sunday, Deby is poised to secure re-election against nine opponents after the Constitutional Court rejected the applications of seven candidates. Three challengers whose files were approved are officially boycotting the vote, although their names are still on the ballot.

“I cannot participate in a poll where the outcome is already known,” said Saleh Kebzabo, the runner-up in the 2016 presidential poll,

Kebzabo and opposition leader Ngarlejy Yorongar pulled out of the race after a violent arrest attempt of another candidate, Yaya Dillo, in late February. The United Nations has called for an investigation after security forces went to arrest Dillo, a former minister in Deby’s government. Dillo and other witnesses said security forces killed the politician’s mother and son and wounded several others. The government has said Dillo’s son was not killed in the raid.

Politicians arrested

Protests against Deby’s administration have mounted since February with a coalition of NGOs, labour unions and opposition political parties calling for a change in political leadership and an end to social and economic injustices. Authorities have “ruthlessly” responded with crackdowns on protesters, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.

Late on Thursday, the government said it had arrested several opposition politicians accused of planning “terrorist attacks” against the electoral commission’s headquarters and the ransacking of polling stations.

A supporter of the Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) of the incumbent President Idriss Deby Itno, waves a party flag as he attends a political rally [Marco Longari/ AFP]

Chad, despite being a major oil producer, is the third poorest country in the world, according to the UN’s humanitarian development index. It has been hit hard by multiple oil price crashes since 2014, which has led to rising debt levels.

Last year, Chad asked Swiss-based trader Glencore to suspend payments on its oil-for-cash loan. In January, Chad became the first country to ask for debt restructuring under the Group of 20 common framework aiming to gather Chinese and private lenders in a global debt-relief push. Glencore is Chad’s biggest private creditor.

The government in 2020 also settled a debt to Angola in cattle and is looking for another loan with Equatorial Guinea in fresh meat.

Meanwhile, recurrent droughts and the spillovers of a violent armed campaign in neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria has brought in half a million refugees.

‘Sixth mandate too much’

Protesters are calling for access to education, healthcare and electricity.

In Ndjamena’s seventh arrondissement, an opposition stronghold, the paved road turns to dirt before reaching the headquarters of Les Transformateurs, the party opposition leader Succes Masra created two years ago.

A generator powers the office from where the 38-year old Harvard-graduate runs the organisation.

Masra picked the name, “the change-makers” roughly in English, because he saw an opportunity for change in Chad with its majority youth population – more than 65 percent of the 17 million population is under the age of 25.

Two years later, his candidacy was rejected because it failed to meet the minimum age of 45 to run for office, effectively discouraging a large portion of Chadians who are under 40 and cannot find work even with a university degree, Masra said.

“At 38, I’m the same age as the president when he took power. If I can’t run for office what message does that send to the youth who’s looking to shape the future of this country?”

But Albert Pahimi Padacke, a former prime minister and one of the candidates in Sunday’s election, said a boycott would only result in “an easy victory” for Deby.

“It’s better to push for change through the ballots,” Padacke said by phone from his southern hometown of Pala, near the Cameroonian border.

Fearing a low voter turnout, supporters of Deby’s ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement are mobilising to try to convince Chadians to pick up their voter cards and vote.

Meanwhile, Kebzabo, the candidate boycotting the vote, pledged to maintain pressure on Deby to step down.

“A sixth mandate is too much, we have to speak up and we will continue to do so.”

Source: Al Jazeera