Idriss Deby Itno seized power in Chad on December 1, 1990, through a coup d’état. On April 11, 2021, he ran for a sixth term in office. After the polls, Idriss Deby who was a seasoned military man and a key ally of Western countries, notably France, in fighting insurgents in the Sahel, led a military campaign in the north of Chad against these rebels who have rear bases in Libya. On April 20, 2021, a day after Idriss Deby was projected the winner of the April 11, 2021, presidential election with close to 80% of the votes cast, the army announced that Idriss Deby had died from injuries sustained on the battle field. The government and parliament were dissolved and a military council led by Idriss Deby’s son, 37-year-old 4-star General Mahamat Deby Itno, took over promising elections in 18 months. France, known to maintain a grip over Chad and all of its former colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa, defended the coup as necessary due to “exceptional circumstances”, a reference to the security situation of Chad.
The Lomé Declaration of July 2000, the African Union’s Constitutive Act and its Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) require the African Union to reject all acts which these instruments define as Unconstitutional Changes of Government. However, unlike how it quickly suspended Mali following the coup of August 18, 2020, the African Union waited only after the burial of Idriss Deby on Friday, April 23, 2021, to issue a statement in which it called for an expeditious return of power to civilians in Chad. Even before the African Union issued its statement, regional Heads of State had sent friendly emissaries to Chad with “important messages” for Mahamat Deby Itno. They also attended or were represented at the funeral of Idriss Deby where the coup leader was present not only as the son of the deceased but officiating as the new Head of State. This has been interpreted in many quarters as an endorsement of the coup by regional state actors who are constitutionally bound by African Union rules. The presence of President Emmanuel Macron of France at the funeral has also been viewed as France giving its blessings to Mahamat Deby Itno as the new Chadian strongman.
The African Union has condemned several Unconstitutional Changes of Government, imposed sanctions on some coup regimes and has even threatened military force to put an end to subversion. However, it has also lifted sanctions without achieving a meaningful return to constitutional order or like in the case of Chad, just simply practically made exceptions. It is a foregone conclusion that this “dynastic coup” in Chad will not lead to peace or any meaningful political transition. Therefore, because the African Union as the apex continental body charged with democratisation, peace and security pays lip service to its commitments and adopts a rather selective approach to tackling Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa, achieving the democratisation project is left to the sovereign African people as violence or external intervention have also largely failed to ensure democratic transition in Africa. Democracy survives only when citizens are willing to act against anti-democratic challengers. However, there are many impediments to people-coordination against subversive actors. Lessons from other African countries show that the leadership of the civil society and political opposition is key to building and sustaining democracy protests. This is how Africans, despite poverty, ethnic divisions and unlimited government, can build a high political culture that prompts them to collectively and instinctively act against anti-democratic practices and challengers.
Influence of politics in African states on the African Union
Although there was no violence and the government was not openly besieged, what took place in Chad on April 20, 2021, was a military coup. The takeover was unconstitutional, the military character of the actors constitutes the threat of force and the dissolution of the government and parliament are part of the modus operandi of a coup. The decision by Haroun Kabadi, the National Assembly president, to accept the transition council due to the military and security context does not make the takeover constitutional or any other thing but a coup. If anything, his decision and the coup are the result of the neo-patrimonial nature of politics in Chad. In such a system the constitution which codifies the nature and functioning of state institutions, is side-lined for the interests of patrons and their clients. Neo-patrimonial systems are also prone to military centrality in politics and the economy which makes coups very likely. The new trend in the many states that practice this type of politics in Africa since 1990 is the creation of presidential monarchies in which the children of long-stay rulers are positioned to take over from their fathers.
Neo-patrimonialism affects how the African Union deals with Unconstitutional Changes of Government. The careers of African Union officials depend on their home governments. While they may have taken up new roles at the African Union they remain loyal to their home governments and may be unwilling to challenge their undemocratic practices. The statement requesting an expeditious transition in Chad came from the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC). In the past, the African Union Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki, has taken to Twitter almost instantly to condemn coups once they took place but did not do so in the case of Chad’s April 21, 2021, coup. Moussa Faki worked for long under Idriss Deby and was very close to the late president. Unless the influence of politics in African states on the African Union is addressed, the African Union will not be able to deal with Unconstitutional Changes of Government effectively. Anti-democratic challengers may have been able to maintain a foothold over politics despite the Arab Spring and other democracy protests in Africa, but peaceful protest is the best option for democratisation in the face of the African’s Union’s weakness. In the past decade, such protests bore fruits in Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Benin, although Benin and Senegal have now been downgraded to partly free.
Challenges for people-coordination in Africa
People-coordination against subversion is the willingness of citizens to collectively stand up to anti-democratic challengers. It is a political culture that Africans will have to achieve if democratisation will be successful in Africa. While protests are common behaviour in countries such as South Africa as a result of history and the democratic process, they are a rare occurrence that is quickly quelled by the ferocious dictatorships in place in other African countries. Protests require sustainability and a poverty-stricken people concerned about basic needs may not be able to protest for long periods. Apart from repression, dictatorships have exploited ethnic divisions to prevent people from uniting against undemocratic practices. This weakens resistance even to a coup because the ethnic groups that are poised to benefit from subversion may be unwilling to stand up against subversion or may become spoilers.
However, leadership appears to offer a solution to the dilemma of coordination in Africa despite poverty, social diversity, and unlimited government. The ability of the civil society and the political opposition to mobilise the population against the incumbent regime and to resist repression from juntas that sought to take credit for the removal of dictators in countries like Burkina Faso in 2014 and Sudan in 2019 provide some evidence. If the civil society and the political opposition in African states can overcome their differences and tackle their atomisation by ruling regimes, they can mobilise the population against subversion. Not relenting in fighting dictatorships will ensure the acquisition of a political culture that pushes Africans to spontaneously reject corrupt and anti-democratic practices as well as coups regardless of poverty, ethnic divisions and unlimited government which will then permit the installation of more democratic regimes at term. Chad’s junta has resorted to repression against democracy protests asking for a return to constitutional rule. Whether the junta in Chad succeeds in its subversive plans or not depends on the Chadian civil society and the opposition and their ability to keep the momentum of democracy protests until demands for a meaningful political transition are met.