Seven years after Chadian troops first entered northern Mali to support French forces in battles against an array of competing armed groups, Chad is as internally troubled as it is regionally influential. Its enthusiastic role as an “important and valuable counterterrorism partner” in the “global war on terror” has taken thousands of its forces to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria, and brought it international favour as well as funding, training, and equipment for its well-traveled military. Meanwhile, Chad has proved a “stable” host for more than 450,000 refugees from the region’s many ongoing conflicts.
Quite rightly, much analysis has focused on the effectiveness – including too many failures — of international military interventions in suppressing groups like Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and ISIS across the Sahel region. But most often, these international efforts rely on local forces from the region who understand the terrain better and might ultimately combat armed groups jointly without U.S. or European aid. These coalitions have become fraught with risks to the populations of the region’s troop-contribution countries.
In Chad, as elsewhere, even though the embrace of counterterrorism has drawn international support and diplomatic prestige, the government’s restrictive security policies at home undermine human rights, threaten civil society, and swallow up vast resources. Longtime President Idriss Déby Itno, while using foreign security aid to bolster his armed forces, has simultaneously deployed the same types of forces internally to violently suppress dissent and maintain a firm grip on power. In Chad, the army is part of the internal security force, alongside gendarmerie, the Chadian Nomadic National Guard, and police.
Both France and the United States have provided significant support to Chad’s security apparatus and its counterterrorism capabilities, including training, equipment, and technical and intelligence support. At the start of the 2013 French military intervention in Mali that preceded Operation Barkhane in 2014, Chad contributed 13,000 troops to the French mission, called Serval. After the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2100 in April 2013, Chad joined the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Chad regularly deploys 1,000 to 1,500 peacekeepers to MINUSMA, with a system of renewal every six months. The U.S. military also has a base in Chad.
Chad’s newfound international stature has allowed it to secure top diplomatic posts for its officials, including the appointment in 2015 of former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahamat Saleh Annadif as special representative and head of MINUSMA and the election of Moussa Faki Mahamat as head of the African Union in 2017.
Increasing Political Repression
Despite this diplomatic boost for Chad’s government and certain, though limited, economic benefits from the military aid and foreign missions, Chad’s citizens have found their country’s regional involvement significantly less rewarding. The government, fearful of reprisals by groups similar to or allied with the armed groups that its military has been fighting abroad, has cracked down on a wide and seemingly arbitrary range of civic freedoms, including the right to beg, hold public demonstrations, wear the burqa and the turban (based on the rationale that both sometimes hide people’s faces). In April this year, the government finally amended the country’s draconian anti-terror law to remove the death penalty for terrorism-related charges, after domestic and international criticism when 44 alleged members of Boko Haram died in pre-trial detention in the country’s capital.
Of various repressive measures, a ban on public demonstrations (by applying laws dating from 1962 such as Ordinance No. 45/62 relating to public meetings and Decree No. 193/62 regulating demonstrations on public roads) has had severe impacts on political parties as well as civil society organizations. The government also imposed restrictions on internet access and bans on several social networks from 2017 to 2019. This crackdown on freedom of expression laid the groundwork for the president to consolidate constitutional authority without the opportunity for opponents to contest the moves.
The parliament’s May 2018 approval of a new Constitution, over the objections of opposing lawmakers who boycotted the vote, established a fully presidential system with broad powers granted to the president. It abolished the position of prime minister as well as the Constitutional Council, which had been charged with ensuring that laws and other measures conformed with the Constitution. The new structure allows Déby, who already has been in office for almost three decades, to govern by decree and effectively eliminates the separation of powers.
Déby used those new powers later that year to issue decree number 013/018 requiring ministers and certain other high-level government officials to swear a religious confessional oath – it reads, in part, “I swear in the name of Allah, the Almighty.” The oath contravenes the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion in Article 1.
At the same time, efforts to address the country’s serious local security issues of crime and terrorism have included instituting “community involvement in security issues.” The concept is intended to actively involve influential traditional and religious leaders who are closer to the population than security forces, which more often come from outside a community. But authorities have manipulated the concept to instead establish more monitoring and control of populations and religious leaders. Such a strategy can be dangerous in certain areas of Chad where armed groups attack communities suspected of collaborating with state agents. As part of the “community security” strategy but also because of the fear of reprisals, citizens have formed community self-defense groups, essentially vigilante groups, which sometimes exacerbate security issues rather than solving them.
This pattern illustrates a normalization of weapons and violence. It also shows how the effective militarization of a state undermines non-violent methods of resolving conflicts and addressing security issues. It neglects the value of local dialogue strategies, and efforts to analyze what different “actors,” such as armed groups, want and how they might become part of negotiation or mediation efforts. While this might not necessarily apply to groups like Boko Haram, it might be effective with other armed groups that are more like criminal networks with unheard or addressed grievances.
While attracting significant resources from abroad, Chad’s international excursions under the banner of counterterrorism and the aggressive growth of its security sector nevertheless have imposed huge costs to Chad’s already weak economy. Since 2013, Chad’s government has poured much of the country’s wealth—about 14 percent of government expenditure—into its armed forces at home and abroad. This continued even as oil prices fell by half in 2016, dragging the country into recession. The cost of operations against Boko Haram alone reached at least 9.1 billion CFA francs (14 million euros) per month, or more than 2 percent of non-oil Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015.
Rather than ending its military excursions in the region to save money, the government adopted severe austerity measures in September 2016. The World Bank reported in October 2019 that, while the national poverty rate decreased between 2003 and 2011 — from 55 percent to 47 percent, the number of people in poverty would likely reach 6.3 million in 2019, up from 4.7 million in 2011.
The austerity measures also drastically reduced the allowances of civil servants. The government can no longer reliably cover wages and subsidies for priority sectors such as education and health. Chad’s health budget was cut by more than half from 2013 to 2017, and spending on a free national emergency care program established in 2006 dropped 70 percent. In education, spending on primary and secondary education fell 22 percent from 2013 to 2017.
These austerity policies have worsened social and political tensions that were already severe by the time of the disputed presidential election in 2016. Although international donors cover the costs of Chadian troop deployments in the region, that funding is paid to the soldiers – with frequent reports of corrupt skimming by authorities – and, as noted above, doesn’t fund the country’s deep social needs.
In fact, austerity measures combined with security decisions as well as the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the cost of living — N’Djamena is the third most expensive city in Africa — while greatly decreasing the quality of life. And since it is forbidden to demonstrate, Chadian women in 2018 adopted an alternative that has become popular around the world: “casserole week,” as they called it, in which women would bang cooking pots with utensils every morning to express their anger over rising costs of living.
Basically, Chad’s government is using the resources injected by international assistance in the fight against terrorism to strengthen itself at the expense of democratic development. In essence, Chadian soldiers serving in the region’s counterterrorism missions are themselves men in captivity to an increasingly brutal, repressive regime at home. The overwhelmingly military approach to fight terrorism risks plunging the country back into cycles of violence.
The international community can take a number of steps to address this deterioration. First, the United Nations should assume direct responsibility for paying the security personnel Chad sends to Mali, as is the case with other forces.
Second, international assistance should be redirected to real internal reforms in order to make the country’s institutions serve the needs of the population. Decentralization should be implemented more effectively. One of the prerequisites for this will be that citizens can freely choose their local leaders (governors, mayors, and members of Parliament) through free and transparent elections.
Finally, the complicit silence adopted by Chad’s partners should be replaced by a frank dialogue on human rights issues in Chad, by calling for the immediate lifting of bans on demonstrations and social media censorship. Lasting security will only be built on respect for human rights.
The key goal of the international community should be to ensure that Chad’s military participation in countering terrorism does not come, as it does now, at the expense of fundamental freedoms for the citizens of Chad.
(The author would like to thank Alastair Carr, Max Slaughter and Louisa Waugh for their feedback on early drafts. The views expressed are those of the author alone.)