Chad: An Exercise in Electoral Futility


The United States should resist a "business as usual" approach to Chad.

Elections in Chad have unfolded largely as predicted. The head of the country's military junta, Mahamat Deby Itno, who is also the son the of the former president, oversaw a process that included co-opting one opponent into his government and assassinating another. Unsurprisingly, civil society groups and the political opposition reported widespread irregularities and intimidation on election day and throughout the tabulation process. Domestic election observers funded by the European Union were prohibited from deploying by Chadian authorities. It all concluded with Deby Itno's victory. Quelle surprise.

What is less obvious is how the United States and others will proceed with the bilateral relationship. In many ways, the elections were intended as a means to help Chad's international partners, who wish to maintain a security relationship, and are concerned about growing Russian influence across the continent, return to business as usual. Seen through this lens, the electoral exercise removed an awkward obstacle to cooperation, and Deby Itno, well aware that Western forces being expelled from neighboring states makes Chad a singularly valuable partner, emerges with a strong hand.

But business as usual helped to create the crisis in security and governance that has seized the Sahel. Neither the decades-long effort to combat terrorism in the region nor the decades of half-hearted experiments in electoral democracy have succeeded. Insecurity doesn't just persist; it has worsened. Governance hasn't met popular demands for accountability or opportunity. The evidence that U.S. policy in the Sahel has not been effective for years is vast. And while Deby Itno may be in a position to play one external power off another, the grievances of the Chadian people remain unaddressed. At the same time, pressures on the regime--not least from the horrific crisis in Sudan's Darfur region--are likely to grow. In the worst case, the United States will repeat the mistakes of the past, empowering and appeasing a government that lacks real domestic legitimacy--the very thing that angry crowds throughout the region have condemned Western governments for doing.

We also know that researchers consistently find that support for unconstitutional transfers of power is fueled by a strong desire for change and a sense that the prevailing political system provides no real opportunity to express popular will. Chad's case was different, however. Deby Itno was installed in power not to change the direction of the country, but rather to maintain it--and, crucially, to preserve the access to power and opportunity that Chadian elites enjoyed for decades. There was no change afoot when the military seized power, and there is none afoot now in the wake of these elections. Despite credulous international media reports that call the exercise "a return to democracy," Chad has never been democratic and certainly isn't today.

It seems likely that the Chadian playbook could serve as a model for other juntas in the region, enabling military leaders to call themselves "elected" and further tarnish the very idea of democracy. Before breathing a sigh of relief and getting back into old routines, policymakers should take pause and make a clearheaded assessment of what they think can actually be accomplished in partnership with Chad today.

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