Chad’s military ruler Mahamat Deby delivers a speech during the launch of his presidential campaign in N’Djamena, Chad, on April 14, 2024.

Chad’s military ruler Mahamat Deby delivers a speech during the launch of his presidential campaign in N’Djamena, Chad, on April 14, 2024. (Denis Sassou Gueipeur/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Chad’s military ruler Mahamat Deby is almost certain to win the country’s May 6 presidential election, cementing the ruling junta’s power in a move that could jeopardize the future of U.S. military engagement in the region.

The election comes as Chad has become the last remaining military ally of the U.S., France and its European partners in the fight against Islamist insurgents and Russian influence in West Africa’s Sahel region. But that alliance may be fraying, highlighting how politically salient anti-Western sentiment has become in the Sahel.

Chad’s decision last month to ask the U.S. to withdraw its troops from an army base in the capital, N’djamena, shows how even a stalwart Western ally like Deby, running in an election he is guaranteed to win, was compelled to push back on Western presence, said Remadji Hoinathy, Central Africa analyst at the Dakar-based Institute for Security Studies.

“With anti-French sentiment on the rise, Deby wants to be seen as less dependent on the West by asking some U.S. troops to leave,” Hoinathy said.

Chad is in the middle of a belt of countries that have suffered coups since 2020 that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. French troops have been forced to leave neighboring Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso after their ruling juntas forged closer ties to Moscow.

This week the U.S. said it would temporarily withdraw its roughly 100 troops from Chad and hundreds from neighboring Niger after the military rulers there cut security agreements with the U.S. and invited Russian forces to deploy. Lloyd Austin, U.S. defense secretary, on Friday confirmed reports that Russian soldiers were now stationed at an airbase used by U.S. troops in Niger’s capital, Niamey.

They “are in a separate compound and don’t have access to U.S. forces or access to our equipment,” he told reporters in Honolulu.

Deby’s taken advantage of the emerging multipolar world order, reinforcing ties with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia while maintaining relations with France and the U.S., at least for now, said Yamingué Betinbaye, a political analyst and research director at the Anthropology and Human Sciences Research Center in N’djamena.

“France is too strategic at the moment for Deby to cut ties, but he can at least show that Chad is a sovereign country that won’t accept to be bullied into choosing sides or only working with some partners,” Betinbaye said. Ex-colonial power France has roughly 1,000 soldiers stationed in the country.

The continued U.S. presence in Chad is still in limbo after it failed to reach an agreement for its troops to remain at a French army base. The Stuttgart-based U.S. Africa Command didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

In recent weeks, Deby has — like many of his fellow military leaders in the region — highlighted his belief in sovereignty. “Chad’s a free and sovereign country,” Deby told Paris-based Radio France International in a April 24 interview. “We’re not going to act like a slave who wants to change his master.”

Father’s son

The 40-year-old general took power in 2021, following the death of his father, Idriss Deby, a dictator who led the country for three decades. He has continued his father’s tradition of crushing opposition, said Rakhis Ahmat Saleh of the Parti pour le renouveau démocratique au Tchad, whose candidacy was rejected on the basis he couldn’t prove his parents were Chadian.

“The government doesn’t want to face credible opposition at the polls,” he said.

Ten other candidates remain in the race, including current Prime Minister Succes Masra, widely seen as Deby’s main challenger. The previously exiled opposition leader took up the position in government this year after reaching an agreement with the military.

Analysts say it’s unclear whether Masra’s presidential bid is orchestrated by the junta to present the vote as credible or a genuine attempt to challenge Deby at the polls.

“The large support from Chadians shows they believe in me as their candidate,” Masra said via Zoom from N’Djamena. “Once elected president, I’m ready to sit down with the U.S. to find a win-win solution for both our countries.”

Deby first vowed to oversee a transition to democratic rule in the landlocked oil producer within 18 months before extending that period and finally announcing he was running for president. The killing in February of prominent opposition leader Yaya Dillo followed by the electoral body’s barring of other major opponents and Masra’s return have given the sense that the vote is rigged and designed to legitimize Deby’s rule.

“To legitimize his power, Deby needs to beat a credible opponent,” Betinbaye said.

Despite the criticism, Masra’s campaign has seen a significant following, particularly in his southern opposition stronghold. A former African Development Bank economist, Masra highlights his economic expertise to win support in Chad, one of the world’s poorest countries, heavily indebted and facing food and power shortages, and a humanitarian crisis made worse by the influx of over half a million refugees from the war in Sudan.

Out of Chad’s 16 million population, 8 million voters have registered for Monday’s election. Results are expected within two weeks. If there’s no clear winner in the first round, a second round will be held on June 22.

With assistance from Gina Turner.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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