Chad: Authoritarianism, Counterterrorism, and International Silence – Comments on Two Pieces at Just Security

Just Security has published two pieces on Chad, with complementary content, this month:

  • Olivier Guiryanan, “Counterterrorism Assistance to Chad for the Sahel: The Price the People Pay,” September 2.
  • Eugène Le-Yotha Ngartebaye, “Chad’s Counterterrorism Support Abroad Drives Repression and Discontent at Home,” September 10.

The titles indicate the arguments the piece make – arguments that resonate with me and that others have made, at varying lengths and applied to both Chad and other Sahelien countries, before.

Here is Guiryanan’s conclusion, one of the strongest parts of his article:

As long as Chad’s security forces have easy access to a global armory with zero accountability to their citizens, they will have little interest in developing a sustainable security architecture that is shaped by Chadians and capable of resolving community grievances, investigating and punishing abuses, and preventing violent conflict. With a turbulent history, neighbors in turmoil, and a population tired of economic inequality and repression, the costs of staying the course could be dangerously high.

And here is a good excerpt from Ngartebaye’s piece:

Despite this diplomatic boost for Chad’s government [from external military deployments] 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.

I recommend both pieces, although they would have benefited from more careful editing. There are a few mistakes (about the number of troops Chad contributed to France’s Operation Serval, for example) as well as various statements that are inauspiciously phrased and could be read as mistakes. So they make for a great overview but if you’re not well-versed in the details, just be a bit cautious.

I have three more substantive comments, revolving around a single premise (of mine, not the authors’): international actors do not care about making Chad more democratic or making the Chadian state more interested in human rights.

Here are my comments, then:

  1. Guiryanan has some really interesting ideas about how Chad’s donors could insist that Chadian authorities empower civil society organizations as watchdogs over security spending and human rights issues. That makes sense to me – although I’m not sure Chad’s donors are interested in that; I think some donors, including the U.S. and France, are comfortable with the current, unstated bargains, and have been happy with those bargains for quite some time now. Guiryanan devastatingly diagnoses, moreover, how donors tend to treat civil society in Chad (with remarks that apply elsewhere in the region too): “Civil society is too often restricted to being passive pawns in donor-funded security projects and workshops encouraging ‘social cohesion’ and improved military-civilian relations. Rather than hold the military and government accountable, their presence is used to legit[i]mize the military and lend tacit support.” I don’t see that pattern changing any time soon, but I am glad that Guiryanan and Just Security are doing what they can to up the pressure.
  2. Ngartebaye also has recommendations for international actors. The most actionable recommendation is that the United Nations should take over paying the salaries of Chadian soldiers deployed as peacekeepers in Mali. His other suggestions – that “international assistance should be redirected to real internal reforms” and that “the complicit silence adopted by Chad’s partners should be replaced by a frank dialogue on human rights issues in Chad” – get to the core of the problem. But again, I think that international silence comes out of international actors’ basic comfort with the status quo. I doubt that your average senior State Department official or National Security Council director spends too much time worrying about the status of Chadian democracy. It’s clear that powerful international actors hold potential levers over Chad – but who holds levers over those actors when it comes to Chad?
  3. One of the most notable aspects of Chadian politics is when and how pushback against President Idriss Deby arises, especially when pushback succeeds. In fact, if Chadian politics is “who gets to be head of state,” then there is no Chadian politics; but if Chadian politics is “what power struggles play out within the existing system,” then there is a real politics within the country. Both authors point to examples of this – Guiryanan, for example, writes, “In recent years, public sector workers and students have become a powerful force on the streets, as they fought to reverse cuts to state allowances and aid.” (See also the really interesting episode of a regional governor being fired in 2018 over abuses.) Ngartebaye, meanwhile, astutely advises international actors to increase the potential for give-and-take within the system; he writes that donors should stipulate “that citizens can freely choose their local leaders (governors, mayors, and members of Parliament) through free and transparent elections.” Chad is not a totalitarian dictatorship (the state is too weak for that, if “totalitarianism” is even possible in the first place), and there would be ways of making the country even less authoritarian. Again, though, international donors seem uninterested in using those levers.

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