As Chad’s Problems Mount, What Role for Civil Society?

Civil activists Dingamnayal Nely Versinis (L) and Maounde Decladore (R) speak during a meeting in N'Djamena on 24 July 2017. AFP/Samir TOUNSI
Civil activists Dingamnayal Nely Versinis (L) and Maounde Decladore (R) speak during a meeting in N’Djamena on 24 July 2017. AFP/Samir TOUNSI

Socio-economic problems are mounting in Chad, a country seen by foreign partners as critical to stability in the Sahel. In the capital Ndjamena and in the provinces, popular discontent appears set to grow as the cost of living in the oil-dependent central African country continues to rise. After a small economic improvement in 2019, Chadians are likely to see tougher times ahead with the drop in international oil prices and the global recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to control its spread.

Chad also faces new security problems and political uncertainty. Over the last year, the country’s north has been hit by both Chadian rebel incursions from southern Libya and, in another northern area, a spike in tensions between security forces and local self-defence groups. Intercommunal violence has flared up in the east. In March, jihadist fighters succeeded in launching their deadliest ever attack on Chadian troops in the Lake Chad region. The country is also preparing to hold long-delayed legislative elections at the end of the year and a presidential vote in the first half of 2021. These could be put off due to the coronavirus pandemic, but if they go ahead and are not perceived as credible, they risk provoking further popular anger. Many Chadians also express concern at the risk of a violent succession marked by factional fighting within a divided military officer corps when President Idriss Déby, who has been in power for 30 years and whose health is a constant source of speculation for Chadians, leaves office.

As Chad’s problems look set to endure, the country’s civil society organisations may play a greater role. Since 2014, some groups have been more active in mobilising street protests to decry living conditions, elite impunity and even Déby’s continuing grip on power. In 2015 and 2016, in particular, they helped lead unexpectedly large protests that temporarily shook the government. True, weak organisational capacity and a lack of coordination among such groups limited their ability to sustain mass protests, and demonstrations have barely tested the security services’ resolve. Civil society groups’ collective influence on national politics is still somewhat constrained; the organisations also continue to remain vulnerable to various forms of state interference and repression. But unexpected events, such as a change of power at the top, could provide more space for such groups.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic risks creating more discontent. Chad has not yet seen the major death rates suffered by parts of Europe and the U.S. (the country to date has reported several hundred cases). Civic leaders initially publicly voiced solidarity with the steps the government has taken to contain the spread of the virus. If the disease does take root, however, the authorities may have to prolong measures to prevent its spread, which would impose further social and economic costs on the population. Even if not, the indirect economic toll of the pandemic is likely to be high due to the global economic downturn. Popular discontent may well escalate if Chad faces a prolonged economic crisis and the government runs short of financial firepower to ameliorate hardship.

Chad’s civil society groups will face challenges relating both to the pandemic and to the country’s longer-term stability, including a possible succession crisis. Those groups could help inform debates on public spending, including on how the government distributes the international assistance it has started to receive to tackle the pandemic. Some organisations have already set up a new umbrella group – l’Action Citoyenne Contre le Covid-19 – to raise public awareness as well as pressure the government to respond effectively to the crisis and to minimise security force abuses linked to enforcing anti-coronavirus measures. Looking further ahead, external partners could seek to bolster civil society groups’ capacities to conduct rigorous monitoring of human rights violations. This would help them document any acts of violence in the possibly turbulent years ahead and try to dissuade armed actors from committing abuses.

Protest Dynamics over Recent Years

Over the last decade, popular anger at poor living conditions and elite impunity has steadily mounted. There are limits to the extent to which civil society groups have been able to channel this discontent, given their lack of coordination. Unlike in neighbouring Sudan, where civilians have played a significant role in the country’s transition, Chadian civil society groups are fragmented and rarely weigh collectively on national politics. A culture of popular protest has started to take root, however, and a new breed of civil society activist has begun forming new movements.

Chad has seen repeated rounds of protest since late 2014. That year, budget cuts and mounting inflation led to a wave of demonstrations, offering renewed relevance to civil society organisations. Throughout 2014 to 2016, protesters voiced both economic and political concerns, linking inflation to corruption. In February 2016, an unprecedented number of traders, transport workers and public-sector workers followed a general strike in both Ndjamena and regional capitals. Several civil society organisations also formed new coalitions at that moment, some of which remain active today.

In 2016, protesters and opposition parties mounted important demonstrations attempting to block President Déby from seeking a new term in office. They failed to achieve that goal, and protests petered out. Nonetheless, they proved that popular discontent at economic hardship could rapidly spread and protesters adopt political demands. In 2018, popular anger again spilled over into prolonged protest, this time at the rising fuel and cooking gas costs.

As popular anger has risen, so, too, has impatience with the perceived impunity of politically connected elites. In November 2019, a security guard of the national assembly president, a key leader in the ruling party, shot dead a motorbike taxi driver called Bonheur, as his boss’s motorcade sped through Ndjamena. Social media posts and messages tied the fate of Bonheur, who held a master’s degree in law, to that of other educated but unemployed youth. The national motorbike taxi association’s secretary general told Crisis Group: “We are mostly unemployed graduates. Even when alive, Bonheur said he was forced to be a motor taxi rider due to marginalisation and injustice. He didn’t study to the master’s level to drive a taxi. This is what frustrates us”. Although demonstrations after the killing were not widespread, the outcry, particularly among urban youth, pushed the government to take swift action and arrest the culprit.

This incident echoed a prominent case that took place in February 2016 and involved a young woman being raped by a gang of men close or related to Chadian dignitaries. That led to countrywide protests that pushed the authorities to arrest and prosecute the culprits. Both incidents show the government’s acute awareness of the need to defuse protests of abuses by people close to ruling circles lest they spark wider unrest.

January 2020 saw public-sector workers strike as economic conditions continued to worsen. Unions had set the government deadlines in 2019 by which they demanded it restore allowances cut in 2016 and that had made up a large portion of many civil servants’ pay. After one day of large-scale strikes on 7 January, President Déby intervened in person and the government agreed to restore some allowances and salary rises immediately, with further payments promised for July. The unions called off the strike. But with its budget under strain, the government may struggle to fulfil its promises and the respite could be temporary. Unions have recently told Crisis Group that they are ready to put pressure on the authorities to meet their commitments.

Students’ increasing participation in protests over the last few years is also cause for particular disquiet within the government. Students have played key roles in protests, including the 2016 movement against Déby’s decision to stand for a fifth term, which they helped organise and in which they participated massively. In early 2020, students calling for a reversal of rising transport and canteen prices mobilised on campuses in the capital and brought universities to a standstill for several weeks. Teachers also waged strikes in solidarity with students, and high school pupils joined protests. The higher education minister had promised students in September 2019 to restore state aid for students and universities and lower costs, but the government subsequently did little. With universities now shut down due to the coronavirus, students are at home with few opportunities for online learning and no clear prospect of state support to help them continue their studies.

How Chad manages the COVID-19 risk will be an important factor in shaping how far civil society subsequently mobilises against the government. Since the country declared its first case on 19 March 2020, the authorities have quickly taken measures to prevent its spread. They have suspended non-cargo flights and shut down public transport, schools, universities, main markets, non-food businesses and places of worship; banned large public gatherings; and instituted a curfew in the capital and in some provinces. At the start of May, authorities also prohibited movement in and out of major cities. For now, most civil society leaders support these measures.

Yet there are signs that their support will only go so far. President Déby has made pledges worth $1.5 billion aimed at containing the pandemic’s public health and economic risks. Notably, these cover the recruitment of 1,638 health workers, the provision of funds to boost food stocks, the defrayment for all citizens of water bills for six months and electricity bills for three months, payments to youth entrepreneurs, and benefits for public-sector workers. The plan almost entirely relies on international financial support, however. As yet, it is unclear how much of this aid will be forthcoming. Some civil society leaders have already voiced doubts as to whether the government will be able to live up to its pledges. Unions and other associations have called for greater oversight to ensure that the government disburses any external funds in a fair and transparent manner.

Fears of the pandemic and government restrictions will likely keep people at home in the short term. But if the last few years are anything to go by, civil society groups are likely to take to the streets again at some point or to find other ways of protesting given the current ban on street demonstrations.

A Challenging Environment

Civil society organisations, including sector-based pressure groups and campaigners for human rights, democracy and development, first became prominent in Chad when the country emerged from three decades of single-party rule in the 1990s. The Sovereign National Conference of 1993, which in principle confirmed the country’s move to pluralism and first signalled the government’s acceptance of independent pressure groups, was a seminal moment. It allowed new organisations to push their demands onto a national stage: of the 830 delegates to this conference, 130 were from civil society.

Since then, civil society’s fortunes have fluctuated. Few groups can mobilise nationwide and, partly as a result, they remain some way short of the reach of their colleagues in other African countries such as Sudan, from whom some draw inspiration. There are several reasons for this.

First, Chad’s universities are weak. In Sudan, universities are strong and form civil society leaders whose voices contribute to the public debate and who have ties with politicians and military leaders. Chadian universities barely play this role. Secondly, the Chadian government has mostly tried to muzzle civil society, even if some officials see groups as a useful means of containing social discontent and sometimes take measures to mitigate the popular grievances channelled by civil society. By systematically banning protests, dispersing unauthorised marches and arresting activists or hounding them from the country, the authorities have dampened, without fully dousing, popular enthusiasm for participating in protests. Finally, the government also co-opts some groups and has created its own civil society organisations (or “gongos”, government NGOs) to duplicate and weaken those it considers a threat.

Civil society leaders do not foresee the government changing course. Many are already affected by laws introduced in 2018 and 2019 that regulate how NGOs and associations are registered and funded, how they recruit and where they operate. These measures notably provide for heavy sanctions on organisations that stray from their agreed area of engagement. Following jihadist bomb attacks in the capital in 2015, Chad’s government also introduced stringent domestic anti-terrorism laws that many civil society leaders fear could be misused to curb civil and political freedoms.

Funding, meanwhile, is a constant source of anxiety. Seeking resources to keep themselves afloat can distract civil society groups from their main causes. In the 2000s, some organisations drew heavily on the money several donors made available for monitoring the World Bank-funded oil pipeline project. This increased their professionalism and gave them experience advocating their positions with officials, leading one 2010 assessment to conclude on a positive note regarding growing civil society capacities. But the oil pipeline project’s collapse in 2010 and dwindling donor funding cruelly exposed civil society groups’ lack of nationally generated revenue and weak internal capacity. When developing their funding base in the 2000s, some organisations oriented their work toward meeting donor expectations, at the expense of building a wider constituency in Chad itself.

New Approaches

Civil society organisations face challenges in attempting to bridge the social, regional, linguistic and, to some extent, religious divides that beset Chad, notably between its north and south. Although the country’s north-south divide is far from rigid, it informs political views and fuels tensions. Presidents from the north have run the country since the 1980s, leading southerners to feel excluded from power (though northerners not in the president’s ethnic group share similar frustrations). Partly as a result, many civil society organisations that emerged in the 1990s were dominated by southerners, who also saw civil activism as a portal to political influence. Northerners, whose lingua franca is usually Arabic, felt ill at ease engaging with southern-dominated civil society organisations, who mainly worked in French. Moreover, they saw little benefit to themselves or their communities in the country’s north in collaborating with groups they saw as representing southerners’ interests.

Most civil society organisations are increasingly aware of the need to bridge these and other national divisions, and some have recruited staff who are more representative of the whole country, incorporated Arabic into their work and used social media to expand their messaging across the country. Several human rights NGOs are now led by northerners who are often critical of the government. Young people organising small pressure groups in universities or among recent graduates increasingly try to organise themselves in mixed groups of Arabic and French speakers. These groups remain largely fragmented and have yet to form under a cohesive umbrella, even if they all criticise the government on social media. Still, the steps they have taken show that many among them are attempting to build a more representative civil society.

Some new organisations also seek to collaborate with opposition parties and take on a more overt political role. In the past, civil society groups and parties have mainly worked separately and often even seen themselves as competitors. That has started to shift. In 2016, both civil society and opposition parties took part in protests against the high cost of living and Déby’s intention to run for a fifth term in office.

Succès Masra, who leads the new political movement Les Transformateurs, typifies this approach. His outreach to the public has made him popular in Chad’s cities, particularly among youth. He consistently underlines the importance of collaboration between political parties and civil society, and uses social media, especially WhatsApp, as part of a wider strategy to seek input into policy debates from the public, which also includes public meetings. Masra faces pressure, however, from the government, which has obstructed his move to form a political party and blocked his meetings. He also struggles to turn his name recognition into sustained mobilisation nationwide, especially in rural areas.

Looking Ahead

Civil society may play a more central role in the years ahead. Over three decades, Chad’s civil society has reinforced the idea of the importance of political and civil freedoms, and the last six years have also seen civil society actors showing fresh appetite to protest against the government. The economic crisis, which is set to worsen due to COVID-19 and the drop in oil prices, will likely feed more social discontent. Much will depend on whether external shocks are long-lasting, what steps the government takes to mitigate the damage and how the population reacts. If the country sees dramatic changes, events could yet thrust civil society groups further into the political mainstream.

A more dramatic scenario, however, could be unleashed if Déby’s health condition worsens. After 30 years in power, the risk is growing of a sudden fin de règne that could be followed by factional fighting within a divided military officer corps. The consequences of such struggles would be unpredictable and possibly dangerous. Whether civil society groups could play a role in shaping a new dispensation at a time of such turmoil is at this point still unclear. Indeed, they have very few links with the army and wider security forces, which might limit their capacity to play a mediation role.

They may well have opportunities to reduce risks of violence, however, and the support given by Chad’s international partners to civil society is important. In particular, were the situation to degrade significantly, as many Chadians believe possible, civil society organisations could monitor and even deter human rights violations, a capacity that current funders could usefully help strengthen now.

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