When will Chad be free – of France?
In April 2021, Chadian president Idriss Déby was reportedly killed in an ambush by rebel soldiers while he was visiting the frontline against a surging rebellion. The day before he was killed, Déby had been announced the winner of his fifth presidential election, marking the 30th year of his presidency.
News of his election win had been met with ambivalence – Déby was one of Africa’s most notorious strongmen. He had used violence, intimidation and lengthy internet shutdowns against critics of his rule. News of his death, on the other hand, sent shockwaves throughout the world – not because of how he died, but because of what came next.
Almost as soon as Déby’s death was announced, his 37-year-old son, Mahamat, also a soldier, was declared the interim or caretaker president. This irregular transfer of power violates not only Chad’s constitution but also the articles of the African Union. Yet from international official circles there has been little acknowledgement, except the notable and uncomfortably loud endorsement of the coup by the French government.
That’s because Déby was one of a handful of political leaders in Africa that are more or less handpicked and protected by the Élysée in Paris. As allies of the French Republic, these leaders fashion themselves as the last line of defence against the Islamist threat in North Africa. They are often seen in the French capital rubbing shoulders with whichever French president is in charge, but much less frequently seen at home doing the work of governing. In 2017, Déby told French newspaper Le Monde that he remained in power ‘under French pressure’.
What would the appropriate label be for this level of involvement in the domestic politics of African countries? Neocolonialism doesn’t seem strong enough. I don’t think even Kwame Nkrumah – the person who came up with that word – could have envisioned this level of European interference in the 21st century. France makes a mockery of the idea of independence, not just in Chad but in other countries in West Africa and across the Sahel, including Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Niger. This situation only adds to the pressure on pro-democracy activists in Africa who are not only fighting against government administrations, but by extension the powers that keep them in place.
This phenomenon of dependency cannot be separated from the mass exodus of young Africans towards the Mediterranean Sea because they are suffocated for voice and opportunity in their home countries.
Déby notoriously promised to use Chad’s vast oil wealth to improve the country’s finances but instead enriched himself and affirmed the nation’s place as one of the poorest countries in the world. He may have been fighting France’s war in the Sahel, but he was compounding a calamity at home.
There is no peaceful way for countries like Chad to continue to be dependent on French patronage like this. It is unsustainable for both France and Chad, and burdensome for Chadian people, validating the demands of insurgents who use violence to seek control. It’s time for an exit option.