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On April 11, Chadians went to cast their votes to elect a president. The electoral commission is to certify the outcome by April 25. Not that the outcome was ever in doubt: incumbent president Idriss Deby, born in 1952, said publicly that he knew in advance that he would win "as I have done for the last thirty years." In 2018, he engineered a new constitution that would enable him to win the presidency two more times—by rigging if necessary—thereby remaining in office until 2033. As in past elections, opposition candidates ran but none really had a chance of winning; seven of the seventeen applicants for the presidential race were rejected, while others boycotted the vote. Chadians know that their elections do not reflect the popular will: on election day, observers said that turnout was low and unenthusiastic.
This election, like previous ones that Deby won and others conducted by African big men, is essentially a pageant, designed to underscore to Chadians his legitimacy and to mollify foreign partners. It is an "election-like event"—the form of a genuine election absent the substance. The event is far from an opportunity for Chadians to express their political preferences.
Deby, a general with extensive French military training, made his way into politics through the army. As of now, with a firm grip on the military and government institutions (including the electoral commission), a willingness to use violent repression if he deems it necessary, and considerable political skills, Deby appears set to remain president for life—absent an unexpected palace coup that likely would be bloody. He has never let human rights considerations get in his way. He has done well out of public office: one estimate of his personal wealth is $50 million from holding military and civilian office in one of the poorest states in the world.
Yet Deby poses a policy dilemma for Western governments devoted to democracy and human rights. He is a staunch ally against Islamist radicalism. His army is the best in West Africa, thanks to substantial French investment. The country hosts a large French military base, and some U.S. military personnel are also present. The Chadian army, alongside that of Nigeria and South African mercenaries, drove Boko Haram out of a part of Nigeria's Borno State.
Deby is an example of the Sanskrit proverb "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"; his foes are frequently the same as the West's. For nations as well as individuals, it is not always possible to choose your friends—hence Western cooperation with Chad while overlooking Deby's big-man rule.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.