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IA-Forum Interview: Prof. Saria Mithul

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International Affairs Forum: Before we begin, could you please sum up the events in Chad over the past month? How did the crisis begin and who are the main players in your opinion?

Saria Mithul: Sure. The rebels that launched the assault on Chad’s capital N’Djamena in early February, are a coalition of three groups – the United Force for Democracy and Development (UFDD); the Rally of Forces for Change (RFC); and the UFDD-Fondamentale. They accuse Chad’s President Idriss Deby of running a suppressive and corrupt government, and promoting members of his Zagawa clan to high positions in his administration – which is quite true actually. The Zagawa clan makes up a tiny proportion of the population, but occupies a huge number of offices in the government and the army. Deby has also embezzled a lot of Chad’s oil revenue, after it started pumping oil a few years ago. In spite of all this, I don’t think it was enough to cause the rebellion. What really turned Chad’s people against Deby was when he changed the constitution so he could run for a third term as president. Not only had this never been done before, but many people were waiting for him to leave office, and they saw the election as the beginning of a change for the country.

So in 2006 the rebels attacked N’Djamena, but they were easily outnumbered. In the beginning of last month though, there were three rebel groups that joined forces, and they were able to draw massive support from the public as well. Add that to the fact that many soldiers in the Chadian army had previously deserted, and you’ve suddenly got a serious threat to the government brewing. And talking about the army, they were expecting the rebels to attack the east of the country since that’s where they have the largest support, but the rebel groups surprised them by going the other way, straight to the capital.

Basically there’s been fighting in and around N’Djamena for much of the past month, and especially in the east near the Sudan-Chad border, but things are relatively calm now. The most recent development a few days ago was that the state of emergency was extended for 15 days by President Deby, to consolidate his government again.

IA-Forum: So according to you, what are the implications for democracy-building in Chad now? Does it look like there will be changes?

Mithul: Well Deby and his government have always operated under the pretense of democracy, but the fact is that Chad’s administration is one of the most corrupt in the world, and that has been shown by many democracy and transparency monitoring organizations. The fighting in the past month was mainly because of the people’s anger against him and how he tried to change the constitution. They want to remove the current administration, with all its repression and corruption, and replace it with one that really is supported by the people. The reason that there has been such large scale violence is that many of the opposition groups realized that this kind of change wasn’t possible through peaceful means – Deby just wouldn’t allow it.

The fighting will not end completely until there is a government in place that is legitimate and accountable that the people truly support – that takes time, and institutional change. I personally don’t see that in the near future for Chad. Now that a certain level of calm has been restored, which isn’t saying much, Deby and his government don’t look like they will change how they have been running things at all.

IA-Forum: What would you say are the main obstacles to a functioning democracy in Chad? Could they be solved?

Mithul: The answer to that could fill several books. It has to do with the socio-political makeup of the country, its history, its demographics, the kind of government that the people are used to, flaws in the constitution, a weak economy, hostility between ethnic groups and clans, and even pressure from the country’s neighbours. So I’m going to skip all that for now, and talk briefly about just the current difficulties with establishing a democracy.

The United Nations Security Council, just a couple days after the fighting began, gave its support to Deby and called on all member states to back the Chadian government. France, which was the former colonial power and has 1400 troops stationed there, said it would intervene if necessary. So effectively a repressive and corrupt government suddenly gained world legitimacy, and that really worked in Deby’s favour as he tried to diffuse the rebellion. Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t see a violent rebellion as the right way to achieve a democracy. But what the international community has now done by condemning the rebellion is to make the government the good guys, and the rebels the bad guys, when its really not a question of good and bad; it’s a question of legitimate and popular governance. They failed to address the root causes of the crisis, which was corruption in government. Instead they strengthened that government and made sure it would continue to stay in power without reform.

A solution to this entire crisis might be very simple. The Chadian government should reverse the 2005 constitutional amendment that effectively made Idriss Deby president for life. Elections could then take place as they were supposed to, and there would be no way that his administration would stay in power. A new government would be elected by popular vote, and while that does not necessarily mean peace for Chad, it would go a long way towards solving things. Consolidating that democracy though, would require institutional reform to remove the corrupt bureaucracies and establish an independent judiciary and an independent electoral commission, among other things. Its only through that change that they can achieve stability. But like I said before, I don’t see that on the horizon for Chad.

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