May 13, 2021, 4:03 p.m.
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden’s envoy to the United Nations paid tribute to the late leader of Chad and praised Idriss Déby as “a leader and partner who devoted his life to fighting violent extremism” and “a military man” Ader. “
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks paid tribute to the long-time ruler of the African country, who underscored how the United States and other major regional powers rely on Chad to fight terrorist groups spreading in the Sahel region of Africa.
Thomas-Greenfield called for an “inclusive national dialogue” to lead to a “democratically elected government that the people of Chad deserve”. In their statement, however, there was no mention of Déby’s changeable human rights record over the course of his three decades of rule or the spurious transfer of power after his death, in which the Chadian army apparently appointed Déby’s son as provisional ruler in violation of the country’s constitution, which is the hallmark of a military coup wearing.
A growing chorus of human rights organizations and civil society groups have expressed anger at the United States’ public signaling of Déby’s legacy and his son’s change of power as he wastes a narrow window of opportunity to advance democratic reforms in the country. They see Chad as a worrying test case of whether Biden will keep his promise to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights around the world in order to repair the United States’ image on the world stage after the Trump administration – and whether Washington will continue to prioritize anti -Terror partnerships above all.
“We’re just documenting the fact that none of that [Déby has] It’s in line with our values of human rights, the rule of law, or democracy, ”said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former US diplomat who now works for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank. “Yes, there has been a lot of good news from the US government on these issues … but I don’t necessarily see this shift that they are talking about and advocating is going to happen,” she added. “What is happening in Chad is a real tell-tale sign.”
The State Department declined, saying the United States is consistently urging the Chadian authorities “to focus their attention on creating a peaceful, timely and civil-led transfer of power to a democratically elected government,” a State Department spokesman said. “A representative, elected government is the best route to long-term prosperity and stability in Chad and the region.”
Most experts agree that after Déby’s death, Chad is in a precarious position, as is its role as the fulcrum of stability in a region plagued by violence and the growing footprint of deadly terrorist organizations. In the eyes of US politicians, the least bad option might be to downplay Déby’s dire human rights record and to give the interim government, led by his son, respite, some experts argue.
The stakes couldn’t be higher: if Chad collapses, as Libya did after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, it could trigger a destabilizing chain reaction, with potentially catastrophic consequences in neighboring Sudan to the east and the wider Sahel to the east-west. Corrupt, autocratic governments, on the other hand, are the seeds of extremism and instability in the long run.
The controversy points to an existential debate in US foreign policy: whether and when to pressurize autocratic governments on democracy and human rights if Washington works with them on urgent military and security issues.
France, the former regional colonial power with troops in the Sahel, faces the same challenge and has taken a similar approach to Washington. French President Emmanuel Macron attended Déby’s funeral last month, praising him as a “friend” and “brave” fighter who died defending his country.
Human rights experts and aid workers in the region have similarly criticized the approach taken by Washington and Paris.
“The French really do play a big role in Chad, and they seem fixated on supporting strong men across the region as if they had read Kissinger for the first time,” grumbled a local aid official who was on the condition who spoke anonymity.
Efforts by the US and France, along with those of the governments in the region, to drive back extremist groups in the Sahel have not produced any significant results. 2020 was the deadliest year ever for violent Islamist extremist groups in the Sahel, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Violent attacks by groups like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara are on the rise and have spread to new regions in West Africa, from southern Mali to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Déby died late last month clashing with rebel groups on the battlefield shortly after winning his sixth term in elections that international observers claim are neither fair nor credible. Déby ruled Chad with an iron fist for three decades, ruthlessly cracking down on dissent and imprisoning or targeting opposition leaders. Yaya Dillo, a former Chadian government official and rebel leader who wanted to run against Déby in April elections, said Déby’s security forces killed five of his family members, including his mother, when they tried to arrest him before the election.
It is nothing new for the United States to worry about democracy or human rights to appease governments with which it has close military ties. Indeed, it is a defining feature of the post 9/11 period when Washington relied on cooperation with autocratic governments from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Chad to crack down on terrorist groups. What is new, however, is the US president, his declared foreign policy agenda, and the ubiquitous hunger in Biden’s own party for a change in foreign policy after decades of costly counter-terrorism campaigns with mixed results.
When Biden took office in January, he vowed to reverse the demise of democracy and revitalize US leadership on human rights. His top aides, including Thomas-Greenfield, have led the indictment and condemned human rights abuses in Ethiopia, the conflict in Yemen and a military coup in Myanmar. This has highlighted Thomas-Greenfield’s comments on the late Chadian ruler among some human rights experts. Amnesty International’s Adotei Akwei said the comments reflect a “muscle memory commitment to the war on terror approach,” which prioritizes military partnerships first and democracy and governance issues later.
“The response to Déby’s death and the de facto military coup that followed is the extreme example of where this type of approach will lead you,” he said. “It is surprising that they all felt obliged to ignore Déby’s legacy and reaffirm their support.”
When Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price pressed the matter in a briefing to reporters on April 20, he repeatedly declined to comment on whether Déby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, was breaking the constitution by taking power of Chad. Under current US law, marking an overseas transfer of power as a coup could result in US security assistance funding being suspended.
“Although it is too early to definitively characterize the nature of the ongoing developments, we will remain committed and continue to push towards a representative, democratically elected government,” a State Department spokesman said when asked for follow-up by Foreign Politics.
Some regional experts say Déby’s death could be the only narrow window of time for civil society in Chad and dispersed opposition groups to push for significant democratic reforms – efforts that would require significant and careful international pressure.
This is what makes the US and France’s response to Déby’s death and transition so daunting, said Kamissa Camara, Mali’s former foreign minister who now works at the US Peace Institute.
“It is very frustrating for human rights defenders, for civil society groups and for political opposition. Because now is her time, ”she said. “Now is the golden opportunity for them to change the country’s trajectory and move towards democracy, but the international partners do not explicitly or openly support them.”
“The US underestimates the power its words have on countries in Africa,” she added.