March 30, 2023
Rising political instability in Chad since the April 2021 death of the country’s longtime president has sparked concern about risks of large-scale violence against civilians.
According to the Early Warning Project, Chad ranks fourth in the world—its highest ranking to date—for the risk of experiencing a new mass killing beginning in 2022 or 2023. Chad has continued to move up the risk list after being ranked tenth last year and 23rd the year before.
Recent developments combined with underlying dynamics in Chad indicate significant mass atrocity risks that demand immediate action.
An unexpected death yields a troubled “transition”
Research indicates large-scale instability is one of the strongest predictors of the onset of mass atrocities.
In April 2021, Chad’s longtime president, Idriss Déby, died from injuries sustained while visiting government troops fighting rebels in the north. Following the president’s death, Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, became interim leader and head of a Transitional Military Council. In a move experts labeled unconstitutional, the council announced it would govern for 18 months before returning to civilian rule.
After multiple delays, the national dialogue intended to chart the country’s path toward civilian rule began in August 2022. However, several key opposition groups did not participate, raising concerns surrounding the dialogue’s inclusiveness. In October 2022, the dialogue concluded alongside the controversial announcement of a two-year extension to the transition and a decision to allow junta members to run in the 2024 elections.
Violent repression of opposition
Thousands of people took to the street across several cities in Chad to protest the extension of the transition period on October 20, 2022, the date it was originally set to end. Chadian security forces responded violently, firing at protesters and using tear gas. Civil society groups reported that dozens of people were killed; Chad's National Human Rights Commission estimated the death toll at 128. Additionally, reports indicate security forces wounded and arrested hundreds of people. The transitional government began a mass trial in November and sentenced 262 people allegedly involved in the protests. Even before the October protests, Chadian authorities had used violent tactics to repress the opposition.
Multiple underlying risks
The recent instability and violence in Chad occurred in an already-fragile context with multiple dynamics that could escalate into large-scale, systematic attacks on civilians.
One potential mass atrocity scenario would be, in essence, an escalation of the kind of attacks that occurred last October. In a 2022 interview with the Simon-Skjodt Center, Chad expert Jérôme Tubiana warned that the junta facing contestation or losing control could drive atrocity risks. To thwart growing contestation, Déby has continued efforts to consolidate power and restrict the opposition. This raises concerns that groups perceived to oppose the transitional government may increasingly face violent repression, especially if large public demonstrations arise or are sustained.
In addition, some political actors have sought to attract support by appealing to—and in a sense, weaponizing—regional tensions and identities. Elites from Chad’s northern region have long dominated the country’s government. Frustration among southern communities at the extended Déby regime—amplified following the October violence—has fueled more resistance toward the transitional government. Social media, which is becoming more popular in Chad, may also be deepening the increasingly politicized divide between northern and southern communities, with potential to accelerate violence.
National-level political instability risks worsening underlying and interrelated dynamics across the country, including, but not limited to, the following:
- The Lake Chad Basin has seen increasing extremist violence and millions displaced in the region. Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, as well as military operations designed to counter them, pose continued risks for civilians.
- Tensions between farmers and herders have continued, particularly in southern and central Chad. Between 2020 and August 2022, 300 people reportedly died due to these conflicts. Additionally, reports indicate the government of Chad has supported herders, contributing to the intensification of these dynamics.
- In the east, violence in neighboring Darfur could spill over into Chad. As Jérôme Tubiana explained, scenarios might include Chadian Arabs, potentially linked to the Janjaweed militias, waging large-scale violence against non-Arab groups in Chad or against Sudanese refugees in Chad.
- According to recent reporting, US intelligence alleged that the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization accused of committing atrocities and human rights violations in the region, has sought to help armed Chadian opposition groups remove President Déby, furthering concerns of potential violence against civilians.
Additionally, the United Nations has referred to Chad as falling “at the epicenter of climate change.” As of October 2022, nearly all Chadian provinces saw severe flooding, affecting more than a million people and devastating farmland. Climate change has aggravated resource scarcity in Chad, raising alarm that it may be intensifying conflict, displacement, and the country's broader humanitarian crisis.
Priorities for international action
The tense transition period ahead of national elections now slated for 2024 necessitates that the US government and others monitor the situation in Chad closely, fully assess the multiple risks of mass atrocities, and take steps to mitigate risks in advance of a potential larger crisis.
Governments’ efforts to maintain a security relationship with Chad should not deter efforts to prevent mass atrocities. Chad’s status as a security partner requires its stability, for which the transitional government’s protection of civilians and respect for human rights is vital.
The international community should:
- Closely assess and monitor mass atrocity risks for Chad, focusing on the distinct and interrelated dynamics in regions across the country.
- Advocate for an independent and transparent investigation surrounding the transitional government’s October 2022 repression, and that the transitional government holds perpetrators of violence accountable. While an inquiry led by the Economic Community of Central African States is underway, civil society groups have expressed concerns surrounding the inquiry’s independence.
- Encourage junta members to commit publicly and advance efforts to respect a peaceful and democratic transition to civilian rule in 2024.
- Call on the transitional government to respect the rights of the opposition, including the rights of free expression and peaceful assembly, and release individuals arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights.
- Urge social media companies to invest in the moderation of harmful content on Chadian social media to limit its ability to accelerate violence against civilians.
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