Can Chad’s Constitutional Referendum Still be Saved?


Following President Idriss Déby Itno’s death in May 2021, Chad entered a transition led by his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby. The transition involves three steps: national dialogue, adoption of a new constitution and elections. The first two have already elicited deep political divisions, threatening consensus around the entire transition process.

On 17 December, Chadians will be called to the polls to decide on a new constitution. This referendum was recommended by the national inclusive and sovereign dialogue to settle the unresolved debate on the form of the state. Participants were split between a decentralised unitary state and a federal state. Divisions persist on the content of the proposed constitution and the process itself.

The transition process formally began on 12 January, when the government set up a National Commission for the Organisation of the Constitutional Referendum (CONOREC) and a committee to draft the new constitution. From July to October, CONOREC carried out an electoral census in the country’s provinces, then abroad among the diaspora.

The wording of the question for voters and the design of the ballot papers, including colours and features, were detailed in a decree issued on 31 October. A further decree convening the electorate was published on 7 November. CONOREC announced the referendum election campaign for the period from 25 November to 15 December.

Divisions persist on the content of the proposed constitution ahead of the 17 December poll

Two major trends are emerging. On one side are the transition’s protagonists, former ruling party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS), politicians now in the transitional government, and the politico-military signatories to the Doha Agreement. On the other side are those opposing the conduct of the transition and referendum processes.

The first side advocates for a decentralised unitary state and fears a federation would sow the seeds of division in an already fragmented country. Transitional Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo leads a broad coalition bringing together all sensitivities in the government. This coalition joins the alliance of political parties and civil society actors led by the MPS.

On the opposing side are those against the transition, including radical political actors like Les Transformateurs led by Succès Masra and Parti Socialiste sans Frontière led by Yaya Dillo Djerou Betchi. Other opposition parties and groupings include Bloc Fédéral, Plateforme Républicaine, Groupe de concertation des acteurs politiques (GCAP), Rassemblement National des Démocrates Tchadiens, the politico-militaries who didn’t sign the Doha Agreement, and civil society actors such as Wakit Tama.

For this group, Chad’s unitary state – in place since independence – has failed to get the country out of its rut, hence the need for a federation which would allow for more autonomous development of the territories.

Les Transformateurs, which was critical of the transition process, including the referendum, has softened its stance since signing the agreement with the government in Kinshasa on 31 October. Under this agreement, Succès Masra committed to work towards a return to constitutional order within the government-defined timetable and in a politically calm environment. Despite acknowledging the imperfection of the proposed constitution, Les Transformateurs believes it would be better than the one suspended after Déby’s death.

A constitution adopted by force through a biased and exclusive process would bode poorly for Chad’s future

The main criticism from referendum opposers is that the transition process prioritises a unitary state over offering to choose between unitary or federalist options. Despite recommendations from the national dialogue for a prerequisite referendum on the form of the state before drafting a constitution, CONOREC proposes a constitution enshrining the unitary state, sidestepping this suggestion.

Referendum opposers argue that the non-involvement of all political players and civil society in the process undermines CONOREC’s neutrality. The commission, headed by the Territorial Administration, Decentralisation and Good Governance Minister, alongside members of the former ruling party, is seen as dominated by government. This contradicts the Transition Charter, Article 7, which mandates the neutrality of the body leading the referendum process.

Supporters of a total boycott of the referendum include Albert Pahimi Padacké, former transitional prime minister and president of Rassemblement National des Démocrates Tchadiens, along with the Bloc Fédéral. Those in favour of voting against the constitution include GCAP and Plateforme Républicaine.

The country is heading towards a contentious process, risking unsatisfactory completion of two of Chad’s three transition steps – national dialogue and a new constitution. Moreover, potential social unrest may lead to repression by the security forces, as witnessed on 20 October last year, during demonstrations against extending the transition by 24 months and questioning the eligibility of the transitional authorities.

Chad’s government must use the remaining time to raise public awareness about the stakes of the transition process

The new constitution is the keystone of the country’s political future, and its content and how it is drawn up, presented to the people and adopted, must at least be inclusively run and openly debated. A constitution adopted by force through a biased and exclusive process would bode poorly for Chad’s future.

The government must use the remaining time to raise public awareness about the stakes of the ongoing process. Engaging in discussions to salvage and improve the situation before 17 December is crucial. Exploring options, including a potential postponement of the referendum, is essential for restoring a more peaceful and inclusive process. This could have implications for the overall transition timetable.

The Economic Community of Central African States has appointed Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi as a facilitator in Chad. His actions have enabled the return to the country of some political opponents who had gone into exile after the events of 20 October. Tshisekedi could further attempt to bring parties together. The African Union, actively monitoring the situation through its Peace and Security Council and its special envoy in N’Djamena, must also join ECCAS’s mediation efforts.

Source : ISS