Human Rights Watch said on Thursday Chad’s security forces have “ruthlessly cracked down on protesters and the political opposition in the lead-up to the country’s April 11, 2021 presidential election, harming Chadians’ right to freely choose their elected representatives.” Incumbent President Idriss Déby Itno, who has ruled Chad since December 1990 when he removed the autocratic leader Hissène Habré, is running for a sixth term.
Since February, a coalition of nongovernmental groups, labor unions, and opposition political parties have organized peaceful demonstrations in the capital, N’Djamena, and other cities across the country, despite a government ban on public gatherings.
Witnesses described how security forces beat protesters with whips, sticks, and batons; pulled a wounded person out of a car and beat other passengers; arbitrarily arrested scores of people, and, in the attack on the home of an opposition leader, killed his mother. One protester said he was subjected to electric shocks while in detention.
“As many Chadians are bravely taking to the streets to peacefully call for change and respect of their basic rights, Chad’s authorities have responded by crushing dissent and hope of a fair or credible election,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should respect freedom of speech and assembly, ensure that police exercise restraint during opposition protests, and urgently investigate the deadly assault on the family of an opposition leader and other allegations of abuse.”
Human Rights Watch conducted interviews by telephone between March 22 and 30 with 24 human rights activists, protesters, opposition party leaders and members, lawyers, and journalists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed videos and photographs and reviewed reporting by media outlets and national and international rights groups. Human Rights Watch spoke with Chad’s justice minister Djimet Arabi on April 7. He said that security forces acted with “professionalism” while policing protests and that they had a responsibility to put an end to demonstrations that had been banned and that “sometimes led to violence and public disorder, with protesters burning tires on different roads.”
Human Rights Watch found that security forces used teargas to disperse peaceful protesters in N’Djamena on February 6, February 15, March 20, and March 27, injuring dozens of protesters and bystanders. They also arbitrarily arrested at least 112 opposition party members and supporters and civil society activists, subjecting some to severe beatings and other ill-treatment. In a brazen attack on the home of a political opposition leader and presidential candidate Yaya Dillo on February 28, security forces killed his 80-year-old mother and wounded five other family members.
Communications Minister Chérif Mahamat Zene said in a February 28 statement that the purpose of the raid was to arrest Dillo, who had failed to comply with two judicial warrants. He said that Dillo “put up an armed resistance” and that two people were killed and five others injured in the fight, including three members of the security forces. The witnesses with whom Human Rights Watch spoke reject this account and maintain that there was no armed response from Dillo’s home.
Protesters told Human Rights Watch that they demonstrated to call for political change, and for an end to social and economic injustices. They cited the appalling rates of poverty, despite the country’s vast oil resources. Chad was placed last in the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index, while the United Nations Development Programme ranked Chad 187 out of 189 countries in its 2020 human development index.
“We are an oil-rich nation, but the population remains desperately poor because resources have been misused,” Mahamat Nour Ibedou, a prominent human rights defender, told Human Rights Watch. “There’s an extremely wealthy elite made up of a few people close to the government, and then there’s a whole population struggling to survive and living in dire conditions, eating once a day.”
Seventeen candidates submitted their applications to contest the presidential election. On March 3, Chad’s Supreme Court stated that only 10 had been approved, rejecting the remaining candidates on grounds that their parties were not “legally constituted.”
Following the deadly raid on Dillo’s home, some of the remaining candidates withdrew, including Saleh Kebzabo, president of the opposition party National Union for Democracy and Revival (Union nationale pour la démocratie et le renouveau, UNDR), who denounced a “climate of insecurity and militarization of the political scene” and called for a boycott of the elections. Dillo, whose candidacy was not accepted, went into hiding after his home was attacked.
Opposition parties have accused the government of using Covid-19 regulations to block their campaigns and ban political gatherings, including a strict lockdown that was imposed in N’Djamena from January 1 to March 10.
“The authorities have used the pandemic as an excuse to quash the political opposition,” Mahamat Ahmat Lazina, president of opposition party Mouvement National pour le Changement au Tchad (MNCT), told Human Rights Watch. “They imposed a lockdown not because they cared about the health of people, but because they wanted to stop opposition parties from mobilizing support. We watched President Déby travel to all of Chad’s provinces and organize meetings with hundreds of people, while we were forced to stay home.”
The security forces’ use of excessive force against protesters violates not only their rights to free speech, assembly, and liberty but also the absolute prohibition on inflicting inhuman and degrading treatment and torture.
The Chadian government should instruct the police and gendarmes to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Guidelines on Policing Assemblies in Africa. Under these principles, law enforcement officers may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. Anyone found not to act in compliance with them should be held to account and appropriately punished.
“Human rights violations and denial of fundamental freedoms have undermined the credibility of Chad’s upcoming elections,” Sawyer said. “Chad’s international partners should not turn a blind eye to the abuses but instead press the government to respect freedom of assembly, rein in the security forces, and ensure accountability for abuses.”