Junta-led Chad votes for president in a first in coup-hit regionMon, 06 May 2024 13:05:32 GMT

Chadians voted Monday in a presidential election aimed at ending three years of military rule but dismissed by opponents of junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno as a fix.They will decide whether to extend three decades of Deby family rule, in a country crucial to the fight against jihadism across the Sahel desert region.Chad is the first of four military regimes in the Sahel to hold an election after successive coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger since 2020.The nation is also France’s last military foothold in the Sahel region, with 1,000 soldiers. The three other junta-led regimes drove out French anti-jihadist forces, cutting ties with Paris in favour of closer links to Russia.The United States says it will temporarily withdraw some of its 100 troops from Chad, after agreeing to pull out of Niger.Deby’s main rival is former opposition leader and now prime minister Succes Masra, denounced as a stooge by critics in the absence of other serious challengers.Both men have vowed a first-round win in polls that international rights groups have warned will be neither free nor fair.”All those who have shown they want massive change must go and vote in massive numbers, peacefully,” Masra, dressed in a blue boubou, said after voting.While turnout seemed slow shortly after polls opened in the capital N’Djamena, it had picked up by mid-morning in the more than 20 polling stations visited by AFP journalists.”I’ve come here today to make my choice now, to take on a good president who can change the country now and even help young people to evolve,” said Angeline Goltoua, an unemployed 24-year-old.Early in the campaign, observers predicted a massive win for Deby, 40, whose main rival has been killed and others banned from standing.However, economist Masra, also aged 40, has ramped up considerable support on the stump in recent weeks and could force a second round.- Proclaimed by generals -Surrounded by armed presidential guards, Deby declared his “commitment” to a “return to the constitutional order” after voting.He was proclaimed transitional president by 15 generals in 2021 after his father, Idriss Deby Itno, was killed in a gun battle with rebels after 30 years in power.Known as MIDI for his initials and as “the Man in Dark Glasses”, Mahamat promised an 18-month transition to democracy but then extended it by two years.Opposition figures have since fled, been silenced or joined forces with Deby, while the junta has eliminated any attempts by civil society to campaign against it.On October 20, 2022, the army and police opened fire on demonstrators protesting the transition extension, including members of Masra’s party, The Transformers.At least 300 young people died according to international NGOs, or, according to the regime, about 50.Deby’s cousin and chief election rival Yaya Dillo Djerou was shot point-blank in the head in an army assault on February 28, according to his party.Masra was among the opponents driven out of the country but later returned and was named prime minister in January.Eight other candidates are not expected to win many votes.- Not ‘free or democratic’ -The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) has warned that the election appears “neither credible, free nor democratic”.It noted “increasing human rights violations”, including Dillo’s killing.The International Crisis Group (ICG) also warned that “a number of problems in the run-up to the balloting cast doubt on its credibility”.These include measures that allow officials to publish only regional tallies of votes rather than posting the results at individual polling stations — making it impossible for observers to verify the vote count.ICG also cited Chad’s Constitutional Council excluding 10 rival candidates from the vote in Deby strongholds.As for Masra, it said: “A significant proportion of his constituency now considers him to have become a stooge of those in power.”If Masra wins the election, it could be the first peaceful handover of power in Chad, which underwent several coups even before Deby’s father seized power in 1990. More than 8.2 million people are registered to vote in the largely desert central African nation, ranked by the United Nations as the fourth least-developed country in the world.With a third of the population aged between 10 and 24, many are voting for the first time.Voting is due to end at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT), with results expected on May 21 and a possible second round on June 22.