2016 is set to be an unusually busy election season for the African continent, with at least a dozen sub-Saharan elections due to be held before the year is out. One poll in particular--the Chadian presidential election, scheduled for April 10--has set itself apart from the rest, primarily on account of sitting president Idriss Deby Itno's promise to re-instate term limits on the office if he is re-elected. In doing so, he would be bucking a trend of African leaders defying or doing away with limits on their time in power, with Paul Kagame's referendum in Rwanda and Pierre Nkurunziza's destabilizing decision to run for a third term attracting the most international press. Deby, who first ascended to leadership in Chad by overthrowing dictator Hissène Habre in 1990, oversaw the promulgation of Chad's current constitution in 1996 and has been elected president in every vote since. In 2005, it was Deby's government that removed the two-term limit from the constitution after a referendum; at the time, of course, Chad was being roiled by instability and civil strife (fomented by neighboring Sudan) which would have made an organized transition of power highly impractical.
Just a few years removed from the end of hostilities between Chad and Sudan, the country has transformed from a battlefield into a driving force for stability in the region as a whole. In 2013, Chadian forces formed a highly effective part of the French-led multinational force in northern Mali. Using their experience in desert combat, the country's troops pursued Tuareg rebels and jihadist groups deep into the Sahara--a terrain partner troops from West Africa (the ECOWAS states) were unable to operate effectively in. More recently, Chad partnered with Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Benin through the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) to directly combat the jihadist group Boko Haram, whose bloody campaign has spread beyond northern Nigeria to threaten Lake Chad. This willingness to serve as a force for regional stability has heightened Deby's own stature on the continent, demonstrated by his elections to the presidency of the African Union (AU) this past January.
It is in this context that Chadians will be going to the polls next month, with 14 candidates in all vying for the post. As of now, Deby will be running against opposition figures such as Saleh Kebzabo, who ran for the office twice before (in 1996 and 2001) and served in various ministry posts up until 2001, as well as former political allies such as ex-prime ministers Nouredine Delwa Kassire Koumakoye and Joseph Djimrangar Dadnadji (who started his own party last year). The popular mayor of the southern city of Moundou, Laoukein Kourayo Medard, will also be joining the race this year for the first time. Also of note in this election will be the introduction of biometric-voter identification, a measure demanded by the opposition after allegations of fraud in previous balloting and a step toward increased transparency in the country's electoral process.
As Chad's neighbors and partners in central Africa await the results of next month's elections, recent comments from Saleh Kebzabo may well offer cause for concern. In an interview with Jeune Afrique, the former journalist and government official dismissed his country's prominent role in regional peacekeeping and counterterrorism operations by stating: "Chad occupies a particular position within the actual context, but it cannot be the police for central Africa. It simply does not have the means." Kebzabo's comments suggest he would backtrack on Chad's newfound role as a lynchpin of security operations and conflict mediation efforts, despite the ongoing threat posed by Boko Haram and the AU leadership he is currently seeking to inherit (in the event of an electoral victory).
Seemingly fearful of a pro-Deby bias on the part of the international community, opposition candidates have repeatedly decried normally routine engagements as evidence of a preference for the sitting leader's continued rule. When Deby was elected to the head of the AU, for example, opposition legislator Ngarlejy Yorongar blasted the Union for giving his political rival a "helping hand" in the midst of an election. Kebzabo, for his part, harshly criticized a meeting between the Chadian president and French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Paris last month, accusing France of taking an official position on the eve of the vote. Rebuffing Kebzabo's allegations, a French diplomat pointed out: "Idriss Deby currently presides over the African Union, and Chad is an important ally in France in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. This meeting had nothing to do with the Chadian electoral agenda."
With the slate of candidates finalized and the election less than a month away, Chad appears set for a highly competitive contest (particularly by African standards). Several opposition groups have capitalized on recent protests over the rape of Zouhoura Ibrahim (which has highlighted the serious problem of sexual violence Chad continues to face) as an indication of popular opposition to Deby's tenure. The sitting president, however, recently made a key appointment that reflects a level of magnanimity rarely seen among African leaders. Possibly seeking to improve his administration's appeal among Saleh Kebzabo's southern base, Chad's president named Albert Pahimi Padacke--who hails from the same region as Kebzabo and who twice ran against Deby for the presidency--as prime minister.