In Africa, a lesson in peaceful gains of equality

Chad’s pro-democracy groups put enough trust in military rulers to win equal footing in coming negotiations.

Mahamat Idriss Deby, son of late Chadian President Idriss Deby, attends his father's funeral in N'Djamena, Chad, April 23, 2021.

For societies fed up with living under military control, the most difficult question is judging when conditions are ripe to develop trust with a ruler and negotiate for democracy.

In some places, the top brass frequently claim they prefer a return to civilian rule but, either by force or by guile, cling to power. In Sudan, for example, the main pro-democracy movement have refused to negotiate with a junta that reneged last year on a power-sharing pact and has killed at least 116 in crackdowns against protesters.

In contrast, Sudan’s neighbor Chad offers a different example and, potentially, a model.

Pro-democracy activists in the central African country could be on the verge of ending 32 years of military dictatorship. Formal transition talks between the government and more than 40 political groups and armed factions are set to open on Saturday.

That milestone is the result of many factors, from war fatigue to economic crisis. Yet humility and a recognition of shared interests have played a part. “I asked [the military and the opposition] to think about the youth [and] the country’s economic, cultural, and social development,” said Saleh Kebzabo, a former opposition leader in charge of the national reconciliation talks, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Chad’s pursuit of democratic transition started with a succession in April last year. Idriss Déby, the country’s longtime dictator who took power in a 1990 military coup, was killed in battle against the main opposition. The military tapped his son, Lt. Gen. Mahamat Idriss Déby, to take over. The younger promised a negotiated transition to civilian rule and elections in 18 months.

Most Chadians were skeptical. In March, however, government officials and representatives from 52 opposition groups gathered in Qatar for a “pre-dialogue.”

Weeks of exquisite captivity in Doha’s plush hotels turned into months of consensus-making. Friendships were forged in elevator rides. “We were crabs in a bucket,” one rebel joked.

The talks were supposed to jump-start constitutional reforms and set plans in motion for elections in October. Instead they achieved something that, in the long run, may be more important. They gave “credibility to the national government’s safety guarantees that the main groups – those with a history of violence or just opposition parties – will be able to come back to N’Djamena [the capital] and be reintegrated into the Chadian political game without risk [to] life or detention,” Benjamin Augé of the French Institute of International Relations told Al Jazeera.

Last week the junta and 43 of its adversaries signed a peace accord establishing a cease-fire and setting the stage for formal negotiations. A few key armed groups remain outside the agreement, but they are still welcomed to join, Foreign Minister Cherif Mahamat Zene told Deutche Welle. “Peace is priceless,” he said. “War never solved anything.”

When Chad’s rival factions gather around the table this weekend, thorny issues await them. Yet the pro-democracy side has taken the hard step of building up mutual trust after years of conflict. At the negotiating table, the military will now be just one of many equals. That could ripen the moment for restoring Chad’s democracy.

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