Chad’s new prime minister has said that uniting the population “is the only way forward” for the chronically unstable African country after its president, Mahamat Idriss Déby, appointed him to head an interim national unity administration.
Saleh Kebzabo, 75, a former opposition figure and journalist, has been tasked with leading the country towards the first free and fair elections in its political history.
Several former rebels were appointed to ministerial posts in the government, which was formed last Friday, and will lead Chad until its next elections in two years.
“My aim is to unite the Chadian people,” Kebzabo said in an interview from the capital, N’Djamena. “It’s a very big challenge, but the only way forward in this country, which has been witnessing rebellion since independence [from France in 1960].”
Kebzabo ran four times for the presidency against Déby’s father, Idriss Déby Itno, who ruled with an iron fist for three decades before being killed during an operation against rebels in April 2021.
The younger Déby took over with a promise his junta would restore civilian rule after 18 months in power, and that he would not take part in the elections that would follow. But as the 18-month deadline neared, a nationwide forum staged by Déby reset the clock.
In early October the forum approved a two-year timeframe for holding elections, named Déby “transitional president” for the interim and declared he could be a candidate in the poll.
In a sign of regional opposition to the broken promises, just one foreign head of state – the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari – attended Déby’s swearing-in ceremony last week.
In August, more than 30 rebel and opposition factions signed a pact with Chad’s transitional authorities and agreed to join broader talks after years of turmoil, though the most powerful insurgent group, Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), refused to take part.
Kebzabo said he was inviting FACT rebels to join the transitional process and suggested that some should get ministerial positions. A key FACT demand – that people taken prisoner during the attack that killed Idriss Déby Itno be released – would “take time”, Kebzabo added.
He also said that Chad needed to go through a process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. “Can you believe that there are 500 generals in our army who do nothing but take money from the state,” he said. “They are exhausting the economy of Chad, it’s a tribal army.”
Mahamat Mahdi Ali, the head of FACT, said by phone from a location in Libya that his group’s conditions for entering dialogue remained “free and fair elections” with no military involvement.
Arafa Saleh, a 29-year-old N’djamena resident, said he was concerned about Déby remaining in charge. “We had him for 18 months without any tangible change,” he said. “Killing outside the law is still going on, stealing of the public money continues. I don’t see how there will be any difference in the future, there’s no hope.”
Many Chadians blame the former colonial power France for keeping the Déby regime in power.
Abdulsalam Cherief, a former Kebzabo ally who coordinates an opposition group in Chad, said the new prime minister “has always changed his skin depending on where his interests lie”.
“What he’s been saying – that he would change the situation – is just part of the propaganda,” said Cherief. “Chad is being controlled by regional powers who are only interested in the security of the Sahel [region] … nobody cares about the plight of the Chadian people, so Kebzabo cannot change anything, especially the army.”
Hyacinthe Ndolenodji, a Chadian working with civil society organisations, said Déby was protecting the interests of other countries. “After so many decades of autocratic rules and conflicts, we deserve to live in democracy, peace and prosperity, like all the nations,” she said.
As well as political instability, the vast Central African country has been beset by flooding in recent weeks. A prolonged drought was followed by the heaviest rainy season in more than 30 years, leaving large areas, including parts N’Djamena, navigable only by boat. Thousands have fled their homes. Farmland and pastures are under water, leaving herders with little grazing land.