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Chad’s Presidential Elections in 2016—“My Husband has Disappeared”

During the 2016 presidential elections in Chad, a number of Chadian military personnel went missing. Chad’s current president, Idriss Déby, was re-elected for a fifth term, having been in power since December 1990 when he led a coup d’état against Chad’s former president, Hissène Habré. President Déby also faced a number of rebellions in the beginning of his rule, after which he took steps towards establishing democracy in Chad.

Chadian woman voting during the 2016 presidential election. Une Tchadienne se fait aider à placer son bulletin dans l'urne à côté d'autres électeurs qui attendent dans un bureau de vote à N'Djamena, Tchad, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia
Chadian woman voting during the 2016 presidential election. Une Tchadienne se fait aider à placer son bulletin dans l'urne à côté d'autres électeurs qui attendent dans un bureau de vote à N'Djamena, Tchad, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Joyce Namde, who lived in Chad with her family in the 1980s and was Deputy Chief of Mission there 2015–2017, gives her insights on democracy and elections in Chad. Having witnessed the very coup that brought Idriss Déby to power and the events surrounding his presidential election in 2016, she emphasizes the significance of free and fair elections for democracies and the lack thereof in Chad. For the 2016 elections, Joyce Namde and the U.S. Embassy set up a monitoring operation in N’Djamena to ensure fairness of the elections. They also supported the opposition’s right to participate in the elections, and helped the detained activists and opposition get out of jail.

One of the most striking events that happened during the 2016 election was the disappearance of military personnel who voted against the current president. Joyce Namde recalls a moment when one of the embassy’s staff members said that her husband had disappeared. After a short while, and as a result of pressure from the U.S. and other embassies, the missing slowly started to return to N’Djamena.

Joyce Namde’s interview was conducted by Nathan V. Holt and Mark Tauber on May 23, 2019.

Read Joyce Namde’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Yulia Siverikova

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Excerpts:

“. . . he [Idriss Déby] reinvented himself under “democracy” and then ran for president, and ran for president, and ran for president.”

           
Swearing in ceremony of President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad | N'Djamena, 8 August 2016 (2016) Paul Kagame, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 | Creative Commons
Swearing in ceremony of President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad | N'Djamena, 8 August 2016 (2016) Paul Kagame, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 | Creative Commons

The long rule of Idriss Déby: He [Idriss Déby] came to power on December 1st, 1990 as a colonel in a coup d’état. And then, along the way, as people, as us and other countries pushed them to move beyond military rule, he reinvented himself, under “democracy” and then ran for president. He kept getting re-elected. Some elections were better than others, but there were always issues. This election, he probably either lost or came very close to losing. He certainly probably should’ve had a runoff election and the election board managed to say he had just enough that he did not have to have a runoff. But it was only in the high fifties percent, which was by far the lowest that he had ever gotten in terms of the vote. So, he’s still there; he’s still president.

Q: Was it your sense that President Déby had a plan for succession, a vision of life without him?

NAMDE: No. In fact he, I think, was very careful not to make any plans for succession, because he plans to be there as long as he can. So it actually was quite a concern to us and to the Europeans and many others that there was no plan for succession. . . . I think in fact he tries to make sure that no one gains very much power to be able to contest his position or his power.

“I think the real danger in Chad . . . is defining democracy by elections.”

Democracy in Chad: I think the real danger in Chad and in so many other countries is defining democracy by elections. Because many countries hold elections. Chad held elections. They weren’t free and fair elections, but they held elections. But that doesn’t make them a democracy. So I think holding elections is one part of it, and the quality of the elections, but also the level of corruption and whether at least some of the resources are used for the benefit of people, is also, I think, part of democracy. . . . So I think that democracy in Chad theoretically exists in that they hold elections and they do some things that are democratic. But I think in any country free and fair elections, caring for, doing some things that are for the benefit of the people and controlling corruption, are really the keys to having a democracy where people can get an education and therefore can start a business or get a job. In many countries, including Chad, if you have an idea and you start a small business and it turns out to be successful, someone probably from the ruling class, the ruling tribe, the ruling family, whoever it may be, will probably take over that business. So, I think that’s part of it. And just making it a democracy makes opportunity more available and resources more available across the board. And, so, democracy is not just elections, which is the way many people want to think of it, it’s a part of it, but that’s not the whole way you can define it.

“Each of their candidates and parties got enough that we felt that there probably should have been a second round, but there was not.”

           
Les bulletins de vote du scrutin présidentiel du 10 avril au Tchad. L’un des 14 candidats s'est désisté quelques jours avant le scrutin, N’Djamena, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia
Les bulletins de vote du scrutin présidentiel du 10 avril au Tchad. L’un des 14 candidats s'est désisté quelques jours avant le scrutin, N’Djamena, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia

The U.S. role in 2016 presidential elections: So in 2016, he was reelected for his fifth term as president. So he’s been in power since 1990. I was there when the coup happened and it’s amazing to me that he is still there. But he does have a very, very strong hold on the country and on the government and is making the country much more Islamic. So, for the 2016 election, we set up an entire election monitoring operation and we weren’t able to do much monitoring ourselves outside of N’Djamena, outside of the capital because of both travel and security and monetary restrictions. But we did have a robust monitoring operation in the capital area. We sent people out to observe, and of course, there were some irregularities as there always are, but we felt confident that he did not get the necessary majority to avoid a second round. However—that was in April of 2016. However, the election commission decided he got 59.9 percent of the vote, so there would be no second round. But that is the closest the opposition has come, ever. I mean, in the last election, I believe, he got like 85 percent or something. So we felt that although the opposition was very split, which is unfortunate, they did not coalesce around one person. Each of their candidates and parties got enough that we felt that there probably should have been a second round, but there was not. . . . But, in the course of the election, we supported the opposition’s right—we didn’t support the opposition in the sense that they should win, but we supported their right to participate. Some of them were detained and we then protested with the government. And at one point one of the major opposition candidates was detained in the southern part of the country and other opposition members trying to travel to see him were stopped. So we protested those things and eventually people would get out of jail.

It was a very interesting time when he supposedly won the election. The night of the election the military celebrated by shooting off a lot of weapons, including an anti-aircraft gun in the neighborhood where diplomats lived and enough weapons, enough rifles, AKs, etc, that people were hurt or killed by the gunfire. And, in fact, some bullets came through the carport and dented the ambassador’s vehicle and each of the major missions there, France, the EU, Germany had at least one staff member who reported some sort of family injury. One of our staff—their daughter ended up shot in the leg by falling ammunition. What goes up must come down. We worked very closely—it was an example of how well we worked with the EU, France and Germany and the U.S. together protested to the government very strongly about that. And when the official results were announced a couple of weeks later, there was none of that. The government had really clamped down on the military on that because it raised so many issues for them to have that kind of uncontrolled military action.

“. . . the military voted first, and they voted in their barracks, on their bases, and they voted publicly, even though it was supposed to be a secret ballot.”

The disappearance of military personnel: But one of the biggest things that happened during the election that, I think, the U.S. played a key role afterwards in helping resolve was the—before the actual day of the election, when people went to vote, the military voted first and they voted in their barracks, on their bases, and they voted publicly, even though it was supposed to be a secret ballot. So they had to vote and hand in their ballot basically to their commanders. And in spite of that, a few of them did defy the government and voted for other candidates, other than the president. And then we started to hear, I think the U.S. Embassy was the first to start to hear rumors and talk about how those who did not vote for the president had disappeared. So, first, you know, people were saying, “Oh, I heard this and that.” And then finally one of our own staff came forward and said, “My husband has disappeared.” So, we started to try to look into that. And then France also began to get information that these people were gone. Well, then once we publicly asked, “Where are these people?”, the government was sort of forced to respond and they said, “Oh, they just were sent North on a special project”, even though they had disappeared without being able to tell their families or anything. They had not been in touch with anyone. And then one night on TV, there were a couple of people there who were not the names of the people—we had a list by now of people that we believed had disappeared—these guys were not on it, although they were clearly somewhere in the North, speaking. And then the disappeared started to come back, trickle back into N’Djamena. They would suddenly return, our staff member said, “My husband returned yesterday.” Most of them—we weren’t able to talk too much,—most of them were very careful, very reluctant to say anything. I’m sure they had been sufficiently cowed by disappearing, although they quietly passed along their thanks to the countries that had stood up for them because otherwise they figured they were exiled to Northern Chad, which is the Sahara, perhaps, for the rest of their time in the military, perhaps, the rest of their lives, if they were ever seen again.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS:

Education:
BA in Latin American Studies and Spanish, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire 1971–1975
MA in Latin American Studies; Teaching English as a Second Language, University of Arizona 1976–1979
Entered the Foreign Service 1991
Lagos, Nigeria—Consular Officer 1994–1996
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea—Deputy Chief of Mission 2013–2015
N’Djamena, Chad—Deputy Chief of Mission 2015–2017
Retirement July 2018