Yes, No, or Boycott? A Fierce Campaign ahead of Chad’s Constitutional Referendum

2023 yes no referendum chad eisa1 transparent democratic governance in africa

The referendum campaign in Chad began on the 25th of November and continued until the 15th of December 2023. Strong political rivalries between the two unequally matched camps started to play out in the first week of the campaign with posters and campaign paraphernalia. By the second week, hostilities between the camps became more apparent.

The “YES” camp has clearly invested heavily in its campaign, evidenced by the proudly displayed t-shirts, caps, and motorized caravans featuring slogans in favor of the referendum. Among the many supporting voices, EISA observers witnessed representatives from the Union des Jeunes du Mayo-Kebbi Ouest pour MPS (Mouvement Populaire du Salut) inviting all Chadians to vote “YES” to preserve peace and social cohesion. Similarly, in Chari-Baguirmi, they observed the Parti Populaire pour la Liberté calling for a massive “YES” vote. The “YES” camp, led by interim Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo, appears to be dominating this campaign. However, the “NO” camp has not been idle, conducting a more discreet campaign.

The Bloc fédéraliste, for example, has been spotted in Walia, in the 9th arrondissement of N’Djamena, with a banner clearly displaying their opposition to the unitary form of the state and calling for a “NO” vote in the referendum. This visual demonstration shows the determination of the “NO” camp to share their ideas and challenge the proposed unitary state. While their campaign may be less visible than that of the “YES” camp, it is clear that the “NO” camp is also mobilizing its supporters to express their disagreement with the current constitutional proposal.

2023 yes no referendum chad eisa transparent democratic governance in africa

Their presence in the remote region of Tibesti, where a motorized caravan was seen displaying a handwritten banner saying, “NO to the unitary state, NO,” demonstrates the reach of the ‘NO’ camp. Their presence in a distant region like Tibesti means that the debate around the constitutional referendum is anchored in all corners of the country and that divergent opinions do coexist, even in the most remote areas. This shows the importance and magnitude of this popular consultation for the future of Chad.

There is also a third camp on the ground, the “neither … nor” camp which advocates for a boycott. It is led by former interim Prime Minister Pahimi Padacké Albert who argues that the referendum process started off poorly with the establishment of the Commission Nationale Chargée de L’organisation du Référendum Constitutionnel (CONOREC). The Commission, he asserts, is led by the Minister of Territorial Administration, Governors, Prefects, and Sub-prefects, thus compromising the neutrality required for an electoral management body. Pahimi made use of an ironic metaphor to convey his sentiments on the matter:

“The referendum of December 17, 2023 is like a football match: but a match at night, in a poorly lit stadium, between two teams: a team called ‘Yes’, dressed in white jerseys, and a team called ‘No’, dressed in black jerseys. The black color of the ‘No’ team is chosen by their opponent; black, the symbol of the devil. The referee of this game is the captain of the ‘Yes’ team, its attackers are the sideline referees and its goalkeeper is the fourth judge. The ‘No’ team is housed, fed, and transported around the field by the leaders of the ‘Yes’ team. In your opinion, which of the two teams will win this game? Is it a real game?”

Even if Pahimi’s position challenges the wisdom of the government’s actions and denounces their negative impact on Chadian democracy, even if the boycott stance is potentially counter-productive, insofar as it risks confusing the “NO” campaign and depriving certain individuals of their voice and their power to contribute to the change they aspire to, it remains a third voice that has a right to express itself.

Their presence in a distant region like Tibesti means that the debate around the constitutional referendum is anchored in all corners of the country and that divergent opinions do coexist, even in the most remote areas.

Nonetheless reports from the field indicate that supporters of the Groupe de concertation des acteurs politiques (GCAP), campaigning for a boycott on December 7, were dispersed with tear gas in Farcha, in N’Djamena’s 1st arrondissement. An amateur video shows individual in fatigues stopping a caravan and tearing posters off vehicles. This is a serious infringement of the fundamental principles of freedom of movement and expression, which cannot suffer such restrictions during a campaign period. On December 8, CONOREC replied to the ACET’s question as to whether any measures had been taken to proscribe such actions and stated that a letter had been sent to the Minister of the Interior. Indeed, on December 9, the National Police issued a press release confirming that disciplinary measures had been taken against police officers “who failed to perform their duties in a professional manner”, and warning “any officer who might attempt to indulge in these kinds of practices, which are harmful to the democratic values cherished by the highest authorities of the Republic”.

Even if this referendum campaign reveals political rivalries over the form of the state and disparities in the means deployed by the different camps, it also shows that all camps have the opportunity to freely express their positions. The impact of these dynamics on the outcome of the 17 December referendum and the future of the country will soon be revealed.

Dr Pierre Kadi Sossou is the Country Director for EISA’s Chad office.

This blog post was made possible by the financial support of the European Union under the Grant Agreement No. NDICI AFRICA/2022/435-927. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of EU.