Chad's Deby set for sixth term after key rivals sidelined

Chad's Idriss Deby Itno, combining hardline tactics with political savvy, has sidelined his most viable challengers, leaving him on course for a sixth term as president after 30 years at the helm of his poor Sahel nation.

As his next re-election bid looms on April 11, the 68-year-old has banned and violently put down peaceful marches for his ouster, with some of his potential challengers arrested, barred from the election or both.

On the other hand he has openly wooed support from the moderate opposition, and political analysts reckon that his ruling clan has already paved the way for a knockout first-round victory.

An initial field of 16 potential challengers has been whittled down to six, including Lydie Beassemda, the first woman to run for president in Chad's history.

The Supreme Court threw out seven candidacies, while three bidders including longtime opposition politician Saleh Kebzabo withdrew from the race in protest over violence by the security forces.

On February 28, the police and soldiers had carried out a bloody commando-style raid on the home of a prominent would-be candidate, Yaya Dillo Djerou. His mother was among at least three people killed, and he is now on the run.

"The attack sparked outrage, and other candidates realised that they could not risk the same fate, so three pulled out," said political scientist Evariste Ngarlem Tolde of the University of Ndjamena.

Some analysts and opposition figures see the remaining six candidates as stooges, manipulated by a veteran leader with a firm grasp of the complex power interplay among Chad's scores of ethnic groups and clans.

Deby "knew how to dupe everybody," Ngarlem Tolde said. "It is he who is pulling these candidates' strings now."

Yet the ballots still carry 10 names, seen as a cynical way of projecting an image of political pluralism in the former French colony with a population of around 15 million.

"Since there are several candidates, Deby can say that these are competitive elections but the score is decided, there are no electoral stakes," said French sociologist Roland Marchal.

- Protests quashed -

For several months, parties and civil society groups have called Saturday protest marches for peaceful alternation of power.

They have been banned, and the slightest gathering has been violently dispersed, while police and troops have surrounded party headquarters and the homes of their leaders.

Amnesty International has raised the alarm over restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and "arbitrary arrests", while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres deplored the use of force.

In mid-March, the government widely publicised the delivery of 120 new vehicles to its riot police, saying they would help keep the peace in the run-up to the vote.

According to the opposition and experts, Deby also wrong-footed another harsh critic, 38-year-old Succes Masra.

On February 6, police stalked Masra during a protest march, and he took refuge at the US embassy.

But on March 16, Deby posted smiling photos of a meeting with his "young compatriot Succes Masra" on his Facebook page, dumbfounding Chadians who had seen him as a rising opposition star.

The move "shattered the momentum" of Masra's fledgling Transformers Party, Ngarlem Tolde said.

Chad, though rich in oil, is ranked as one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world, with nearly two-fifths of the population living below the internationally recognised poverty line.

While facing military challenges on all its borders, the vast desert country has become a key regional ally of the West in the fight against jihadists.

The re-election of Deby, a former rebel and career soldier who seized power in a coup in 1990, seems barely in doubt.

His six opponents are "featherweight", running in a no-stakes election, said Jean Bosco Manga, founder of the Citizen's Movement for the Preservation of Freedoms in Chad.

"The only thing that matters in Deby's eyes is that he wins in the first round with a significant turnout," summed up a diplomat on condition of anonymity.