YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Catholic bishops in Chad have called for a referendum to decide on constitutional reforms that could see Idriss Déby Itno stay in power until 2033.
The new constitutional proposals re-introduce presidential term limits but increase the term of office to 6 years – renewable twice – as well as strengthen the powers of the presidency.
With the next election scheduled to take place in 2021, and with the new reforms giving Déby the right to seek re-election, the Chadian leader could see himself ruling the country until he is 81-years-old.
The central African country’s bishops’ conference now says it is necessary to enact such reforms through a referendum, as required by the current constitution, and not through a simple parliamentary procedure – as is now proposed.
Concluding their plenary assembly on April 19, the bishops said the current constitutional amendment process violates democratic procedure and is causing “deep divisions” in Chad.
“We note that this bill is not adhered to by all the citizens. That is why we are calling on the government to submit it to a referendum,” the bishops said.
The Catholic leaders say they are worried about the manner in which the constitutional changes – meant to institute Chad’s ‘Fourth Republic’ – are being carried out.
“This process, many fear, risks falsifying the rules of democracy because it carries the germs of division in the hearts of citizens. In addition to the divergent views the political class hold on the issue, we realize that a larger part of the population does not know what is going on,” the bishops said.
They said the Church ought to have a voice when it comes to the major issues affecting the nation, including the bill to amend the constitution.
About 20 percent of the population is Catholic, while around half are Muslim. The rest mostly belong to different Protestant denominations.
Opposition members of parliament have welcomed the Church’s stance, saying it reflects the feelings of the majority of Chad’s population.
Beral Mbaikou, an opposition MP said that “the National Assembly that will adopt the bill has lost its legitimacy.”
“Therefore, in giving it the right to vote this bill in place of the people who should do it by means of referendum, the rights of the Chadian people are being usurped.”
According to Sosthene Mbernodji, coordinator of the Citizen Movement for the Preservation of Freedoms (MCPL) “the reaction of the bishops has come to strengthen what we have been condemning about this modification of the constitution.”
“President Déby had leaned on the religious for a long time to keep himself in power in one way or the other. This time, the Catholic Church has broken its silence to warn the authorities,” Mbernodji said.
He said he was encouraging the Church to be more vocal in its opposition to the constitutional amendments and exhorted all Chadians to rise up and protest against the modification of the constitution “which does not meet the needs of the Chadian people.”
The proposals to amend the constitution are the result of what the authorities in Chad describe as “broad-based and inclusive consultations” that took place in N’Djamena last month. But most of the participants were politicians, civil society leaders, and religious figures who support Déby’s government.
It was adopted by the Council of Ministers on April 11 and is now being scrutinized by parliament.
The Chadian parliament is sharply divided on the constitutional vote that will take place April 30.
On April 16, all 33 opposition members of parliament announced that they will be boycotting the parliamentary session to vote the bill.
“We are fully aware of the infernal machine that has been directed against us and against the Chadian population,” opposition leader Saleh Kebzabo told Radio France Internationale.
He said Déby – in power since 1990 – wants to consolidate his power.
The president took power after a military coup. He last won an election in 2016, and his current term ends in 2021. The term limits proposed in the new constitution are not retroactive, so he could theoretically seek two more terms as president.
“He isn’t satisfied with what he has got up to now. He has an obese majority in the National Assembly and will do whatever he wants,” Kebzabo said.
The political debate in the country is not the only concern of the bishops. They also spoke about the poverty afflicting the country.
According to the World Bank, 45 percent of Chadians live below the poverty line.
“Poverty is rising by the day,” the bishops said.
The poverty has worsened in recent years following austerity measures taken by Déby in the wake of plummeting oil prices.
The country faced protests earlier this year over rising prices and a reform which slashed the salaries of civil servants by a third.
Chad has been a nation in conflict for over 50 years. The country’s first civil war took place from 1965-1979 and was immediately followed by the 1979-1985 Second Chadian civil war. The most recent Chadian civil war took place from 2005-2010.
Like many nations along Africa’s Sahel region, Chad is predominantly Arab Muslim in the north, and Christian sub-Saharan African in the south, creating hard-to-resolve tensions.
In recent years, the country has also suffered attacks from the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, and has also had a stream of refugees entering the country trying to escape the escalating conflict in the neighboring Central African Republic.