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A general view of a banner of the National Rally for Democracy in Chad calling on citizens to stay at home during the referendum vote, in N'Djamena on December 13, 2023. © 2023 Denis Sassou Gueipeur/AFP via Getty Images

After almost two years of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the transitional government in Chad will hold a constitutional referendum on December 17.

The referendum seeks to accomplish one main goal: ending a transition that never should have occurred. It also takes place after the government allowed a prominent political opponent back into the country after a year of exile.

According to Chad’s constitution, adopted in 2018, in the event of the death of a president, the president of the National Assembly should provisionally lead the country for 45 to 90 days before a new election.

When former president Idriss Déby Itno died in April 2021 in still unclear circumstances during clashes in the western Kanem province, the constitution was put aside. Upon Deby’s death, a military spokesman declared the government and parliament were dissolved, all borders were shut, and a transitional military council headed by Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, one of Déby's sons, was to take over with a promise to restore civilian rule by October 20, 2022.

Months of pro-democracy demonstrations ensued, and on October 20, 2022, thousands took to the streets in N’Djamena, the capital, and several other towns to protest the transitional government’s decision to extend the transitional period by two years. Security forces responded to the protests with brutality, killing, injuring, or arresting scores of people. Instead of demanding accountability from the security services, the transitional government issued a general amnesty, denying victims their right to justice and reinforcing impunity.

The lead up to the referendum has been peaceful, albeit in a tightly controlled environment: political debates and talk shows were suspended during the campaign, campaigners calling for a boycott have said they were intimidated, and media outlets were warned with temporary shutdowns.

The upcoming vote is a fait accompli, and the referendum is sure to pass. But as the government moves out of transition and towards elections in late 2024, the question remains: will this new chapter herald real democracy or will it simply solidify one-party rule?

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