For a key conference on the future of the African nation, more than 1,400 delegates will be in Chad starting on Saturday.
The “inclusive national dialogue” in N’Djamena, which is expected to span three weeks, is the idea of junta leader General Mahamat Idriss Deby.
He has praised it as an opportunity for the divided nation to come together and pave the road for the restoration of civilian governance.
“In a few days, all of the country’s sons and daughters… will meet to scrutinise Chad’s woes,” Deby said last week on the occasion of the country’s national day.
“Every question of national interest will be put on the table.”
However, commentators remain wary. The forum, which has already seen multiple delays, is under time pressure, and detractors charge that it has serious credibility issues.
After his father, Idriss Deby Itno, who had led the nation for 30 years, was murdered in a military operation against rebels, Deby assumed control in April of last year.
The constitution was annulled and parliament was dissolved, and his son, then just 37 years old, was named head of the Military Transition Council, a controlling body made up of 15 loyalist generals.
The coup was the most recent episode of unrest in Chad, which has experienced coups, uprisings, and iron-fisted governance since gaining independence from France in 1960.
After the junta’s 18-month rule, Deby said the forum should pave the way for “free and democratic” elections, a timetable that France, the African Union, and others have asked him to uphold.
The West views Chad as a crucial and productive ally in the long-running war against jihadism in the Sahel.
“The dialogue… will enable a new constitution which will be put to a referendum,” said Saleh Kebzabo, a vice president of the organising committee and one-time opponent of the older Deby.
The process, according to onlookers, faces significant issues despite this optimistic talk.
One of them is time; the 18-month window closes in October, leaving little time for this huge, desert nation to organize elections and a referendum.
Deby mentioned the possibility of extending the transition by an additional 18 months in a speech he gave shortly after assuming office.
“The timetable for the dialogue, which is supposed to last 21 days, isn’t credible,” said Enrica Picco of the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
“It’s not possible to reach an agreement in such a short time,” she said, adding that an extension of the transition was likely.
The forum was supposed to begin in February, but it was frequently postponed as Chad’s numerous rebel groups quarreled about attendance while converging in Qatar.
After months of negotiations, on August 8 about 40 parties finally agreed to a pact that included a ceasefire and assurances of safe passage.
But the forum will not be attended by the two largest rebel organizations.
They include the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), which led to the elder Deby’s murder by initiating the offensive in the northeast last year. The forum is allegedly “skewed in advance.”
“FACT’s non-attendance is a problem, because it is the rebel group which in a way has triggered the transition,” said Picco.
At a conference, there will be several dozen representatives from rebel groups in addition to representatives from civil organizations, labor unions, and the government.
Wakit Tamma, a coalition of opposition parties and civil society organizations, has said that it will not be attending.
“We estimate that 80 percent of (those attending) are close to the junta,” said Succes Masra, head of The Transformers party, which is part of the alliance.
It charges the junta with breaching human rights and promoting Deby’s electoral campaign through the “dialogue.”
After assuming power, Deby declared he would not run for office.
Abderaman Koulamallah, a representative of the government, downplayed their absence.
“All the political parties which had seats in previous legislatures are represented,” he said. “It’s just a few small groups which have pulled out.”
He described the talks as “a watershed moment for Chad… (the chance) to put the use of arms behind us, once and for all.”