Chad’s military government Monday signed a deal with more than 40 opposition groups to launch national peace talks later this month, although the main rebel outfit refused to take part.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the African Union urged the junta and opposition to seize the latest opportunity to stabilise a country considered key to international efforts to stamp out Islamic extremists in the Sahel region.
But after five months of mediation efforts by Qatar, the main rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) announced hours before the ceremony at a Doha hotel that it would not sign the deal.
Under the agreement, Mahamat Idriss Deby’s Transitional Military Council and hundreds of opposition representatives will launch a national peace dialogue in the capital N’Djamena on August 20.
Deby, who was in Doha for the signing, took power after the death of his father, long-time president Idriss Deby Itno, in a battle with rebels in April last year.
The dialogue aims to agree the schedule and rules for a presidential election that Deby has promised by October.
However, few of the groups who took part in the talks, or the diplomats who monitored the painstaking negotiations, expect an election this year.
– ‘Shocked’ –
Chad, one of the world’s poorest countries, has endured repeated uprisings and unrest since its independence in 1960.
Deby promised a national dialogue and elections within 18 months of him seizing power, but the mediation has been fraught with discord.
FACT and other opposition groups have demanded that he announce that he will not stand in the election. Deby has said this can only be negotiated in N’Djamena.
He has also said his transitional rule could be extended but faces pressure from the international community to keep the deadline.
In a video message to the ceremony, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the signing “a key moment for the Chadian people” but said the national dialogue had to be “inclusive” to be successful.
African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat said that both sides keeping their promises would be “crucial criteria” to build trust with the Chadian people.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said the accord aimed to establish “a peace to replace the trouble and strife that the country has known for many long years”.
Forty-three of the 47 groups who remained at the end of the mediation signed the accord to start national talks in N’Djamena on August 20.
Mahamat Zene Cherif, the interim government’s foreign minister, acknowledged that there had been “difficult talks” in Doha but said he believed there was now a chance for “sustainable peace” in the country of 16 million people.
Cherif said he was “a little bit shocked” that the FACT rebels had not signed the accord but insisted that all armed groups could take part in the dialogue.
Groups who signed the accord committed to a ceasefire while the government has guaranteed the security of all those who return from abroad to take part in the talks.
FACT, which led a walkout on the first day of the Doha negotiations in March, had demanded increased safety guarantees and the release of more than 300 of its fighters in government prisons.
Cherif said the demand had been “unacceptable” without FACT giving assurances in return.
Among the signatories was a veteran rebel leader, Mahamat Nouri, 75, who has been signing tentative peace agreements with Chadian governments since the 1970s.
He told AFP the N’Djamena talks could work if there was “political goodwill” on all sides.