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Making Sense of Chad

The war for Chad is not over.  It is likely to become more bloody and involve a wider humanitarian disaster before any solutions can be grasped.  The next week will be critical for the future of the country — and for the wider region, including Darfur, as well.

Last weekend’s battle in the Chadian capital N’djamena came as no surprise.  For the last two years, the Sudan government has been trying to overthrow the Chadian president, Idriss Deby, using Chadian rebels as proxy forces.  The three armed groups involved in the latest attack were all extensively armed by Sudanese Security, which has the clear intent of cutting off the support that Deby is giving to Darfurian rebels, especially the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which has recently been on the offensive in Darfur.  The timing is no surprise either.  In the next few weeks, a European Union protection force (EUFOR) was due to deploy to eastern Chad and north-eastern Central African Republic.  While EUFOR’s mandate (given by the UN Security Council) is for impartial civilian protection, it is a substantially French initiative, and seen by all in the region as a military protection for Deby.  Khartoum and the rebels wanted to strike first.

The Chadian civil war is often described as a “spillover” from Darfur.  That is a simplification.  Darfur’s war actually began as a spillover from Chad more than twenty years ago and the two conflicts have been entangled ever since.  Many of the Arab militia fighting in Darfur are of Chadian origin, and many of the rebels similarly served in the Chadian army or militia.  The current Chadian war is best seen through four different lenses.

First, it is a continuation of the entangled conflicts of Darfur and Chad, which includes competition for power and land.

Second, there is an internal Chadian conflict.  After a hopeful broadening of the base of his regime in the late 1990s, accompanied by the growth of civil politics in N’djamena, he has reverted to one-man military rule.  Deby relies heavily on a very narrow circle of close kinsmen and on using state finance as his personal property, distributing largesse in return for loyalty.  He is also ill and the political vultures have been circling for several years.  The most feared scenario now is that Deby will eliminate the civil opposition in Chad, forcing the international community to choose between him and the rebels, whom he depicts as Sudanese mercenaries.  Murdering the civilian opposition in this way is not unprecedented in Chad.

Third is Khartoum’s strategy for managing security in its borderlands, which includes treating weak neighboring states as extensions of its internal peripheries.  Sudanese security helped bring Deby to power in 1990 as part of a policy that also saw it engage militarily in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic over the subsequent decade.  In the same way that Khartoum uses a mixture of reward and force to control its provincial elites, in Darfur, the South, and elsewhere, it uses the same tools to influence its trans-border peripheries.

Last is a regional competition for dominance through a vast arc of central Africa that has rarely been governed by state authority.  This hinterland includes Chad, CAR, and northern DRC, as well as the adjoining areas of Sudan.  As well as Khartoum, Tripoli, Kampala, Kinshasa, Kigali, and even Asmara are vying for influence across this area.

Darfur and Chad

Deby came to power in 1990 on the basis of a simple deal with Khartoum — each would deny support to the other’s rebels.  For twelve years that deal held.  When the Darfur rebels began to organize at scale in 2002 and 2003, Deby at first tried to dissociate himself from them.  He mediated the first ceasefires in the war (Abeche in September 2003 and N’djamena in April 2004), worked to split and undermine the rebels, and even reportedly cooperated in some military actions against them.  But he was unable to control his Zaghawa kinsmen who formed many of the fighters of both SLA and JEM, and by 2005 Chad was sucked into the conflict as a direct supporter of the rebels.  The Sudan government responded by backing Chadian rebels, who attacked the border town of Adre in December 2005.  At this point, Deby declared that Sudan and Chad were in a state of war.  Even while the peace talks continued in Abuja, the Chadian war intensified, reaching its climax with a rebel attack on N’djamena in April 2006.  Just weeks before the deadline for concluding the peace talks, Khartoum tried to alter the reality on the ground in its favor.  It nearly succeeded.  JEM forces helped sway the battle for N’djamena in Deby’s favor.

The entanglement has continued since.  Deby’s favored intermediary has been JEM, which he has rearmed with weapons captured in Chadian battles.  Meanwhile, Sudan has backed a series of Chadian rebels.  Among them are the United Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) of Mahamat Nouri, a Goraan and former ambassador, the Rally of Forces for Change (RFD) of Timan Erdimi, a Bedeyat cousin of Deby and former army chief of staff, and a breakaway group from the UFDD headed by Abdel Wahid Aboud Mackaye, a Salamat Arab.  Most of these groupings are transient — the important things to watch are the individual leaders, their ethnic affiliations, and their backers.

In recent months, JEM has been on the offensive in western Darfur, broadening its own coalition to include militia from groups such as the Gimir (a group on the Darfur-Chad border that has long valued its autonomy and in recent years has been politically identified as ‘Arab’ though it has no Arab lineage) and Missiriya Jebel (a group from nearby Jebel Mun, which has an Arab lineage but lost the Arab language several generations ago).  Chadian forces were reportedly engaged in these offensives, too — though citizenship is largely meaningless along this border.

As Darfurian rebel forces — both JEM and some SLA — have rushed back to N’djamena to join the battle for the capital, we can expect to see the Sudan army and militia take the offensive against the rebels remaining in West Darfur.

Chad’s Civil War

Idriss Deby is a strongman who gained power through military prowess and external backing.  He has stayed in power through the same combination, his position strengthened by oil revenues and French military cooperation.  He dismantled a model World Bank program for control of Chad’s oil revenue, which had been intended to ensure that the funds were used for development, rather than patronage and arms purchases.  He fixed the elections.  He stays in power through intrigue, intimidation, and cash.

Since 1986, when France dispatched special forces under Operation Epervier to Chad to support the war against Libya, French troops have been a key factor in Chad’s civil wars.  The French have assisted the Chadian army with intelligence, logistics, and medical units — the first two turning the tide of battle in Deby’s favor several times in the last three years.

Under Jacques Chirac, France’s policy towards Chad was handled by the military, whose response to the political crisis was to extend military assistance rather than to encourage talks with the opposition.  But Deby was careful not to overstep the mark — he knew the friendship was tactical and feared that the French could always stand aside and allow a rival to seize power, just as it had refused to intervene to prop up Deby’s predecessor Hissène Habré in 1990.  Until February 3, it looked as though French troops were going to do the same — there were reports that France had offered to evacuate Deby from his besieged presidential palace.  Certainly, Deby had offended Paris with provocative remarks on the Zoe’s Ark child abduction case, when he alleged publicly that the children might be about to be taken to have their organs harvested.

But by this morning, it seems that the French government had decided that Chad without Deby was a worse proposition than with him, and swung back behind the beleaguered president.  This is only a short-term option — Deby is literally fighting for his life and will do anything that is necessary to stay in power.  One thing he may consider ‘necessary’ is eliminating the civil opposition.  Already, civilian opposition members and civil society leaders have been rounded up and there are fears that they will be murdered en masse.  Habré did the same thing just before he was ousted in 1990.  Deby will then present the world with a choice — either him or Sudan’s proxies.

While Deby’s forces have regrouped, so have the armed rebels.  Reinforcements have arrived and there may well be another battle for N’djamena in the coming days — a fight to the death for all concerned.

Sudan’s Management of its Borderlands

Khartoum’s strategy for managing the security threats in Darfur is seamless with its strategy for Chad.  Sudanese security officers’ favored instrument is cash and they opportunistically buy support among the Darfurian and Chadian elites.  They buy Arabs and non-Arabs as they can.  Inside Darfur, Military Intelligence is the most powerful governmental institution.  For the Chad policy, it is the National Security and Intelligence Service.

This is the most recent manifestation of an approach to governing the peripheries that stretches back to the mid-19th century and earlier.  Under the Turko-Egyptian rulers of Sudan (1821-83), the territory was divided into ‘metropolitan’ and ‘military’ provinces.  Darfur and the South were the latter, where the center established its claim to sovereignty through making deals with local potentates.  The Mahdist rulers and the Darfur sultans used much the same practice.  For all of these, the border was not a line — it was a territory which extended indefinitely into east, central, and west Africa, until it met a point at which military resistance was too great or the price of buying influence was too high.  Quasi-autonomous agents of Turko-Egyptian rule ranged across central Africa, reaching the Congo river and Nigeria.  The British reproduced a similar division of administrative systems within the borders of Sudan — in the peripheries they called it ‘native administration’ in the ‘closed districts’ — and differed from their predecessors principally in that they preferred not to distribute weapons.  Post-colonial Sudanese governments are acting in exactly the older tradition of a deep and extended borderland, seeking influence, security, and profit far both within their own remoter provinces and across their national borders.

Competition for Regional Dominance

Alongside Sudan, Libya sees Chad as part of its sub-Saharan periphery.  Colonel Muammar Gaddafi proclaimed the unity of Chad and Libya in 1980 and fought a long war for control of the territory, until defeated by a Chadian army extensively armed and supported by France and the U.S.  Recent Libyan policy has tilted towards Deby and against his Sudan-backed adversaries.  But Gaddafi was also offended by Deby’s refusal to make political compromises during peace talks in Libya last October.  Anticipating the arrival of European soldiers who would act as a military bulwark, Deby took a hard line and caused the talks to fail.

The war for Chad is also a war for Central African Republic, where President Francois Bozize was installed by Chadian troops in 2003, overthrowing his predecessor Ange-Felix Patassé.  With Deby endangered, the Zaghawa troops who formed the backbone of Bozize’s army have left to defend N’djamena.  This creates a potential vacuum in which Chad’s competitors for influence may once again meddle.  Sudan will be interested in securing this outer frontier.  So will Libya, which supported Patassé.  Kinshasa and Kampala will also be looking for influence there — it was a stronghold for the Congolese leader Jean-Pierre Bemba at the height of the war in DRC.  Eritrea, which has its fingers in every troublespot in and around the Horn of Africa, will also be keeping its interests alive.  France has a military base in CAR and could well play the role as guardian of stability.

International Policy

In the last two years, international policy towards Chad has become a byproduct of Darfur policy, and specifically the push to bring an international protection force to Darfur.  After the election of Nicholas Sarkozy, French policy shifted, focusing on the use of Chad as the launchpad for humanitarian action in Darfur, including military support for a UN protection force.  A European protection force for eastern Chad and north-eastern CAR (EUFOR) was authorized by the UN Security Council as a neutral international civilian protection force, distinct from the French soldiers whose mission has always been political.  But it was only a substantial French military contingent that could bring EUFOR up to strength.  For all the political actors in the region, EUFOR is seen as a non-neutral military protection to Deby — hence the military strike at N’djamena in the days before it was due to be deployed.

The limitations of an international protection-first policy are sharply revealed by the battle for N’djamena.  A humanitarian protection mission had political implications that turned out to contribute to an escalation in violence.  The Europeans now are faced with the dilemma of whether they send troops into the middle of ongoing hostilities — with the Chadian rebels having declared that EUFOR is an enemy — or whether they revert to a traditional peacekeeping approach and seek a negotiated settlement first.  EUFOR has no ceasefire commission and no formal means of dealing with the rebels, a recipe for disaster.  Most likely, EUFOR will simply not deploy in Chad at all.  Troop contributors will decide that they don’t do civilian protection in wartime after all.

The implications for the hybrid UN-African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) are no less far-reaching.  This has the mirror-image problem — it deals with Khartoum on a day-to-day basis but there is no ceasefire commission in which the rebels are represented, so its only contact with them is through the mediation team working on the peace talks.  This is wholly insufficient should the war intensify — for example if Deby regroups and decides to take the offensive by mounting attacks deep into Darfur.  UNAMID runs the risk of being a target of attack or even an unwitting party to a conflict.  In such scenarios, international attention will become focused on the integrity and safety of UNAMID and its members, rather than on solving Sudan’s problems.

What Next?

The prospects for Chad in the immediate future are dire indeed.  The worst prospect is a massacre of the civilian opposition followed by a battle for N’djamena which causes immense destruction, displacement, and bloodshed and creates a new vortex of instability in Africa.

President Deby may survive and regroup.  He might be able to do this with his domestic and Darfurian reinforcements, but France’s role will be crucial.  Most probably, Chad and France will try their hardest to portray the war as a Sudanese invasion and bring it to the UN Security Council on those terms.  This could be a cover for Deby to eliminate civilian opposition and counter-attack in Darfur.

The rebels may succeed in overrunning N’djamena, leaving a ruined city controlled by factional leaders who distrust one another and cannot form a government, with Sudanese security playing a leading role in brokering whatever agreement is possible.  A government formed under these conditions would certainly be an international pariah.

A third scenario, familiar from Chad’s history, is collapse into warlordism.  The chances for a fourth — political agreement and the construction of a civilian alternative — is fading by the hour.


Alex de Waal is the director of Justice Africa.  This article was posted at <www.justiceafrica.org> by Alex de Waal on 4 February 2008 as part of the Making Sense of Darfur Blog <www.ssrc.org/blog/category/darfur>.



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