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Chad's tragedy

About the author
Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and an author.

The evolving conflict and humanitarian crisis in Chad is the subject of far less scrutiny than the catastrophe in the Darfur region of Sudan just across its eastern border. The “attention deficit” is regrettable, yet in one respect forgiveable: for what is happening in Chad is becoming ever more deeply entwined with the overall regional situation. Indeed, it would be appropriate to register the overlapping conflicts in a single term: the Darfur/Chad civil wars. Chad's political history in the last generation is the key to understanding why this is so.

Chad, like its neighbour Sudan and many other states across the Sahelian belt, is divided between a deeply "African" south and an Arab-influenced north. But in Chad, contrary to neighbouring Sudan, the prosperous part of the country during the French colonial days was the cotton-producing and Christian south. So at independence in 1960 the political control of the country went to the southerners, causing a revolt of the northern Chadian tribes (often loosely regrouped under the name of Tubu) against the dominant south in 1966. This released a cycle of civil conflict which, after a period of uneasy peace between 1990 and 2004, has blown up again, partly as a consequence of the civil war in the neighbouring Sudanese province of Darfur (see "Darfur's Sudan problem", 15 September 2006).

The Chadian civil wars (1965-90)

From the beginning the Chadian civil wars were internationalised. France intervened, trying to prop up the embattled southern regime of Ngarta Tombalbaye and his successor Félix Malloum; while the young Colonel Gaddafi, after his assumption of power in September 1969, soon became embroiled in the Chadian situation. If the aim of Paris was simply stability at almost any cost, the aims of Tripoli were more complex.

Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He is the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1998), Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (C Hurst, revised edition, 2007), and From Genocide to Continental War: The Congolese Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2006)

Also by Gérard Prunier in openDemocracy:

"Darfur's Sudan problem" (15 September 2006)

"The DR Congo's political opportunity" (14 March 2007)

"Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict" (18 April 2007)

Colonel Gaddafi, bloated with oil money and feeling he ran a country which was too small and unimportant to satisfy his vast geopolitical ambitions, had set his sights on Chad as the first stage of creating an Arab-dominated empire across the Sahelian region. So he soon began supporting the Front de Libération Nationale du Tchad (Frolinat), a violently anti-southern, anti-French and Tubu-dominated "revolutionary" movement. The rebellion was based in the semi-desert areas of the north known as the Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) from where it could readily access Libyan support.

Paris, faced with a growing insurrection, sent an expeditionary force to Chad in 1969, complete with heavy transport equipment and an air wing. At first the French managed to keep the rebellion boxed in the BET but by 1978 it was exerting such pressure that they advised their protégé, President Malloum, to negotiate. He did so, and chose one of the rebellion's leaders, Hissène Habré, a Tubu from the Anakaza tribe, as prime minister. The coexistence between the new Muslim appointees and the traditional French-educated southerners in the new cabinet in Ndjamena was not easy, and by 1979 the civil war broke out again.

The Muslim forces, which had the support of Libya, were soon victorious and started massacring the southerners whose political dominance was brutally ended (Malloum had fled to Cameroon). But Hissène Habré's nationalism soon clashed with Libya's influence and by 1980 he had to abandon Ndjamena and flee into exile to Darfur.

For over a year (1980-81) Chad lived in an odd kind of condominium, with Libya occupying the north (including Ndjamena) while France supported a sort of de facto secession of the south under its protectorate. Libya did not take very well to its neo-colonial situation and was forced to abandon Chad, ceding the terrain to Habré's victorious return in 1982. The cold-war alignments of the time meant that Habré received strong support from the United States and its regional allies, Anwar Sadat's Egypt and Jaafar Nimeiri's Sudan.

But one of the subplots of the cold war was that Paris, while firmly in the western camp when it had to confront communist countries, was nevertheless quite anti-American in its regional dealings - particularly in Africa, which it considered as its pré carré ("reserved ground"). The setting up of a CIA-sponsored regime in Ndjamena (Washington was using Chad as a base for anti-Libyan contras) did not particularly please the French. So when the Islamist regime led by Hassan al-Turabi came to power through a military coup in Khartoum in June 1989, Paris immediately started to plot the downfall of Hissène Habré with the help of the new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Sudanese government. After years of exile, the former Chadian leader now faces a trial for crimes against humanity in Senegal, to which the French have offered logistical support.

The Idriss Déby regime

Fate - or rather the conflictual state of regional politics - soon played into the hands of the French. From its very beginning, the Hissein Habre regime had had to contend with considerable hostility from Tripoli. Colonel Gaddafi had never liked Hissène Habré very much; and now that the Chadian leader had American and Egyptian support, Gaddafi liked him even less. And so by the mid-1980s, Chad and Libya were in a state of undeclared war. France was divided between its loyalties to the west and its good relations with Libya, which was an important purchaser of French weapons (notably Mirage jet fighters) and an equally large supplier of oil for French energy needs.

Hissène Habré had two remarkable military commanders, Hassan Djamouss and Idriss Déby, who frequently beat back Libyan raids across the border and humbled the Libyan army in a series of resounding defeats. These included the capture of major Libyan outposts in northern Chad, the air-base at Ouadi-Doum and the town of Faya Largeau in spring 1987; and in 1988 the commanders decided to go further, invading the southern Libyan area of Fezzan, and smashing the large Libyan army base at Ma'tan as' Sarra where they destroyed a whole Libyan air fleet on the ground.

As often happens with victorious African armies, the successful commanders came quickly to be seen by Habré as potential rivals and he planned to eliminate them. They tried to pre-empt him in a coup in April 1989 but the effort failed; Djamouss was killed and Déby fled to the usual rear-base of all Chadian rebels, Darfur.

For the French and the Sudanese Islamists who did not like the quasi-American protectorate in Ndjamena, this was a godsend. Throughout late 1989 and early 1990, they armed, trained and supplied the rebel forces of Idriss Déby. The war became intense, with Chadian forces frequently crossing into Darfur to hit at the rebels rear-bases. But Déby knew his job and he had strong support. In November-December 1990 one mad dash across the country at the head of 300 Toyota battle-wagons brought him to power in Ndjamena. For a while it seemed that the deadly cycle of civil strife which had started twenty-five years before had come to an end.

In tribal terms Déby was a Biday (pl. Bidayat), i.e . a member of a very small sub-segment of the Zaghawa, one of Chad's minor tribes, which straddles the border between the east of the country and Sudan's western province of Darfur. This meant that he had a Muslim nomad background, but one far from the northern Arab-influenced Tubu of the Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti. His regime was therefore very much a minority one and he needed all the external help he could get. Since he was in the good graces of both Paris and Khartoum, that help was forthcoming. And by a stroke of good luck he was soon going to be able to reconcile with the Americans when they found oil in the southern part of the country in 1992.

The oil dimension

From the beginning of the development of oil resources in Chad, the situation was distinguished by the partnership between a consortium of large oil companies (Exxon-Mobil, Shell and Chevron) and the World Bank. The reason for the partnership was that the development of Chadian oil necessitated the building of an 1,100-kilometre pipeline to the Atlantic ocean through Cameroon. This represented a huge investment and, given the chaotic record of the country's politics since independence, the companies wished for the backing of the World Bank, for both financial and political reasons. The World Bank agreed to take the risk of financing the pipeline but in exchange it asked for a right of intervention in the negotiations and in the design of the oil-exploitation contracts.

This looked like a new type of contract that could serve as a prototype for future equitable natural-resources arrangements, and as a result several important foreign NGOs - particularly from Germany - got involved in the bargaining process. Since the project was deemed to be environmentally threatening, further studies were requested. The World Bank and the NGOs started to fight over the degree of fairness that could be reconciled with "sound business practices", and finally in June 2000 the bank granted $187m through a variety of programmes.

As soon as the World Bank money arrived on the scene, other financial actors opened up and a variety of credit-guarantee organisations (the French Coface, the US's Eximbank) as well as a consortium of private banks led by the Dutch ABN-Amro and the French Indosuez appeared ready to complement and guarantee the deal. The contract that resulted was presented as a model of its kind: money would be set aside for social , health and education expenses, an oil-depletion fund to protect future generations would be created, and all the accounts would be transparent. There were also a number of extra-economic clauses on the rights of free association and the reinforcement of human rights.

But things started to slip almost immediately. As early as the second half of 2000, local newspapers revealed that Idriss Déby had used $4.5m of the signature bonus to buy weapons; then the May 2001 elections were marred by massive fraud. When the six candidates who had stood against Déby in the presidential polls protested against the frauds, all were arrested and it took a direct intervention by World Bank president James Wolfensohn to get them released.

Oil production started in 2003 and immediately brought with it a major wave of corruption. By this time Shell had left the consortium and been replaced by the Indonesian company Petronas. There were rumours of contract violations by the government (it was extremely difficult to check the actual way in which the contract provisions were respected or violated) and a climate of wild practices started to prevail (see Hans Eriksson & Bjorn Hagstromer, eds., Chad: Towards Democratisation or Petro-Dictatorship? [Stylus/ Nordic Africa Institute, 2005]). In October 2003, a Sudanese businessman close to the Khartoum government who had created a local oil-equipment supply company was murdered and his presumed killers were arrested, tortured, condemned to death and executed all within a week and without having been able to talk to the press or to lawyers .

Meanwhile the Darfur insurrection had started (in February 2003). At first, President Déby had supported the Khartoum government's repressive policies in response. But many of the insurgents belonged to Déby's own tribe, the Zaghawa, and it became increasingly difficult for him to support a counterinsurgency campaign which was massively killing his own relatives. Actually this led to strong intra-Zaghawa conflicts, with many members of Déby's clan and even of his own family siding against him. In May 2005 a quasi-coup led by members of his own family forced him to completely change his tack concerning the Darfur problem and to start supporting the insurgency. From that moment on the Chadian crisis rose to a pitch that has been sustained, and from which it seems unlikely to fall without drastic consequences.

From oil to blood

Since early 2005 Chad has been heavily involved in the Darfur conflict, which in turn has had a major blowback effect on the country. All the more so because the Darfur conflict - which in effect is a component of the Darfur/Chad civil wars - has been largely regionalised in 2006-07:

▪ Eritrea has intervened in the war under the pretext of "reconciling" the various guerrilla factions. Asmara's game is entirely conditioned by Eritrea's desire to get at neighbouring Ethiopia and, if possible, to overthrow the regime of Meles Zenawi. For this Eritrea has devised a very efficient if cynical strategy: support the guerrilla groups but at the same time divide them - then manipulate them, blowing hot or cold according to the moment . Once Khartoum is reasonably well persuaded of Eritrea's capacity to make - or stop - trouble in Darfur it will switch its support from Ethiopia to Eritrea in the long quarrel between the "enemy brothers". So far this strategy has worked perfectly to Eritrea's benefit, with Asmara playing both sides of the fence and winning every time. Part of Asmara's strategy, even as it was cosying up to Khartoum, was to keep excellent relations with Ndjamena and with the anti-Khartoum guerrillas it supports

▪ The Central African Republic (CAR) has also been drawn into the conflict. Since President François Bozize achieved power largely though Chadian help, his country is considered to be Déby's ally and is therefore targeted by anti-Déby, Khartoum-sponsored rebels (see "Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict", 18 April 2007). France, which is trying to preserve the recently acquired stability of the CAR, intervened militarily in 2006 to quash the rebellion. This has worked fairly well since these "rebels" did not have much local support.

▪ Libya is, as usual, playing a complicated game - at times supporting the rebellion in Darfur, at times supporting its adversaries in Chad and trying, in many ways like the Eritreans, to appear as the necessary go-between for peace and reconciliation. It has failed in these intricate games where Eritrea has succeeded with much less money.

Meanwhile the Chadian aspect of the conflict has gained more and more momentum and has become, although existing in parallel, another conflict different if comparable to the one in Darfur. In other words the metastasis of the Darfur cancer has migrated across the border and is now fuelling a raging disaster on the Chadian side where over 500,000 people are now considered to be "war affected".

President Déby is clinging to power in a situation where very few citizens of his country support his regime: the southerners because they have been alienated since their elimination back in 1979, the Tubu because the Zaghawa stole their fire back in 1990; and the modern educated urban elites because they are angry when they look at the mismanagement of the oil resources. Since the beginning of the war, President Déby has decided to go back on his word concerning the heralded "equitable" contract and to take as much money as he needs from the oil revenues. He has even decided to tax the consortium's companies which thought they had tax-free status.

Déby's own Zaghawa ethnic group is deeply divided and elements of it are involved in the rebellion, as too is the Tama group to which Deby's defence minister (and rival) Mahamat Nour belongs. In such conditions, the future of the regime is strongly in doubt. Its only solid support now comes from Paris where, as usual with France's Africa policies, stability is a kind of mantra which is recited for intrinsic reasons, no matter what is supposed to be stabilised. The problem for Idriss Déby comes from the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy certainly does not have for Africa the warm and personal feelings his predecessor had (a fact made clear in his speech in Senegal in July 2007 which provoked widespread criticism in the continent).

So Déby (having broken with Taiwan in 2006, and resumed diplomatic ties with China in August) is trying to reconcile himself with China in the hope that, if he can kick out the consortium he will kill two birds with one stone: get rid of the painfully restraining contract he had to sign under World Bank pressure back in 2000; charm Beijing into putting in a good word for him with his dangerous Sudanese enemies (see Howard W French & Lydia Polgreen, "China, Filling a Void, Drills for Riches in Chad", Herald Tribune (Florida), 13 August 2007).

In April 2007, Déby sent his foreign minister Ahmad Allam-Mi to China to try to explain to the Chinese that they did not need to overthrow his regime in order to access the oil they want; the Chadian communications minister and government spokesman, Hourmadj Moussa Doumgor, followed in September. The signs of China's oil explorations in the country suggest that such entreaties are being heard. Meanwhile the humanitarian crisis is likely to increase, as the rebels do not have any reason to lay down their arms.


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