Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict

Gérard Prunier
17 April 2007

For the past two years the media has reported on growing unrest in eastern Chad and the northern Central African Republic (CAR) as "a spillover from the Darfur conflict". Although partly true, this vision is misleading. Both Chad and the CAR suffer from problems of their own which the Darfur conflict has exacerbated but not created.

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: An 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)

The weight of history

Both Chad and the CAR (known in colonial times as Ubangui-Chari), were part of Afrique Equatoriale Française, the poor relative of France's colonial empire. Poor, neglected by Paris, underpopulated, they had very small African elites at the time of independence in 1960. By 1966 Chad had entered into a civil war which, with various twists and turns, has continued to this day. As for the Central African Republic, it staggered from coup to coup, before falling (in 1965) into the hands of a brutal former colonial soldier, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who had himself crowned "emperor" in a grotesque ceremony right out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. Bokassa's reign lasted fourteen years (1965-79) until he was removed by French military intervention. This led to more coups followed by rigged elections.

Chad, a Sahelian country, is divided between a Christian "African" south and a superficially Arabised Muslim north. In turn, the Muslim tribes - some of which (particularly the Zaghawa) are the same as those of western Darfur - are deeply divided among themselves by clan affiliations. Among the southern tribes (many of whose members are Christians), some (notably the Sara) are the same as those of the northern part of the CAR. This ethnic situation leads to a kind of continuous "rainbow" where, from the west of Sudan to the north of the CAR, tribes blend into each other without the colonially-created borders having much relevance. Hence trouble at one end of the spectrum has a tendency to resonate all the way to the other extremity.

A stormy fifteen years

In December 1990, Colonel Idriss Déby stormed his way into power all the way from his Darfur rear-base into N'Djamena with the coordinated help of the French secret service and the Khartoum Islamists. In October 1993, Ange Félix Patassé, a former prime minister under "Emperor" Bokassa, won the elections in the CAR. Déby belongs to a Zaghawa sub-group from eastern Chad while Patassé is a Gbaya-Sara from the northern CAR, which made each ethnically ambiguous in relation to his respective country. As a result both looked for outside "protectors". For Déby it was his original minders, the French and the Sudanese. For Patassé, who hated the French but still ultimately relied on their help, it was more difficult - so he got the support of Colonel Gaddafi and of the DR Congo rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba (the loser of the Congolese presidential elections of July-October 2006).

During the 1990s, Patassé was nearly overthrown twice by popular revolts and he was twice put back in power by a combination of Bemba-supporting Congolese rebels and Libyan troops. This led to hostility on the part of Déby whose Franco-Sudanese support team did not like the CAR support team. This mutual enmity was made worse by the increasing importance of the oil factor in sub-regional politics. So when the Darfur hell broke loose in February 2003, it was bound to reverberate all the way down to the Congo valley.

It went thus. Déby at first tried to support Khartoum against the Darfurian rebels. But his own Zaghawa tribe soon forced him to switch sides and support the rebels instead, because its Sudanese members were part of the rebellion. Since Tripoli was friendly with both Khartoum and Patassé's CAR, Déby then found himself in conflict with both. So in 2003, he supported a coup by General François Bozizé who chased Patassé out of the CAR, switched alliances and became a friend of N'Djamena and an enemy of both Sudan and Libya. This redrew the new lines of alliances to their present configuration. Libya has announced its intention of having a say in the outcome - as well as its opposition to western peacekeepers in Darfur - by positioning soldiers along the Chad-Sudan border.

The oil factor

In June 2000, the World Bank gave a green light to loans to build a pipeline due to be used by an Exxon/Chevron/Petronas consortium for the exploitation of Chadian oil. The contract was hailed at the time as a new model for oil arrangements which would end both corruption by African states and unfair exploitation by foreign multinationals. 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.

The problem was that in exchange for the pipeline bank loan, Chad had to accept drastic profit-sharing conditions. Thus by 2003 when the oil started to flow at a then price of $30 a barrel, N'Djamena hardly got any money. Out of the basic $30, $15 went for the reimbursement of the pipeline building costs; then there was a $3 per barrel discount for the poor quality of the crude. With its 12.5% share, Chad was left with $1.6 per barrel. Even that limited amount was then put in an escrow account entirely devoted to the various virtuous aims spelled out in the initial contract, which left the N'Djamena elite with precious little butter on its bread.

So when Chad got embroiled in the Darfur civil war in 2004, the mounting military needs were increasingly felt and in August 2006 President Déby unilaterally broke the consortium contract and engaged in a global showdown with the oil companies. This created a tempting window of opportunity for Chinese oil interests which were already largely in control of the Sudanese fields. In Chad their western rivals were in trouble and in the CAR, where the Chadian oil fields were thought to extend all the way into the north, General Bozizé was looking for investors. The Chadian rebels who had managed to reach all the way into N'Djamena in April 2006 carried Chinese weapons supplied through Sudan. Déby understood the warning, immediately broke with Taiwan and recognised Beijing instead.

Sudan's push into central Africa

Khartoum is motivated by several factors. The key one is to control Darfur where the present ethnic cleansing is supposed to produce an "Arab" environment, designed to secure the province in case of (probable) secession of the "African" South Sudan, following a scheduled referendum in 2011. Déby's tribe is "African" and therefore dangerous for Darfur. So Déby has to go, or at least to be forced into a pro-Khartoum attitude. A subsidiary benefit could accrue to Beijing if the present oil contracts were terminated or if Déby could be made to see the error of his ways and welcome Chinese companies. There could be a collateral benefit if Bozizé in the CAR either also fell or was pressured into a China-friendly attitude.

Thus, the Sudanese offensive into Chad goes on at full tilt and will continue until Déby is either overthrown or made to change sides. The CAR is a secondary theatre of operations since it has no nuisance capacity in Darfur and since its own oil remains a distant prospect; the peace agreement between the Bangui government and rebels signed in the northeast town of Birao on 13 April confirms its relative position in the wider cataclysm.

Khartoum had been keeping a nice little fire cooking around Birao, ready to stoke it up in case of need; the CAR accord presents the Sudanese government with the need for fresh calculations in the area. But the massacres at the two Sudan-Chad border villages of Tiero and Marena on 31 March 2007 reflect the underlying consistency of Khartoum's approach. Meanwhile, the French, who have fallen out with their old Sudanese accomplices over these unfriendly policies, are trying to protect both Déby and Bozizé.

Even this brief mapping of the situation is enough to show that the Chad/Central African Republic conundrum is far from being a simple spillover of the Darfur conflict. Even if it is closely connected to the situation in western Sudan, it has its own raison d'être. But the crucial factor is Khartoum's political will which drives the spread of the conflict in the region for reasons of ethnic pride, regime security and economic expediency.

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