Chad and the Sahel: Pacification or Europe´s new Afghanistan in Africa?

Chad and the Sahel: Pacification or Europe´s new Afghanistan in Africa?

In the last weeks, several columns of rebel fighters have entered Chad from neighboring Libya with the intention of unseating long-time strongman and friend of the West Idriss Déby Itno, Chad’s ruler for the past thirty years. Despite multiple claims by Chad’s government spokesman that the rebel formation had been defeated, this weekend US, French, and UK embassies ordered withdrawals from their embassies or advised their nationals to leave immediately or shelter in place citing a likelihood of violence in the capital, N’Djamena. The attack comes two years after French Mirage fighter jets intervened on Déby’s behalf to destroy a similar offensive by the FACT rebel group and only a week after Déby contested his sixth presidential election in which he is expected to win handily in a vote widely seen as fraudulent.

Chad sits strategically astride the Sahel and the Horn of Africa and has largely been viewed by Western powers as a critical state in staunching the spread of radical Islam and terrorism from the western Sahel region and as a buffer to the long-term instability coming from Sudan’s Darfur region on Chad’s eastern border. Chad shares its northern border with Libya and has been seen as an important part of regional strategies to stem the tide of instability emanating from its collapse since the overthrow of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi

Chad’s former leader, Marshal Idriss Déby Itno, has ruled Chad for thirty years, having overthrown his mentor and predecessor, Hissène Habré, who is himself now serving a life sentence on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture, conducted while Déby served as his army chief. Just last week, Chad held presidential elections where Déby declared, “I know in advance that I will win.” Preliminary results that are just now beginning to emerge suggest that he is right. Most outside observers agree that Déby’s re-election to a sixth six-year term is a foregone conclusion given that he disqualified fully half of the candidates who sought to unseat him; attacked, jailed, and intimidated his closest contenders; and banned campaign and protest rallies for the remaining candidates in the weeks leading up to the April 11 vote. After he changed the constitution in 2018, allowing himself an additional two terms as president, Déby could now serve until 2033, a total of forty-three years.

Déby’s efforts to undermine the opposition and hollow out civil society were both a function and a driver of his growing unpopularity in the country. Déby’s inability to turn billions of dollars in oil revenue accumulated since Chad started exporting its production through a World Bank-financed oil pipeline has emerged as a particular sore point for any Chadian not a part of Déby’s Zaghawa tribe, who have benefited the most from the corrupt patronage system that oil wealth has created. When the World Bank pulled out of the pipeline deal in 2008, its final report noted “Chad failed to comply with the key requirements of this agreement. . . The government did not allocate adequate resources critical for poverty reduction.”

What is Déby’s relationship with Western powers today?

Déby had strong ties to Washington and Paris, who for decades have largely overlooked his abysmal record of human, civil, and political rights at home because of his strength and reliability in leading military operations against common foes across the region. Déby earned his reputation as a tough-as-nails military tactician during the decade of Chad’s wars with Libya in the 1980s, leading one of the few African armies to successfully beat back Libyan influence and incursions.

Trained in France as a pilot and in military tactics, Déby in recent years earned admiration and respect for his role in France’s Operation Barkhane and the broader G5 Sahel initiative, a US, European, and African security mission deployed primarily across Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso to roll back the terrorist threat there. Déby has been equally active in neighboring Nigeria in combatting Boko Haram elements and even famously complained to the New York Times about “a definite deficit of coordination, and a lack of common action” from the Nigerian army in the fight. Déby’s main political opponent, Saleh Kebzabo, who boycotted last week’s presidential election, has described Déby’s relations with the West the most succinctly, “They’ve found someone to do their dirty work. Then, they close their eyes.”

Beyond “dirty work,” Déby has also sought to disarm his Western critics through other relations of convenience. He had ingratiated himself with a generation of French military officers who have at some point in their careers cycled through the French airbase now constituting the largest French presence on the continent and representing the most visible remaining vestige of the Françafrique relations that emerged after African independence that ensured that France’s former colonies remained in a cozy French orbit through a not-so-secretive web of interlocking political, economic, and military ties binding French and African elites. Most significantly, France intervened militarily to ensure Déby’s hold on power when in February 2019 French Mirage fighter jets were dispatched from France’s airbase on the outskirts of N’Djamena to destroy a column of advancing rebels, doubling down on France’s commitment to the autocrat.

Washington, too, along with other European powers, had benefitted from Déby’s strategic decisions. Serving as host to more than a million Darfuri refugees in Chad’s far eastern region for more than a decade, Déby financed much of the relief operation there and allowed Western humanitarian organizations, human rights observers, and journalists ready access to his country to investigate atrocity crimes within Darfuri refugee camps there and as a staging ground into Darfur during the years of Sudan’s genocide against African Darfuris. Similarly, he dispatched his troops to Libya in support of Western efforts to install Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army when that was still the policy, and has been the beneficiary of European Union (EU) and member state funding to crack down on the human trafficking and illegal migration routes stopping migrants before they arrive in Libya to embark for European shores.

Now Deby is dead, his son his successor and a military council rules the country- allegedly only for a transition period of 18 month while elections should follow afterwards. Lybian General Haftar, Russia´s Wagner group support the rebel group FACT against  Deby and the Chadian military, while other Islamist groups also try an insurgency andt the Chad opposition is speaking of a military coup and pushes for new elections and the retreat of Deby´s son.

The opposition immediately announced resistance when it became known that head of state Idriss Déby Itno wanted to be re-elected on April 11th after 30 years in office. Because the country in the Sahel was locked down, public protest was prohibited. Anyone who did not comply was met with brutal violence by the police. As reported by Human Rights Watch, whips, batons and tear gas were used. Those arrested were given electric batons. When the police attacked the house of a competing presidential candidate, his mother was killed. Although Chad can exploit rich oil reserves, it is one of the poorest countries in the world and only scores 1.55 on the democracy index of ten points.

The rebel groups active in the country, including the Islamist Boko Haram, did not want to accept Déby Itno’s sixth mandate with fatalistic resignation. A group called Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT, Front for Change and Unity in Chad) advanced from the north against the capital N’Djamena. Finally, on April 11th, Déby Itno came with a low turnout, according to official figures, to 80 percent. Days later, when he went to the area where his army was fighting the FACT militiamen, he was killed. In contrast to the constitution that has been in force since 2018, according to which if the head of state fails, his function is transferred to the President of the National Assembly and – if he cannot take over – to the Vice-President, a military transition council declared itself his successor. And it is led by the son of the “fallen in battle” – General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno. This junta has announced elections for October 2022 at the earliest, although the constitution stipulates a deadline of between 45 and 90 days in this case. In the eyes of the opposition, a coup took place in Chad.

 The new strong man who is taking on the rule of his clan has been recognized, at least indirectly, by the EU, which often severely sanctions violations of democratic rules in other states. Emmanuel Macron traveled to the funeral of the president who had been transfigured as a martyr and not only expressed his condolences to the Déby-Itno clan. He assured the new ruler that he could count on the same support that his father could count on. “France will not allow anyone today or tomorrow to question the stability and territorial integrity of Chad,” Macron said. Where does this generosity come from? Déby Itno senior has always participated with a strong military corps in the anti-terrorist units of the G5 countries in the Sahel – Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – supported by France and the Bundeswehr. Chad soldiers have already been present in the Central African Republic, Northwestern Nigeria and Mali.

However, the FACT is by no means a political alternative. The name, which refers to the integration of the Muslim tribes in the North and the Christian communities in the South, is no guarantee that this agenda will actually be implemented. FACT Leader Mahamat Mahdi Ali can look back on a decade-long career as a warlord in a tribal group that has bases in northern Chad and in the Libyan Tibesti Mountains. In the 1980s he seconded Muammar al-Gaddafi’s attempts to replace France’s influence on Chad with Libya. It was only logical that Mahdi Ali was involved in the Libyan civil war that broke out ten years ago. Under other names, his fighters helped the Islamist militias of Misrata, which appeared to briefly succeed in seizing power in Libya. When such a coup was thwarted by the secular Libyan National Army (LNA) of General Khalifa Haftars, Mahdi Ali suddenly stood on his side and declared that he was a secularist himself. In the meantime, the FACT has been assigned to the “foreign militias” who are obliged to leave the country according to the new unity government in Tripoli. That may have influenced the decision of the well-armed FACT to advance against N’Djamena. But since the defensive will of the government army and the new military council could not be broken, the FACT is said to have withdrawn – at least temporarily – to Niger. The government there promptly received an extradition request from the new President Déby Itno junior, but this had no consequences because Mahdi Ali is said to be in Northern Chad.

The death of long-term president Déby Itno and the aftermat symbolize the violent collateral damage from the Libyan civil war of 2011 and the internal conflicts in the years that followed. The events highlight the catastrophic situation in the Sahel. The G5 anti-terrorist league, led primarily by France, has so far not been able to turn things around for the better. On the contrary – the power of the brilliantly armed militias is unbroken. At the same time, conflicts between impoverished ethnic groups are increasing in Niger and Chad. Human Rights Watch complains that the G5 military actions directed against Islamists practice the shooting of opposing fighters, but that the civilian population is not spared either. There is no sign of an economic upswing – the only way to really pacify the region. Other wise some experts fear that Chad could become a failed state, the Sahel Europe´s Afghanistan and an Islamist belt might occur in that region or a prolonged instability and civil war.

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