French role threatens Chad force neutrality – The Irish Examiner

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Last Monday foreign ministers proclaimed the imminent deployment of EUFOR – the ‘neutral and impartial’ military humanitarian mission to Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). In the days since, developments in Chad and elsewhere have underlined just dangerous and complex a region the almost-4000 Europeans are to work in.

The first batch of what will be 400 Irish troops saw their deployment postponed last night, as fighting continued close to N’djamena, after Chadian rebels drove all the way from their Darfur base to within 60km of the capital, in the few days since the EU announcement.

The mission is headed by Ireland’s Lt. General Patrick Nash – who will be based in Paris throughout the one-year mandate. However forces on ground will be led, predictably and problematically, by France. Pre-dating its imminent deployment of EUFOR troops, Paris keeps 1200 military personnel in Chad on a bilateral basis, supported by Mirage fighter jets and high-end surveillance and intelligence-gathering equipment, all in the name of ‘stability’, or keeping corrupt incumbent Idriss Déby in power while stopping Sudan-funded rebels from seizing power.

Thus the neutral and impartial EUFOR will feature around 2000 French soldiers, who will wear the same uniform as the bilateral contingent, which is not neutral or impartial, and makes no pretence at being so. Last Tuesday a rebel spokesman named Abderaman Koulamallah told Agence France Press that France was “totally involved in the war” and it “has no legitimacy to take part in an international force.” He said that “we were bombed by Déby’s aircraft from a very high altitude and over-flown by French military Breguet Atlantic and Mirage planes.”

As early as last September, two of the rebel groups fighting the Déby regime threatened EUFOR. To paraphrase the mission mandate, EUFOR is going to Chad to protect around 200,000 Darfurian refugees who have fled the depredations of the Janjaweed, as well as around 150,000 Chadians displaced from their homes in the east. The rebel advance over the past few days means that agencies have had to withdraw staff from exposed camps in the east, underlining the real need for protection that EUFOR is designed to provide.

However deploying European soldiers to a conflict-wracked ex-French colony will have strategic and political spin-offs, no matter how benign or noble the intentions of the mission, even before the French connection is made. However, that link is there. In April 2006, Chadian rebels drove hundreds of armed pick-up trucks hundreds of miles across their arid country, only to be driven from the outskirts of N’djamena by government troops backed by French
special forces and military intelligence.

Neither Libya, which sought to conquer northern Chad during the 1980s, nor Egypt, an ally of Sudan, are happy about EU troops deploying to their neighbourhood. Even as the EU foreign ministers exulted in Monday’s announcement, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadhafi relived his old-school role of fly-in-the-western-ointment, as he staged a meeting between SudanesePresident Omar al-Bashir and Déby. That went nowhere, but Gadhafi’s intention – to undermine the EU initiative – was clear.

But as we have seen, in the days since Gadhafi’s summit, rebels have advanced toward N’djamena, staking out their claim before the EUFOR arrives. France responded yesterday by dispatching 150 soldiers from Gabon, another former colony, to protect its nationals in the capital. That the rebel advance seems to be a united front of formerly rival factions, all opposed to Déby but hitherto unable to cohere effectively due to clan and turf wars, is telling. In December the Sudanese Army held a gathering of its Chadian rebel proxies based in Darfur, and told them that they must set aside their differences and focus on removing the President, something that will be more difficult to do once EUFOR is fully-established.

Chad supports the Darfurian Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which has its powerbase among the Zaghawa tribe, who live on both sides of the international border dividing Sudan from Chad. Déby is Zaghawa, and although he initially refused to support rebels in Darfur, by 2005 swooned at the siren call of kith and kin. During December and January just gone, JEM and the Sudanese Army fought numerous times in western Darfur, and Chadian warplanes flew bombing raids into western Darfur to support JEM ground attacks.

EUFOR is not only getting in Chadian rebels way, but is interfering with longer-term vested interests in Sudan, raising the stakes higher. No doubt Khartoum sees EUFOR as another western-held leash on its strategic ambitions. With 10,000 UN peacekeepers in Christian South Sudan since a separate but shaky 2005 peace deal, and a new UN-African Union force (UNAMID) in Darfur since January 1, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) – a rehatted version of the bin Laden-sheltering Islamist-military cabal that seized power in a 1989 coup – feels surrounded. The 2005 dealmeans national elections for 2009, and the potential secession of oil-rich southern Sudan in 2011. Before that, the NCP would likely lose those elections, pending the big ‘if’ that these be transparent. And if the south then secedes, much of the oil revenue needed to fund militia allies and proxies in Sudan and Chad will be gone, and with it Chinese support at the UN, as Beijing will go where the oil is.

Most likely the NCP will delay the 2009 polls. If Darfur remains chaotic, or if the NCP goes back to war with southern Sudan, then elections will be impossible, and the NCP can retain power and oil money. If Deby can deal with Chadian rebels, then Khartoum’s objectives will be undermined, not least in Darfur, as JEM and the French-backed Chadians will have a clear run at the borderlands there.

Simon Roughneen has worked in Sudan on numerous occasions, with GOAL and as a journalist, and his ‘Caught in a Power-Trap: Sudan’s Post-Agreement Institutions’, will be published in Beyond Settlement (Associated University
Press, 2008).

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