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Policemen try to keep order as people carrying their belongings pour across the Ngueli bridge fleeing fighting in N'Djamena. Reuters Photo, Feb. 4 2008
Policemen try to keep order as people carrying their belongings pour across the Ngueli bridge fleeing fighting in N'Djamena. Reuters Photo, Feb. 4 2008

As Chadian rebels retreat from N’djamena, the Idriss Déby régime is claiming victory over what it and its French backer describe as Sudanese-backed aggressors. For its part, the rebel coalition has described its retreat as merely tactical, telling civilians to follow the 15,000 or so that have crossed into next-door Cameroon.Either way, the stand-off holds, and Paris has stated that should the rebels attempt another attack, it will reconsider the laissez-faire stance taken during the offensive last weekend, when it moved its Mirage fighter jets away from the line of fire and restricted its soldiers to protecting expatriate civilians and helping with evacuations.In any case, the French would never let the international airport fall into rebel hands,and despite Déby’s refusal of an offer to evacuate, would not let him fall, unless there had been some dramatic about-turn in relations between the French and the rebels.

This would constitute an audacious double-crossing of Khartoum by their Chadian rebel proxies, who formed their united front after a meeting held in western Darfur during December. The Sudanese military intelligence reminded them of the task at hand—deposing Déby—that the imminent deployment of well-armed Europeans to the region, just before the rainy season, left them with little time to act.

When the rebels last tried to storm N’djamena in April 2006, they were poorly-prepared, apparently mistaking the parliament building for the more important Presidential palace, while some insurgents got lost on the unfamiliar streets. This time, the aggressive and coordinated attack came much closer to success, after assiduous Sudanese grooming in western Darfur.

It seems that Déby and his French patrons were caught on the hop by the rebels’ western blitzkrieg, with little resistance offered before heavy street fighting kicked-off between government soldiers and tanks confronting over 300 rebel trucks in and around N’djamena.The French, for their part, stood accused of flying intelligence and surveillance flights over rebel bases in eastern Chad and passing the information to Déby. How they did not anticipate last week’s attack remains unclear, not least as it came in the days after EU foreign ministers hubristically proclaimed EUFORs imminent deployment on Monday, January 28.

The rebels had threatened to attack EUFOR, disputing its neutrality, as the force will feature almost 2000 French troops of the 3700 total. The problem for the rest of the EUFOR contingents, coming from twelve other nations, is that France is not an impartial player in Chad, and makes no pretence at being so. Around 1300 troops are stationed in-country under a 1986 agreement to support the incumbent President.

The rebels would appear more sincere had they not found such unwholesome allies as the Janjaweed militias.

As the Chadian rebels advanced west last week, aid agencies were forced to suspend operations in the camps, coming after an upsurge in hijackings and deterrence tactics by the rebels and other local bandits in late 2007. So while 240,000 refugees from Darfur and around 130,000 displaced Chadian languish in camps in eastern Chad, the much-needed protection force which would ensure these traumatized civilians receive adequate humanitarian relief, is stillborn for now.There can be little doubt that Khartoum sparked last week’s attack, and that beyond that, its own patron in Beijing consented as well. With 10000 UN peacekeepers in Sudan since the 2005 peace agreement with the south, and another 9000 UNAMID soldiers in Darfur, the National Congress Party (NCP) doubtless sees EUFOR as an additional threat, as it would hinder deploying Chadian rebels against Déby, who is a key backer of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), mainly comprised Zaghawa kinsmen and thought to be close to Hassan al-Turabi, the now-estranged ideologue behind the NCP coup in Sudan back in 1989.

Black Gold, Once Again

Getting rid of JEM means deposing Déby, and this necessity overcame the Chadian overtures made to Beijing since the opening of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. Déby ditched Taiwan in favor of formal diplomatic relations with Beijing, and Chinese investment has begun in Chad’s oil industry. But JEM attacked Chinese-run oil installations in Kordofan, east of Darfur, during autumn 2007, which doubtless focused minds in Beijing.

Allegations that Sudanese warplanes were flying over eastern Chad should be no surprise, as Déby’s own fighter planes gave air support to JEM ground attacks in western Darfur in late 2007.

Oil again lubricates the wheels of conflict in Africa. Déby welched on a deal brokered by the World Bank to ensure that Chad’s oil revenues get spent on health and education, as well as placed in trust for a future after the wells run dry—akin to schemes in place in other petro-states such as Norway and East Timor. Chad’s generals thought otherwise, and the revenues have been redirected into military spending and the war in the east, with little opposition from the French or the main oil drillers. For their part, the rebels, led by former Déby cronies, would appear more sincere in their protestations against the incumbent’s corruption and misappropriation, had they not found such unwholesome allies as the Janjaweed militias, who ride with the rebels into camps and villages along the vast dustbowl that is the Chad-Sudan borderlands.

Doubtless the rebels have designs of their own on the alluring black gold, as do their benefactors in Khartoum, who may lose oil revenues should south Sudan secede in 2011. Beijing too stands to gain, with a client regime in power it will have greater access to Chadian oil drilling, infrastructure development and exports, meeting more of its growing oil needs.However Déby has not fallen yet, and his past form suggests that he is capable of a theatrical counter-attack. Allegations that Sudanese warplanes were flying over eastern Chad in recent days should be no surprise, as Déby’s own fighter planes gave air support to JEM ground attacks in western Darfur in late 2007. And as the rebels encircled N’djamena, Chad told the UN Security Council that it reserves the right to act in self-defense, by which it means a military attack in Sudan.

Now an international war looms in the Sahel, and will likely be fought in the already-scorched earth of Darfur and eastern Chad, where so much horror has been visited upon civilians over the past five years.


Simon Roughneen is a freelance journalist and has reported from Sudan in the past. His Between Power and Empowerment – Post-Settlement Sudan will be published in as part of Associated University Press “Beyond Settlement” series in 2008.

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