Chad, Sudan and a risky western game – ISN

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refugee camp in Chad (ISN)

refugee camp in Chad (ISN)

China and the West at odds in Africa over oil and refugees, as EU troops stay at home for now.

By Simon Roughneen

With Chad’s capital N’djamena possibly set to fall to a coalition of Sudan-backed rebels, the implications for the United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) remain unclear.

The likelihood is that the establishment of a client government in Chad will give Sudan’s National Congress Party (NCP), the dominant component of the Khartoum government, more scope to impose its will on Darfur, where UN peacekeepers are struggling to make any impact with their apparently stillborn mission.

Khartoum’s policy on Darfur was made very clear by its reaction to the insurgency that broke out in the region during 2003. By 2004, the Sudanese army and its Janjaweed militia vanguard were in the midst of a scorched-earth campaign that has left at least 200,000 dead and around 2.5 million languishing in camps, with another 240,000 refugees in Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). Mass rape and the targeted murder of men and boys have been hallmarks of the counterinsurgency, which a previous AU peacekeeping mission was powerless to contain.

While large-scale fighting no longer takes place, a proliferation of rebel factions and shifting tribal alliances mean that the military situation is difficult to keep tabs on and humanitarian access often difficult for the agencies and NGOs struggling to improve the lot for Darfur’s traumatized camp-denizens.

After numerous failed internationally brokered ceasefires, and a stillborn May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), Chinese arm-twisting resulted in Khartoum’s consent to a joint UN/AU peacekeeping force, which took to the field on 1 January 2008.

However, the Sudanese demanded that the force be entirely African, save for Pakistani and Chinese contingents, and have placed onerous restrictions on the operational scope of the hybrid deployment, banning night movement and requiring official permission to conduct flights. A week after boots got on the ground, the Sudanese army fired on a truck convoy in western Darfur, near the Chad border.

With the Chadian air force having bombed Sudanese army positions inside Darfur in late December, the borderlands in Darfur have become a strategic hornet’s nest and a crucible for an international conflict between Sudan and Chad, backed by China and France, respectively.

EUFORs compromised mandate

Darfur’s own troubles are entwined in this, and to date the prime mover in all cases seems to be the NCP, which is maneuvering to remain in power amid a plethora of challenges – in Darfur, and deriving from the 2005 peace deal struck with mainly Christian southern third of Sudan.

If Chadian rebels have taken control in N’djamena, the immediate consequence will be the installation of a pro-Sudan, pro-China regime and the curtailment of the proposed EU humanitarian-peacekeeping force (EUFOR) set to deploy to Chad and CAR.

The UN-mandated EUFOR has a threefold mission: It aims to protect refugees from the Darfur region and displaced people within eastern Chad itself; facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance; and protect UN personnel, equipment and facilities.

Between November 2007 and January 2008, a half-dozen hijackings of international NGO vehicles took place in eastern Chad. Insecurity has severely curtailed aid workers’ efforts to help Darfurian refugees and Chadian IDPs. That the UNHCR had to remove its staff from the very camps that EUFOR aims to protect, as the rebels advanced from east to west last week, shows that EUFOR is badly needed.

However, despite its apparently benign intentions and the public expressions of impartiality and neutrality on the part of EU foreign ministers, EUFOR’s mandate was tarnished from the outset because France was set up as its main contributor, providing 2,000 of the expected 3,700 soldiers.

Since 1986, France has kept over 1,000 soldiers (including special forces and intelligence backed by substantial air support) in Chad in an attempt to maintain stability in the conflict-prone ex-colony. Back then, Cold War exigencies and an audacious move by Libya to take over the northern part of the country and install a client in the capital gave Paris added incentive to station troops in the center of Africa.

Chadian President Idriss Deby came to power in 1990 with Sudanese backing, launching his rebellion against Hissene Habre from Darfur one year after the NCP had taken over in Khartoum.

Deby was supported by his kinfolk, the Zaghawa, in Darfur and by the Islamist revolutionary ideologue Hassan al-Turabi, who fell out with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, with whom he collaborated in 1989. When the Darfur rebellion broke out, al-Turabi, by then deeply at odds with al-Bashir, was rumored to have close links with the Zaghawa Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and after initially refusing to support his fellow Zaghawa in the rebellion against Khartoum, Deby relented, helping JEM morph from a politically zealous but militarily ineffective outfit (compared to other Darfurian rebel groups such as the Sudan Liberation Army) to a militia capable of taking on Sudanese regulars in western Darfur, and attacking oil depots outside Darfur, in the south-central Kordofan region.

Deby’s warplanes flew bombing raids into western Darfur in December 2007 and January 2008, supporting JEM raids and targeting some of the same Chadian insurgents now fighting on the streets of N’djamena.

Sudan protested to the same UN Security Council it had defied for years over Darfur and South Sudan, but Khartoum’s answer to Deby came last week, when in the days after the EU foreign ministers made a rather hubristic announcement that their neutral and impartial force would bring relief to eastern Chad’s camps, Chadian rebels set aside their squabbles and town by town, pushed on N’djamena, where now vicious street battles are ongoing with government troops.

In 2006, a similar offensive was beaten back to eastern Chad and Darfur by Deby’s troops, ably supported by the French army. This time, however, French troops have not come to their protégé’s aid, merely securing buildings where ex-patriots are holed up and running evacuations.

As yet the reason for this remains unclear. Chad claims that the rebel attack was Khartoum’s response to the imminent EUFOR deployment, and if so, the upshot of a rebel takeover would likely mean no EUFOR in Chad.

However, that should mean that the French would assist Deby as they did two years ago. Now, however, any pretence of EUFOR impartiality would be jettisoned if the French sent the rebels packing.

Perhaps they hope to cut a deal with the rebels should there be a change of the guard in N’djamena, not interfering with what Khartoum has dubbed “an internal Chadian matter.”

A dangerous game

All a game of course, and should the rebels cut a deal with the French, then Khartoum may see that it has been double-crossed.

As things stand, it is too early to see how this will play out. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to reframe France’s patron-client buddying-up to corrupt allies in Africa. He took time out from preparing to marry model girlfriend Carla Bruni to speak with Deby by telephone, as the rebels moved toward the N’djamena, but beyond that, has not moved to shore up the Chadian president, or so it seems.

At stake is Chad’s oil, which came on stream in 2003, granting Deby lavish revenues to fund his counterinsurgency. Deby has manipulated Chad’s constitution to allow him a third term as president, and his government is notably corrupt, abrogating a World Bank-led scheme to have oil revenues spent on health, education and invested for the future.

Two of the main rebel factions are headed by former Deby apparatchiks and family members, who doubtless have designs on the oil largesse. As does the NCPs patron in Beijing, which has largely stood by Khartoum throughout the Darfur catastrophe, despite the bad publicity in the run-up to this years’ Olympic Games.

With south Sudan likely to secede in 2011 and take with it much of Sudan’s oil – though north-south borders have not been decided, as the NCP seeks the best line possible – new oil sources via a client regime in Chad would be welcomed in Beijing, as a sanction-covered Sudan is out of bounds for western petroleum investment. South Sudan would not be out of bounds, however, and Beijing would have to contend with western oil company rivals in Juba.

Chad provides an alternative, and Deby himself has sought to curry Chinese favor by switching diplomatic allegiance from Taipei, which in hindsight looks like a pre-emptive move to show the Chinese that they did not need to depose him to access Chad’s oil.

However, allowing almost 4,000 EU troops into Chad would interfere with Khartoum’s war in Darfur, and should Deby gain the upper hand against the Chadian rebels on the back of EU troops in Chad, then the JEM military threat in Darfur would increase, as Khartoum loses the strategic depth it needs in Chad. JEM’s attacks on Chinese-run oil facilities in November 2007 doubtless did little to humor Beijing, and all told, left the Chinese more eager to see Deby out of the picture. Last week was the final window to conduct this operation, before EU troops fanned out into eastern Chad. The rebels made their move, but whether or not they succeed remains to be seen.

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