Under-fire Irish troops protecting Darfur refugees in Chad could soon be caught up in an impossible situation, as the power-play dynamics in the wider region unfold amid accusations from all sides of European partiality
After a recent rebel advance in eastern Chad, including a shoot-out between the militias and Irish troops, last week, Chad president Idriss Déby questioned European neutrality on national TV.
“We welcomed EUFOR with joy… but it took us by surprise to see, in the first hostile situation, this force cooperating with the invaders.
This came just days after a UNHCR spokeswoman slated Irish EUFOR troops for failing to protect UN staff in the region, amid the recent violence.
But sometimes it is a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.
Initially, the fear was that Sudan-backed Chadian rebels would fight EUFOR, but one of the four rebel factions recently stated that they had no quarrel with the force – so long as it kept out of Chad’s warlord-politics. Déby fears he could fall to a rerun version of his own 1990 coup, when he deposed Hissene Habre after driving on N’djamena from Darfur.
Yet, no assumptions can be made about tribal political or military loyalties in Chad, only to note that tribe matters. However, the tribal and regional factors are not the main drivers of conflict in eastern Chad or Darfur, nor are these the reason why EUFOR is in such a dangerous bind.
Khartoum-backed Chadian rebels are on the march in eastern Chad, the latest gambit in a series of tit-for-tat moves that saw Sudanese rebel group JEM launch an audacious attack on Khartoum on 10 May. Never before had the capital – now an eight-million-strong oil-rich would-be Dubai-in-Africa – been attacked during all of Sudan’s wars.
Looming large are north-south relations in Sudan. Government partners after a 1983-2005 war, which saw the deaths of two million people, the two sides now verge on resumed all-out war. After the JEM assault on Khartoum, long-simmering tensions around the oil hub Abyei, which sits on the north-south line, erupted into fearsome violence. Northern soldiers destroyed the town and sent its 30,000 residents fleeing into the bush.
The southern partner in government is the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army (SPLM/A). Khartoum is metonymy for the National Islamic Front, now sanitised into the National Congress party (NCP), a cabal of Islamist generals that took power in a 1989 coup and since sheltered Osama bin Laden and now arms Hamas and Hezbollah.
The SPLM/A has done little to rein in the NCP in neighbouring Darfur, as it wants to keep the north-south deal on track, which allows the south the vote on secession in 2011, and a new South Sudan state would take with it much of Sudan’s lucrative oil.
The NCP, backed by oil-thirsty China, will not concede without a fight. With elections across Sudan slated for 2009, the NCP will go back to war, rather than lose power, as it almost certainly will in any legitimate vote.
China does not want a peaceful transition as this could end sanctions preventing US companies competing for the oil. JEM attacked Chinese oil facilities in late 2007, alerting Beijing to a serious threat to its Sudanese interests.
By replacing Déby, Al-Bashir can end the JEM threat, acquire real strategic depth vis-à-vis Darfur and the rest of Sudan. That explains why only 9,000 of the projected 26,000 UN/African Union (UNAMID) peacekeepers are in Darfur. A strong UNAMID+ EUFOR+Deby = trouble for Khartoum, and adding JEM+SPLM/A, the NCP fears régime-change, and China fears western competition for oil.
Thus, when the NCP and SPLM/A fight over oil in Abyei, the ripple effects reach as far as EUFOR, and with JEM now seeking an alliance with the SPLM/A, these ripples could become crashing waves.
The Europeans are ostensibly neutral, and the French are apparently not going to stop Khartoum from toppling Déby.
But the problem is this: EUFOR went to Chad to protect Darfurian refugees already brutalised by the Khartoum regime and its militias, who both work hand-in-glove with the Chadian rebels seeking to oust Déby, and take control of Chad’s own ample oil resources.
Can EUFOR really allow the perpetrators of what some have called genocide in Darfur take power in Chad, when EUFOR’s raison d’être is to deal with Darfur fallout? How will the refugees EUFOR is protecting react when they see the same thugs that killed, raped and looted in their villages take control in the country they seek refuge in?
Again, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Simon Roughneen has reported from Sudan and Darfur and is author of ‘Post Settlement Sudan – Between Power and Empowerment’, in Beyond Settlement (AUP 2008)Show