How will the refugees EUFOR is protecting react when they see the same thugs that killed their families and looted their villages take control?
By Simon Roughneen
With senior Sudanese officials in Paris on 19 June to discuss Chad and Darfur with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, an already dangerous and complex situation for EU troops in eastern Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) looks set to worsen.
After a recent rebel advance in eastern Chad, that country’s president Idriss Déby told national TV that “We welcomed EUFOR with joy […] but it took us by surprise to see, in the first hostile situation, this force cooperating with the invaders.
“We have the right to question the effectiveness of this force and how useful its presence is in Chad.”
Whether EUFOR behaved with partiality or impartiality is not the real issue. Earlier in the week a spokeswoman for the UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) criticized Irish EUFOR troops for failing to protect UN staff in the region, amid recent violence.
But sometimes it is a case of damned if you do, damned of you don’t.
Prior to EUFOR’s deployment, UN agencies and NGOs alike fretted about the perceived neutrality of the French-dominated force and on how humanitarian protection would impact on the agencies’ need to appear neutral on the ground.
Months before, Déby welcomed the force with open arms, no doubt seeing the deployment – given a UN-backed humanitarian-mandate focused mainly on protecting refugees from Darfur – as a thinly veiled French buffer for his regime against the various rebel factions and their Sino-Sudanic backers.
Whether France took the same tack, is of course, impossible to know, but what we do know is that Paris views francophone Africa as its pré carré: reserving a right to meddle in the internal affairs of franceafrique as it sees fit. In the meantime, France provides the bulk of the EU troops, but keeps over 1,200 soldiers in Chad on a bilateral basis, supporting the status quo. By what Jesuitical sophistry can France be neutral and partial at the same time?
Take Déby’s statement as little more than a veiled threat to the Irish, French, Swedes, Poles and others that should the rebels make headway west toward N’djamena, EUFOR soldiers could come under fire, not from the rebels who prior to deployment threatened to fight EUFOR, but from government forces.
The Chadian president has clearly gambled on EUFOR being drawn into a fight should the rebels make a move prior to the looming rainy season, which once in place, will mean a military status quo.
One rebel leader recently told Agence France Presse that he had no quarrel with EUFOR, so long as it did not intervene with their mission to topple Déby. Thus the Chadian president can only view Thursday’s meeting between French and Sudanese officials with alarm, as it was French intervention that rescued his regime in February, after the rebel attack on N’djamena. Kouchner prefaced the meeting with the Sudanese by remarks made in Abidjan last week that France would not intervene on either side of the Chadian dispute.
In other words, Déby feels he could fall to a coup attempt similar to the one he led in 1990, deposing Hissene Habre after a dash across the desert all the way from his redoubt in Darfur. Similar to the current drama unfolding in the same arid Sahelian scrubland.
It is not just the intricacies of Chadian politics that affect the strategic context within which EUFOR operates. Sure, Darfur is the proximate deployment rationale, and most analyses of the region make point-by-point appraisal of the “Darfurisation” of eastern Chad, and to a lesser-extent, the “Chadification” of Darfur.
Fair enough, given the cross-border kin alliances that underlie the various militias and militaries operating in the eastern Chad-Darfur region. But insufficient, given the high-stakes power-play being waged by the plethora of ruthless antagonists, some of whom who have not baulked at the murder of millions of their own people. Therefore, seeing the crisis merely through the lens of Darfur draws attention away from the tangled web of fighting and subterfuge across the region.
On one level, the cross-border activity of armed combatants with fluid loyalties constitutes an important factor that is often overlooked. For example, Deby is Zaghawa, as are most of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM – now the most important Darfur rebel group) leadership, yet at the same time, the Forces for Change (RFC) militias in Chad, fighting against Deby and supported by Khartoum, are also Zaghawa.
While ethnic factors are real, no assumptions can be made about political or military loyalties based on tribe or kin, only to note above all that kin matters. To illustrate, off-the-record correspondence between this reporter and Chadian military figures close to Abeche describes Zaghawa affiliated, one way or another, to JEM and RFC – which are de facto at war – at the same time.
Power in Chad has always been decided at gunpoint, while Sudan has been at war for all bar 11 years of its post-independence history. Power here truly comes from the barrel of a gun.
The Sudanese conflicts may prove decisive. As you read this, Khartoum-backed Chadian rebels are on the march in eastern Chad, the latest gambit in a series of tit-for-tat maneuvers that saw the JEM launch its unprecedented and jaw-droppingly audacious attack on Omdurman, on Khartoum’s western Nile bank on 10 May.
Never before had the capital – now an 8 million-strong oil-rich would-be Dubai-in-Africa – been attacked during all of Sudan’s long, intractable and elemental wars.
Khartoum accused France of providing satellite images and intelligence support to JEM via N’djamena, facilitating the rebels’ dash across the desert – no doubt giving Kouchner and his Sudanese counterparts plenty to discuss at their meeting.
Meanwhile, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir described JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim as someone who “sold himself to Israel, Zionism and the devil,” stoking the Islamist fires further after previously accusing Nordic engineering contingents proposed for the UN/African Union force in Darfur, as “agents of the CIA and Mossad.”
Looming large in the background are north-south relations in Sudan. Government partners since a landmark peace deal after a 1983-2005 war, which saw the deaths of 2 million people and the displacement of 4 million others, the two sides are now on the verge of all-out war once more.
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 plus 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 sanitized into the National Congress Party (NCP), a cabal of Islamist generals that took power in a 1989 coup and sheltered Osama bin Laden. Abdul Wahid heads up another Darfur rebel group called the Sudan Liberation Movement, and he asserts that the NCP now backs and arms Hamas.
The SPLM/A has been criticized for not doing anything to rein in the NCP and its savage janjaweed proxies in Darfur, due to its own obsession with keeping the north-south deal on track. That agreement allows the south vote on secession in 2011, and with it, much of Sudan’s lucrative oil. The NCP, backed by oil-thirsty China, will not cede the oil (read Abyei) without a fight.
According Abdullahi El-Tom, an advisory board member of the Irish government’s overseas aid section, JEM is trying to form an alliance with the SPLM/A. El-Tom is JEM’s head of strategic planning. The only surprise is that this has not yet happened, given the destruction wrought on Abyei, which was mostly populated by the Dinka, the main ethnic cohort making up the SPLM/A.
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. International Criminal Court indictments mean that senior NCP officials will face trial, should they lose the protection afforded by their security-crazed regime. High stakes indeed.
China for its part, does not want a peaceful transition in Sudan, as this may see the lifting of sanctions preventing US oil companies competing for the black gold. JEM attacked Chinese oil facilities in Kordofan, between Darfur and Khartoum in late 2007, and no doubt China sees the JEM assault on Khartoum as a serious threat to its own interests in Sudan.
Back to Chad: Khartoum’s will to power means that it cannot countenance an assertive Déby and JEM, and recent Chadian rebel attacks in the east must be seen as part of this bigger picture.
The NCP sees Chad as a means to assert itself regionally, and by deposing the president there, acquire real strategic depth vis-a-vis Darfur, and by extension, the rest of the vast Sudan it seeks to retain control of.
That is why there are only 9,000 of the projected 26,000 UN/African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, and that is why Khartoum retains a veto over what countries can deploy to the region. A strong UNAMID+EUFOR+Deby = trouble for Khartoum. Add JEM+SPLM/A and the NCP fears encirclement and ultimately, regime change.
The upshot is, when the NCP and SPLM/A fight over oil in Abyei, the ripple effects reach as far as EUFOR in eastern Chad. The Europeans are ostensibly neutral, the French are apparently not going to stop Khartoum (read Beijing) from toppling Déby.
But the problem is this: EUFOR went to Chad to protect Darfurian refugees already brutalized by the Khartoum regime and its janjaweed militias, who both work hand-in-glove with the Chadian rebels seeking to replace 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 to take control of Chad, when EUFOR is in Chad in the first place to deal with some of the fall-out from Darfur? At the very least, how will the refugees EUFOR is protecting react when they see the same thugs that killed and raped and looted their villages take control?
Again, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.Show