At a European Union (EU) foreign ministers meeting on January 28, it was finally confirmed that Ireland’s Lieutenant-General Patrick Nash would lead French, Swedish and Irish soldiers, as well as contingents from ten other contributor nations, to Chad and the northeastern Central African Republic (CAR), in an almost-4000-strong humanitarian-military mission to be known as EUFOR Chad/CAR.
Conflicting reports at time of writing suggested that Chadian rebels had taken much of Chad’s capital N’djamena in the first days of February, but with government troops continuing to fight to dislodge the Sudan-backed insurgents. The rebels may have temporarily withdrawn from N’djamena, but could well return once reinforcements arrive. Should the capital fall, EUFOR would almost certainly be stillborn, since the rebels are backed by a regime in Sudan dominated by the military-Islamist cabal in power since a 1989 coup. That regime now feels itself surrounded, physically and politically, by hostile forces, and does not want EUFOR deployed.
The UN-mandated EUFOR has a threefold mission. It aims to protect refugees from Sudan’s scorched-earth Darfur region as well as 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, relief operations in the area have been severely disrupted with a half-dozen hijackings of international NGO vehicles, presumably by rebels. Insecurity has sharply curtailed aid workers’ efforts to help Darfurian refugees and Chadian IDPs. Last week, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had to remove its staff from the very camps that EUFOR aims to protect, as the rebels advanced from east to west, underscoring the need for EUFOR’s early deployment.
But as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sending well-armed European soldiers into an African war zone may be the right thing to do, but it cannot but upset the local balance of power. EUFOR came to be seen in the region as a protagonist in a tangled web of conflict, with Chad’s civil war dovetailing with that in Darfur, and an escalating Sudan-Chad war, where the two sides are backed by China and France respectively. In December, Sudan summoned usually fractious militia groups to a meeting in el-Geneina in western Darfur, and urged them forget their squabbles and focus on the task at hand – getting rid of Chad’s President Idris Deby before the Europeans deployed. This is the scheme that has led to today’s turmoil in N’djamena.
EUFOR is meant to complement the new United Nations African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which has been operating in Darfur since January 1. This joint UN-African Union force will likely remain under-manned and under-equipped for the foreseeable future, and UN peacekeeping officials fear that it may take over a year for the force to approach full strength. UNAMID comes after years of failed diplomacy aimed at ending the Darfur conflict. Khartoum’s ruling clique, ably backed by oil-thirsty China at the UN Security Council, time and again ran rings around half-hearted western attempts to stop the violence in that region.
The prospect of European troops in Chad represents a strategic challenge to the regime of President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, which above all is concerned with staying in power. The events in Chad have everything to do with Sudan’s internal politics. In 2009, nation-wide general elections are to be held in Sudan under the landmark 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Arab and Muslim northern part of Sudan, dominated by al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), and the southern section of Christians and other non-Muslims of African heritage. The CPA ended, at least temporarily, a twenty-year war that killed 2 million people before Darfur ever came to international consciousness and consciences. The NCP would likely lose the 2009 elections, if they go ahead, and if they are free and fair. These are two big ifs, and the UN is ramping up for a major pre-electoral voter registration and transparent procedure drive which Khartoum will do everything it can to subvert.
Apart from the 2009 election, the CPA also mandates a 2011 referendum on independence in the South, and if the South secedes it will take with it with it much of the revenue from oil sales to China. This is the money the NCP uses to fund operations in Darfur and maintain its domestic security empire.
The CPA was one of the Bush administrations’ key foreign policy successes, with the Bashir regime, which had once given shelter to Osama bin-Laden, brought to heel by fears of retaliation after 9-11. However, the CPA might best be seen as a tactical retreat by savvy strategists in Khartoum who felt that the spirit of the agreement could be undermined in good time. To the NCP, EUFOR and UNAMID look like encirclement aimed undermining its ability to evade the CPA and to bring about its ultimate defeat. Khartoum is already nervous about the 10,000 UN peacekeepers in southern Sudan as part of the CPA, and fears that new international deployments in Darfur and Chad will further reduce its room for maneuver.
The black gold of southern Sudan keeps Beijing and Khartoum hand-in-hand, and it also finances Chadian rebels. Deby is Zaghawa, and this tribe lives in both Chad and Darfur. After initially stonewalling his kinsmen after the Darfur rebellion broke out in 2003, Déby buckled and continues to support the mainly Zaghawa Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). In early 2008, Chadian air support helped JEM overwhelm Sudanese army posts across western Darfur, upping the military ante.
Ethnic ties aside, Chadian politics have often been decided from Darfur. In 1990, Deby himself deposed Chad’s then ruler, Hissene Habre, after leading a 300-strong convoy of battle-readied pick-up trucks almost 1000 miles from Darfur to N’djamena, and Habre before that took power from a Darfurian safe haven as well. In April 2006, Deby was nearly unseated after Khartoum-backed rebels undertook another desert rally from Darfur. None of the participants in the current struggle are angels. Deby has undermined a World Bank-led agreement for transparent social spending of Chad’s oil revenues in order to enable his generals prosecute the war against the insurgents. The rebels themselves are led by former Deby apparatchiks, who doubtless have designs of their own on Chad’s oil wealth.
Some of EUFORs difficulties are of its own making. The main problem is that the French comprise the largest contingent to ostensibly-neutral EUFOR, but France provides separate bilateral support to the incumbent President of Chad. French backing was key to halting rebels outside the capital in 2006, preserving Deby’s corrupt autocracy, and if Deby is to fend off this latest challenge, French support will be needed again. As early as October 2007, the Chadian rebel group Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) said of the incoming EUFOR mission: “Providing diplomatic, strategic and logistical support to the tyrant Idris Deby is an act of hostility and will be treated as such.”
In franceafrique, to cite Charles de Gaulle’s term for France’s former colonies, French interests predominate. Since independence, France has sought and fought to run clients in N’djamena, contending with Libyan, Sudanese and now Chinese-backed challenges. To that end, Paris keeps around 1,200 troops in Chad, backed by high-end Mirage fighter jets, and these will remain long after EUFOR departs. Chadian rebels, their Sudanese backers – and Chadian civilians riled by the recent Zoe’s Ark orphan scandal – may see little difference between French troops explicitly deployed to protect Deby, and French and other troops working on EUFORs more benign mission. (Zoe’s Ark, a French organization, is charged with attempting to abduct Chadian children for adoption in France, claiming they were Darfur orphans.)
It appears that the Chadian rebels and their backers in Khartoum made up their mind on this offensive in Chad well in advance, and last week sought to take their final shot at preventing the EUFOR deployment and deposing Deby. If they succeed, EUFOR may never have the chance to prove its mettle or its neutrality. Early reports suggested that the French Army was doing little to prevent the rebel incursion into the capital, unlike 2006. This suggests either that President Sarkozy’s pledge to redefine franceafrique is genuine, or that some form of deal has been cut, under which the faux-neutral French will give the rebels a free run at Deby in return for EUFOR being allowed to enter the country later. This would represent an audacious double-crossing by the Chad rebels of the NCP in Khartoum. If the rebels prevail and EUFOR is not allowed into Chad, the NCP will have won strategic depth in Chad with which to squeeze JEM and other insurgents in Darfur, prolonging the now half-decade of human destruction and displacement in that region, and aiding the NCPs longer-term strategy for holding onto power. Deby’s recent gambit of switching allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, and sending envoys to the latter, will have come to nothing, as a Sudanese/Chinese-backed insurrection takes over in oil-rich N’djamena.
Simon Roughneen has worked in Sudan on numerous occasions with GOAL – an international humanitarian organization headquartered in Dublin, and as a journalist. His “Caught in a Power-Trap: Sudan’s Post-Agreement Institutions” will be published in Beyond Settlement (Associated University Press) in 2008.
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