Published 14 Feb 08
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
Sudan Strikes Out in Chad Crisis – At Least for Now
N'Djamena, the capital of the Central African country of Chad, belied its name – derived from the Arabic for "place of rest" – this month. February opened with a literal bang in the dusty, sprawling city as thousands of rebels opposed to Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno stormed into the city and besieged the presidential palace and other public buildings. By the time the rebels were beaten back last week, hundreds of civilians had been killed and more than one thousand wounded in the fighting, while tens of thousand fled across to the Chari River into neighboring Cameroon. As bad as the situation was in N'Djamena last week, worse is the confirmation that it offers that, like a malignant cancer, the crisis afflicting the Sudanese state to the east continues metastasizing and the regional security picture is likely to deteriorate further as conflicts which are usually viewed in the West as distinct – when they are even thought of at all – spill over geographical, social, and political frontiers, merging and contributing to an ever-widening circle of instability.
Chad's head of state, Idriss Déby ("Itno," the patronymic of his grandfather's lineage, is a fairly recent addition to the president's name, being tacked on two years ago in an attempt to rally tribal support), came to power in 1990 by overthrowing his predecessor Hissène Habré, a brutal despot who is currently being tried in Senegal before a special war crimes tribunal supported by the African Union (AU) for his role in more than 40,000 politically-motivated killings and over 200,000 cases of torture (out of a population which at the time did not exceed 6 million; currently it is slightly less than 10 million). The country which Déby has governed since – he has subsequently been confirmed in office by three elections of varying degrees of fairness and legitimacy – is a French colonial construct, roughly divided between a less-developed Muslim north and a marginally better-governed Christian and animist south, although that dichotomy is rather superficial in comparison with the deep divisions which really matter. Independence since 1960, the country's political boundaries embraced no fewer than one hundred language groups which, in turn, were subdivided into hundreds of clans and sub-clans. In this context, Déby's rise to power was naturally supported by members of his ethnic group, the Zaghawa. While Déby's clan, the Bideyat, is almost exclusively Chadian, the Zaghawa people overall straddle the border of Chad and Sudan and members of Zaghawa clans from the Sudanese side of the border also supported their ethnic kinsman's bid for supremacy. These ethnic ties are important to understanding the regional dynamic: not only do both of the armed groups in Darfur resisting the Sudanese regime's depredations, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), have strong Zaghawa roots, but the leaders of the largest factions within each, Mini Arkoi Minawi and Khalil Ibrahim Mohamed, respectively, are likewise Zaghawa tribesmen.
As the brutal campaign of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing that the United Nations has described as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis" continued unabated in the Darfur region of Sudan in recent years, neighboring Chad has taken in some 240,000 refugee fleeing the violence. While some Darfuri refugees have also spilled over into the Central African Republic, the Zaghawa element among the unfortunates in particular naturally gravitated toward shelter in a country where their ethnic kin sit on top of the political pyramid. Unfortunately, the Janjaweed irregulars backed by the Arab-dominated, Islamist-leaning National Congress Party regime of Sudanese President Umar Hassan al-Bashir pursued their quarry with a series of cross-border raids – often supported by aerial bombing by the Sudanese air force – which resulted in the internal displacement of nearly 200,000 Chadians in the eastern part of the country. In response, Zaghawa as well as others from the Chadian army has fought alongside their Darfurian kinsfolk against the Khartoum and its local proxies.
For its part the Sudanese regime has used a portion of the considerable wealth that it has amassed through its partnership with the People's Republic of China to sponsor Chadian dissidents aspiring to oust Déby, whose position is all the more enviable with the discovery in the 1990s of large reserves of oil in the Doba field in southern Chad, which is estimated to contain at least 900 million barrels (Chad's total proven reserves amounts to about 1.5 billion barrels). With the completion, in 2003, of a 1,070-kilometer pipeline to an offshore terminal near the Atlantic port of Kribi in Cameroon by a consortium of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Petronas of Malaysia in partnership with two local joint venture firms – at a cost of at least $4.1 billion, the largest-ever private sector investment in Africa – Chad became the sixth-largest petroleum producer in Africa, exporting close to 200,000 barrels of oil per day. Needless to say, the failure of the Déby administration to more equitably share the proceeds of its newfound wealth despite a Petroleum Revenue Management Law (popularly known as "Law 001") which pledged to dedicate 80 percent of its oil royalties to economic development and poverty reduction as well as the perception that the president, who is in fragile health, may not last long in any event have only combined to encourage the government's opponents.
The dissidents include the coalition of the three Sudanese-sponsored, Darfur-based groups responsible for the recent attack on N'Djamena: the Union of Forces for Democracy (UFDD), led by Mahamat Nouri, a close collaborator of the former dictator Habré; the Arab-based UFDD-Fundamental (UFDD-F), led by Abdelwahid Aboud Makaye; and, oddest of all, the Rally of Forces for Change (RFC), led by Déby's estranged twin nephews, Timan and Tom Erdimi. (Another rebel group, the United Front for Democratic Change (FUCD), led by Mahamat Nouri Abdelkarim, which was responsible for an earlier surprise attack on the Chadian capital in April 2006, made peace with the government at the end of that year.) Although, throughout last year, the rebel coalition has launched repeated assaults on Chadian towns near the border with Sudan, often in coordination with Janjaweed units, why did the recent sudden attack take place when it did?
First, in response to the escalating violence, just days earlier, on January 28, the European Union (EU) launched, with the approval of the UN Security Council, a 3,700-strong peacekeeping force to be deployed to Chad and the Central African Republic (known by its French acronym, EUFOR Tchad/RCA) under the command of Irish Lieutenant General Patrick Nash with a mandate "to protect civilians in danger, particularly refugees and displaced persons" and "to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and the free movement of humanitarian personnel by helping to improve security in the area of operations." However, the official background paper on EUFOR Tchad/RCA's mission was clear on the overall strategic picture: "In deciding to conduct this operation the EU is stepping up its longstanding action in support of efforts to tackle the crisis in Darfur as part of a regional approach to that crisis." In short, Sudan may well have calculated that it was worth the gamble to have the rebels attack in order to prevent the EU from not only occupying what would in effect be a front-row seat on the Khartoum regime's activities in Darfur, but also constituting a shield for Darfurian resistance groups like the various SLM/A and JEM factions. Notwithstanding reports of an agreement for the deployment of the hybrid African Union/United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) in Darfur, the lack of capacity of such units that have arrived (less than one-third of the total authorized force strength) continues to allow Khartoum the freedom to act with impunity: just last Friday, in what UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno called a "very disturbing new spike in violence," the Sudanese military bombed the West Darfur towns of Abu Surouj, Sirba, and Suleia, killing several hundred members of the Erenga tribe, including a 90-year-old elder, and sending 12,000 new refugees fleeing into Chad.
The case for the Khartoum regime having a hand in the rebel assault is more than conjecture. Eyewitnesses report that the rebels made the drive from Sudan in two-door 6-by-6 military trucks which bore a remarkable resemblance to the 3.5-ton Dongfeng EQ2102Gs, several hundred of which were sold to Bashir by his Chinese allies two years ago. Moreover, my colleague at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Dr. Walid Phares, has noted how just as the rebels were reaching N'Djamena, an aspiring minister in the would-be regime, Jibrin Issa, appeared on al-Jazeera "to thank the 'brave commander of the Islamic Republic of Sudan'…for his help to the 'movement' and started to praise his 'highness the servant of the two shrines' (that is the Saudi Monarch) for his support" – the latter expression of thanks hinting at perhaps broader Islamist support for the coup attempt.
Second, as I have previously observed in this column space, Sudanese President Bashir will not willingly live up to his obligations under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the decades of civil war between it and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in South Sudan. Quite simply, Khartoum cannot afford to honor the accord because it grants the South Sudanese the option, through a 2011 referendum, of seceding and, consequently, taking with them almost all of Sudan's proven oil reserves – and with that wealth, the resources to continue keep the other restive peoples of the country under. With Kenya in turmoil following the recent disputed presidential election (see my report last month), a look at a map suffices to see how the installation of a client regime in Chad aligned with Khartoum would continue the encirclement of the nascent South Sudanese state, rendering it less defensible, if not altogether stillborn.
Fortunately, the Sudanese-back rebels were driven back by loyalist units in the Chadian Army – some of whom had received training from the U.S.-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Program which this column has previously applauded – backed by intelligence, logistical, and medical assistance from France whose President Nicolas Sarkozy declared resolutely, "If France must do its duty, it will." At the time of this writing, the remnants of what had been the rebels' 300-vehicle assault column were in full retreated more than 400 kilometers northeast of N'Djamena and were being picked off the Chadian air force (France has denied allegations that its aircraft were participating in the bombing). While the present crisis has largely passed, the EU needs to heed President Déby's appeal "to make sure that EUFOR Tchad/RCA is put in place as quickly as possible" lest the situation makes another turn for the worst. The U.S. should be prepared, insofar as might be needed and within its capacity, to assist its old allies in shoring up its newer partner in Chad. Over the long-term, however, the only way to solve the interrelated crises, not only in Darfur and Chad, but also in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and to prevent the destabilization of the entire region is to confront the source of all the trouble: the unbridled ambitions of the Khartoum regime (and those of the broader current of Islamist extremism it represents) and the willingness of the same to use any means necessary to achieve them.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2008 J. Peter Pham
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of World Defense Review and its affiliates. WDR accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the accuracy or inaccuracy of the content of this or any other story published on this website. Copyright and all rights for this story (and all other stories by the author) are held by the author.