REVIEW: Article

Chad: Stepping Up

All opinions, views, and comments in this article are solely the author’s and in no way represent or reflect those of the United States Department of State and its agencies or affiliated entities.

Since its army intervened against the insurrection in Mali alongside French forces in 2013, Chad  has stepped up to a new leadership role in central Africa and the Sahelian region as a whole. Chad now holds a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council; chairs the Economic Community of the Central African States (ECCAS); has almost single-handedly kept the Community of Saharan and Sahelian States a viable organization and also holds its chair; and has been the driver for the creation of the new “G-5 of the Sahel.” Chadian forces continue to anchor the UN peacekeeping effort in Mali, and are a major component of the African Union’s International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) force deployed to end the violence in the Central African Republic (CAR). The situation in CAR is especially urgent for Chad, which has already received nearly 100,000 mostly Muslim Chadian returnees and Central African refugees fleeing the hor­rific violence and fears the potential threat from the ex-Séléka rebels clustered near its border.

Chad has also hosted very large numbers of Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region since 2003 and continues to receive new arrivals as violence in Darfur continues. Anti-Muslim violence in CAR, which developed in reaction to months of brutal violence by the predominantly Muslim Séléka rebels against the predominantly Christian population, has driven tens of thousands of Muslims to flee to Chad, as well as Cameroon. Most of this new influx to Chad has Chadian roots, but many have no enduring ties to Chad—or even strong claims to Chadian citizenship—after decades of residence in CAR. Nonetheless, the government of Chad has mobilized its resources and assigned much of its senior leadership to address these displaced persons and their immediate needs, as well as promoted very broad and generous support from private companies and individuals across Chad. Chad organized the evacuation of its nationals from CAR as the violence increasingly targeted Muslim communities.  

Chad’s current salience in central Africa has been rising since 2008, when rebels who nearly toppled President Déby Itno were defeated. That event was followed by rapprochement with Sudan in 2010, which ended Chad’s open support for Sudanese rebels in Darfur and Sudan’s open support for rebels against President Déby Itno and his government. That agreement ushered in a welcome period of peace and stability in Chad. Chad’s oil has given its government modest but reliable income adequate to assure its ability to finance initiatives on its own account. Oil revenues have not yet resulted, however, in provision of routine basic government services for Chad’s population or a notable decline in poverty levels.   

The near-disaster of the 2008 rebellion also underscored Chad’s chronic vul­ner­abilities, especially inter-family and inter-tribal competition for power, newly exacerbated by the rising stakes of oil income. Furthermore, the same period during which Chad has enjoyed stability and relative growth has seen collapse and chaos in some of its neighbors. The fall of Qadhafi in Libya not only ended financial support from Libya for its immediate southern neighbor, but drove home tens of thousands of Chadian expatriates working in Libya. Those Chadians were no longer able to contribute to Chad’s economy through remittances, and came home to very limited prospects for employment. Southern Libya has very likely become a haven for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leadership who left Mali after the Franco-Chadian intervention. Boko Haram in Nigeria has grown into a full-fledged rebellion, and its forays into Cameroon, Chad, Mali, and Niger show the increasingly regional nature of its threat. The ease with which Tuareg revanchists and al-Qaeda initially took over most of northern Mali showed how readily the vast, thinly populated stretches of the Sahara and northern Sahel could be occupied and controlled by determined rebels and extremists. 

President Déby Itno frequently says that Chad has increasingly become “an island of stability in a sea of instability.” For the government of Chad, defending Chad’s stability and its internal peace means especially protecting Chad from the threats and violence which afflict its neighbors and could turn against Chad. With Chad’s own history constantly in mind, the insurrection in northern Mali was of special concern for Chad’s leadership. The government of Chad believed that enduring Islamist control of significant swaths of Mali would pose a direct threat to Chad, given the ease with which extremists based there could threaten all the Sahelian nations.  

As the extremist elements in northern Mali took command of the Tuareg insurrection and moved to threaten southern Mali, President Déby Itno deployed to join French efforts under Operation Serval to push back Tuareg rebels and AQIM. The trigger for Chad’s intervention appears to have been the extremist seizure of Konna and threat on Mopti, which would have given them control of Mopti’s airport and radically reduced Malian and French capacity to counter the Islamist advance. In particular, in the Chadian view, rebel control of Mopti would have made a march on Bamako a real possibility.

The Mali intervention brought Chad new stature as an important ally for the West in Africa. The persistence of Chadian forces, even in the face of significant casualties, was deeply appreciated in Washington and Paris. Overlapping the intervention in Mali, events to Chad’s south in CAR added a new dimension and fresh urgency to Chad’s regional security concerns. The perpetually weak government of CAR faced yet another rebellion in late 2012. CAR’s president, François Bozizé, who had come to power with President Déby Itno’s assistance, was unable to contain or defeat the Séléka rebellion. President Déby Itno, as the ECCAS Chairman, together with Republic of the Congo President Sassou-Nguesso, convoked regional leaders in January 2013 to seek a power-sharing agreement that they hoped would permit an end to the conflict. When that agreement foundered, and President Déby Itno withdrew the Chadian troops who were blocking the entry of Séléka rebels into the capital Bangui in early 2013, the Séléka rebels deposed Bozizé and seized power. Presidents Déby Itno and Sassou-Nguesso convoked another ECCAS meeting in April 2013 in which regional leaders outlined a roadmap for CAR’s political transition to constitutional governance and democratic elections. 

President Déby Itno may have expected the Séléka rebellion to be yet another, relatively unremarkable episode in the series of coups and rebellions which have been CAR’s fate for most of its history since independence. However, Séléka’s brutality and rapaciousness made it clear that allowing them victory had been a grave miscal­culation. Specifically for Chad, the fact that Séléka was led by some with close ties both to Chad and Sudan and had in its ranks not only CAR rebels, but also Chadian and Sudanese former rebels, made Séléka potentially a threat to Chad as well. As the ferocity of Séléka’s ravages continued and its control of Bangui and the rest of CAR became more solid, President Déby Itno called another extraordinary ECCAS summit in October 2013. That summit established the foundations for the transition and expansion of the previous ECCAS peacekeeping mission, known as FOMAC (Multinational Force of Central Africa), into an African Union-led stabilization mission, MISCA. Chadian troops, who had formed the bulk of FOMAC, became the core of MISCA. Unfortunately, the abuses of some Chadian forces, acting in apparent support of Séléka, combined with the perception that President Déby Itno had paved the way for the Séléka triumph, led many in CAR to fear that Chadian troops were not impartial and to protest Chadian “interference” in CAR. The increased violence in CAR in December 2013 and January 2014 led Presidents Déby Itno and Sassou-Nguesso to host another ECCAS summit in January 2014 that facilitated the resignation of Séléka leader and CAR Transitional President Michel Djotodia and the election a few days later by the CAR Transitional National Council of a new Transitional President, Catherine Samba-Panza.   

President Déby Itno is acutely aware that his country’s security depends on containing threats to his regime emanating from Chad’s neighbors. He has been willing to mobilize all the strengths he personally controls, especially his formidable and reliable army, to face down those threats. He has assiduously cultivated Chad’s partnerships with France and the United States for the same reason—to leverage their support and resources to protect Chad’s security. His willing pursuit of other Western agendas not obviously of immediate concern to Chadians writ large, from working to eliminate child soldiers through women’s empowerment and trafficking in persons to media freedoms, demonstrate his willingness to take difficult steps to assure the reliability of his partnership with France and the United States.  

The government of Chad is now showing remarkable will and energy to meet international expectations on human rights and related matters that have clouded its reputation in the past. Still, its record is grim, with Freedom House ranking Chad as “not free” in 2013 because of strong executive branch control of the government, “severe restrictions” on freedoms of the press, expression, and assembly, and weak rule of law. Chad and UNICEF have undertaken joint efforts to assure no child soldiers are in its military ranks; none has been found for over a year. Gender-based violence, trafficking of persons, and protection of children and women are the focus of high-level national programs. In areas where Western concerns have not been addressed so fully, Chad’s security is often cited as the reason. For example, today Chad’s independent press enjoys a margin of tolerance for negative reporting, including occasionally personal attacks on President Déby Itno and his family, as well as government of Chad policies. Chad’s limits for media freedom are evident, however, when negative domestic reporting on military and security matters emerges and meets a harsh response.

President Déby Itno has described his vision for himself and his country as “a credible leader of a credible country.” For him and his government, that quest depends on Chad’s security and stability, which must be protected by engaging beyond its borders in concert with Chad’s most effective bilateral partners and international and regional organizations. Chad’s fundamental priority interests have made Chad a reliable partner for pursuit of some US regional security interests in Africa, founded on President Déby Itno’s belief that such partnerships best assure Chad’s stability and security. Historically disaffected Chadians from the northern, eastern, and southern parts of Chad still make threats from time to time. Déby Itno’s current engagement in the CAR could be understood in the context of Chad’s efforts to protect its hard-won peace and stability from future rebel threats.

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United States Ambassador to Chad