A dangerous friend

Publié le par Mahalia Nteby

France is helping to protect Chad's President but it is his people who deserve protection. Europe stands on the brink of entangling itself in France's neocolonial war in Africa.
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The only surprise about this month's battle for Chad's capital city N'Djamena is that it was so long in coming. Every Chadian political dispute in the last 40 years has been settled by force of arms, and the latest conflict is running true to form. A coalition of Chadian rebels, backed by Sudan, made a lightning dash westward across the country from Darfur and assaulted the capital city. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians died in two days of bloody street fighting before Chad's President, Idriss Déby, with help from the French, rallied and pushed back his enemies. The tense standoff comes as the European Union is poised to dispatch 2,500 troops to eastern Chad, where hundreds of thousands of Darfurian refugees and displaced Chadians live in fear. Now Europe's leaders must decide: Will those soldiers be a neutral protection force for civilians, or an army fighting to protect Chad's embattled despot? 

Déby has hung on to power for 16 years by mastering Bedouin politics. Along with physical courage — he commands from the front line — he has a gift for intrigue. Sometimes he buys off his enemies with cash, which is more plentiful since ExxonMobil started pumping oil in 2003. He has also been accused by Amnesty International and the Chadian opposition of murdering his enemies. But key to his survival is France's calculation, backed by military support, that his adversaries are worse. 

Chad is remote — almost equidistant from the Red Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. From 1966 onward it was racked by 25 years of war. N'Djamena was destroyed and the country divided into rival fiefdoms. Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi tried to annex Chad, prompting France and the U.S. to fund a covert contra war in support of Chadian warlord-turned-President Hissène Habré. 

Déby was among the French-trained Chadian warriors who defeated Gaddafi's army in 1987. He then chased Libya's proxy Arab militias — known as Janjaweed — into Darfur, sparking that region's descent into bloodshed. But Déby soon fell out with Habré, who tortured and executed thousands of opponents, real and suspected. Déby is a Zaghawa — part of a tribe of black Saharans equally at home in Darfur, Chad and the oases of the Libyan Sahara. Armed by Sudan and Libya, he stormed across the Chadian savanna from rear bases in Darfur and seized power in 1990. Paris ordered its troops to stand aside, congratulated the coup maker and renewed its military cooperation pact with Chad. 

Under Déby's rule, Chadians began to enjoy stability for the first time. Oil promised real wealth, even schools and clinics. But hopes soured when Déby fixed the 2001 elections and Transparency International ranked Chad as the world's most corrupt country (alongside Bangladesh). Déby faced down mutinies at home, but the fuse for the current conflict was lit with the 2003 insurrection in Darfur, led in part by his own Zaghawa tribesmen. 

The French Connection 

Throughout Darfur's war, weapons have flooded in from Chad. When Sudan's security chiefs realized Déby would not cut the rebel supply lines, they resolved to get rid of him. Their offers of money and guns found plenty of takers among disaffected Chadian commanders. Three times the Sudanese organized attacks, nearly capturing N'Djamena in April 2006. 

It is no coincidence that they struck this time just days before the E.U. force was due to arrive. The European troops are under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, but Sudan's security chiefs fear the operation could be a staging post for intervention in Darfur. Chadian rebels see the real role of the mostly French troops as defending France's protégé, Déby. 

The tide of battle in N'Djamena turned on Feb. 3. French logistics and intelligence were pivotal, though Déby's tactical prowess and rifts among the rebels helped too. Neither of the two main rebel chiefs, Timan Erdimi and Mahamat Nouri, wants the other to become President. The French weapons now pouring into Chad on Libyan aircraft will not seed stability. Many will flow into the armory of Déby's Darfurian ally Ibrahim Khalil, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement, encouraging him to escalate his war in Darfur. 

Déby sees only a military solution. He used the rebel attack as a pretext to arrest the leaders of Chad's civil opposition. They are alive — for now. On Feb. 4, Paris won the U.N. Security Council's authorization to send weapons to Chad. France is fast becoming a belligerent in Chad's war, and an accomplice to a crackdown on the faint hope of a democratic future. 

Chadian civilians and Darfurian refugees alike stand in the path of this fast-moving war. If there was ever a need for international troops to protect them, the time is now. But European leaders must recognize that France's military mission is protecting Déby, not Chadian civilians. Europe stands on the brink of entangling itself in a neocolonial war in Africa. It is not clear that it can salvage the high principle of protecting the victims of war amid the ongoing carnage and chaos. 

Alex De Waal in Time Magazine, 18 Février 2008

Publié dans Politique africaine

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