Chad's Cycle of Instability Gains Momentum

Posted in Africa | 19-Jan-06 | Author: Michael Weinstein

Chadian President Idriss Deby.

During December 2005 and into January 2006, accumulated and building internal and external stresses on Chadian President Idriss Deby's 16-year government in the central African Republic of Chad came together and culminated in a spiking up of instability.

Having deposed his former ally President Hissene Habre in 1990, Deby faced defections from Chad's security forces and from his own inner circle that crystallized into an insurgency in the country's northeast, with eight separate rebel movements holding talks on organizing a united front to overthrow him.

Meanwhile, the civil war in Sudan's Darfur region continued to spill over across Chad's eastern border, creating tensions between the two countries that led Deby to declare a "state of belligerency" with Khartoum on December 24, 2005, as troops massed on both sides of the border and the U.N. scaled down its presence in the region in the face of insecurity.

Adding to the pressures on Deby, the World Bank announced on January 6, 2006 that it would withhold US$124 million of loans and development grants to the government in N'djamena in the wake of the decision by Chad's parliament on December 29, 2005 to break an agreement with the Bank on the allocation of oil revenues.

Although the ruptures in Chad's political class, N'djamena's conflict with Khartoum and the World Bank's disciplinary action originated on separate tracks, they were tightly interrelated.

The basic generator of instability was the internal military opposition to Deby's regime that formed on the border with Darfur and, according to N'djamena, was nurtured by Khartoum, which it claimed was arming the rebels in return for their services in fighting on Khartoum's side in Darfur. The parliamentary action to break the deal with the World Bank resulted from Deby's need to divert funds from economic and social development in order to counter the security threat and preserve his regime.

The Failure of Political Integration in Chad

Throughout its 45 years of independence, Chad has been racked by civil wars, which were the most violent peaks of a persistent cycle of instability in which strongman rulers were replaced by former allies who had become disaffected and organized armed rebellions. In the country's most troubled period -- between 1975 and 1990 -- the endemic conflicts were exacerbated by the intervention of foreign powers, as Libya occupied the northern part of Chad -- ostensibly to back one of the factions -- and the U.S. and France supported the other with military aid.

After the Western favorite Habre ousted the Libyans from Chad in 1987, Tripoli soon found another player to back in Deby, who had gone into exile in Sudan in 1989 when Habre accused him of plotting a coup. Deby's successful insurgency ushered in a period of relative stability, including multi-party elections in 1996 and 2001, the latter of which was marred by irregularities.

Despite constitutional rule and the tolerance of political opposition, the familiar pattern of disaffection leading to armed rebellion reasserted itself in 1998, when Deby's former defense minister, Youssouf Togoimi, initiated an insurgency that a peace deal brokered by Tripoli muted but failed to quell altogether. The most recent wave of defections in 2005 simply repeats the entrenched pattern.

Chad's troubled post-independence history is an extreme case of the problems faced by many post-colonial African states in their attempts to achieve political integration. Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, Chad's territory was not demarcated with concern for social, cultural and economic coherence, and followed the colonial power's convenience. Like its neighbor Sudan, Chad is split between an Arab-Muslim north and a Christian and animist south, and contains more than 200 distinct ethnic groups, many of which are split into sub-societies with distinctive cultures.

The fragmentation of Chad's society and the rivalries that it creates both within and between regions is the root cause of the country's failure to achieve political integration and the resulting personalism that characterizes its political class. The lack of a coherent societal community has left Chad open to corruption -- it shares last place with Bangladesh on Transparency International's corruption index -- which has propelled political defections through fights over spoils and consequent jealousies.

Arid, landlocked and lacking basic physical and social infrastructure, Chad is one of the five poorest countries in the world, with 80 percent of its population of 9.5 million gaining its livelihood from subsistence farming and stock raising.

The country's economic prospects improved and it gained strategic importance in the late 1990s when its oil fields in the southern Doba region -- estimated to contain one billion barrels -- were developed by an international consortium including ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and Malaysia's Petronas. Petroleum exports began in 2003, after a pipeline through Cameroon was completed with a capacity of 225,000 barrels per day. As a result of the new oil revenues, Chad's G.D.P. increased by 40 percent in 2004 and is estimated to have grown by a larger percentage in 2005.

As part of the deal to construct the US$3.7 billion pipeline, most of which was financed by the consortium, N'djamena received financing from the World Bank under an agreement that oil revenues would be allocated to economic and social development. It is that agreement which Chad's parliament breached in December 2005, leading to the suspension of development aid and a spike in domestic opposition to what was perceived as a power grab by Deby to preserve his ruling government and to funnel more money to himself and his associates.

Stresses on Deby Deepen

In an attenuated sense that reflects his country's impoverishment, Deby, like his better known counterpart in Uganda -- Yoweri Museveni -- can be considered as one of Africa's new generation of reformist leaders who came to power following the period of strongman rule, having headed successful armed resistance campaigns. [See: "Uganda: Museveni on the Ropes, Instability Ahead"]

Both presidents instituted constitutional governments that limited them to two terms and both won two successive competitive elections, the second of which was marked by irregularities. Most importantly, both have suffered defections from their inner circles and both held referenda in 2005 to alter the constitutions that they had inspired to permit them to run for third terms in 2006, causing their growing numbers of opponents to cast them as old-fashioned strongmen in democratic disguise.

The similarities between Museveni's and Deby's political careers are not coincidental; in each case, the underlying society was too divergent to crystallize into a coherent political community, leaving the way open to cronyism and to what Museveni has called "sectarianism" -- the disposition of political actors to represent narrow group interests at the expense of broader social interests. Both leaders evidence the limits of democratic reforms engineered on societies fractured by their colonial legacies.

In Deby's case, the defection problem reached critical proportions in October 2005, when a group of dissident military officers, soldiers and government officials formed the Platform for Change, National Unity and Democracy, and based themselves on Chad's border with Sudan's Darfur region with the aim of overthrowing Deby. A second wave of defections occurred in December 2005 that included two of Deby's nephews -- Tom and Timane Erdimi -- who had managed Chad's vital oil and cotton sectors. The new group of dissidents formed their own movement that also aimed at Deby's ouster.

At least eight separate resistance groups were operating in eastern Chad in December 2005, as local defections began to mount. The situation reached a boiling point on December 18, when insurgents attacked the town of Adre and 300 people -- most of them reportedly insurgents -- died in firefights between the rebels and government security forces. A shadowy group called the Rally for Democracy and Liberty took responsibility for the attack.

By January 6, 2006, Radio France International (R.F.I.) reported that eight resistance groups were organizing to form a United Front for Democratic Change and were holding discussions on the composition of a transitional government that would assume power after Deby's removal from office. The R.F.I. report noted that the discussions were "painstaking," reflecting the difficulties that the resistance groups were encountering in reaching an accord.

The Adre raid precipitated Deby's December 24, 2005 declaration of a state of belligerency with Sudan, which he accused of supporting the rebels. Tensions between N'djamena and Khartoum had been building throughout 2005. In April 2005, N'djamena accused Khartoum of arming and training 3,000 Chadian insurgents, and in October N'djamena closed its consulate in Darfur and asked Khartoum to close its consulate in eastern Chad. Khartoum responded by charging N'djamena with supporting anti-government rebels in Darfur and with failing to police its borders.

Through late 2005 and into 2006, each side accused the other of supporting cross-border raids, as both beefed up their military presence in the region. On January 5, 2006, the U.N. Mission in Sudan reduced its presence on the Sudanese side of the border to "essential life-saving humanitarian services," citing "a buildup of forces on either side of the Sudan-Chad border with increased potential for armed conflict."

Facing a growing armed opposition and increasing tensions with its larger neighbor, Deby initiated a mini-summit of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (C.E.M.A.C.) in order to gain diplomatic support. The five other C.E.M.A.C. members -- Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon -- issued a statement condemning "any attempt to destabilize Chad and its democratic institutions," and lending their support to "the Republic of Chad and its president Idriss Deby." C.E.M.A.C. did not, however, censure Sudan by name as Deby had desired, nor did it yield to his wish that the organization demand that Khartoum be replaced as the site of forthcoming meetings of the African Union and be denied the rotating presidency of the Union.

As several African states, including Ethiopia and Tunisia, undertook efforts to mediate the dispute, Deby moved on to Libya, where he met with regional leaders and representatives of the African Union. The talks resulted in a statement by Deby that he would negotiate with Khartoum if the latter disarmed Chadian rebels on its territory, turned the rebels over to the U.N., prevented raids by Sudanese militia into Chad, and paid compensation to Chadians affected by previous raids.

Khartoum responded that there were no Chadian rebels on Sudanese soil and that it was not aware of any incursions by Sudanese militia into Chad, but that it was willing to conduct joint border patrols with Chadian forces. Meanwhile, tension along the border continued unabated.

While he was dealing with his problems in eastern Chad, Deby was hit by the World Bank's decision on January 6, 2006 to suspend loans and aid to N'djamena. The action was taken after negotiations had failed to produce a rollback of a law passed by Chad's parliament on December 29, 2005 revising an agreement on allocation of oil revenues that N'djamena had made with the Bank in order to procure financing for the Chad-Cameroon pipeline.

The agreement, which had been intended by the Bank to be a model for resource management in Africa, stipulated that ten percent of Chad's direct oil revenues would be placed in a fund to benefit future generations, and that 80 percent of its royalties and dividends would be allocated to the "priority sectors" of education, health and social services, rural development, infrastructure and environment and water management. The Bank's aim was to prevent the diversion of oil revenues to corruption and militarization, as has occurred in the past in Africa.

The December 2005 parliamentary measure, which passed by a vote of 119 to 13, altered the agreement by eliminating the fund for future generations, adding state security and administration to the priority sectors, and doubling the percentage of royalties and dividends directed to non-priority sectors.

Officially, the measure reflected N'djamena's budgetary crisis, which has resulted in a wave of labor actions and failure to pay civil servants, and which had already caused a suspension of loans from the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) in 2005. More importantly, opposition figures and civil society groups noted that Deby wanted to free up funds to contain the resistance groups and to organize his forthcoming presidential campaign.

N'djamena responded to the Bank's suspension with a plea for reconsideration and an insistence on its sovereign right to revise the agreement. Bank president Paul Wolfowitz replied that N'djamena had acted within its rights, but so had the Bank, creating a stand-off. Deby held off from signing the measure into law until January 12, 2006, but now that he has done so, neither side is likely to budge. The Bank does not want to set a precedent that will undermine its policy of trying to diminish corruption and remediate poverty, and Deby appears to be willing to sacrifice development aid in return for ready cash.


With disaffection with Deby's regime on the rise, Chad's political class fractured and petrodollars a tempting prize for all contenders for power, the country's cycle of instability is gaining momentum for another rise toward a peak. At present, a war with Sudan does not appear to be imminent, but the possibility for one should not be discounted. More likely is a repeat of past instances of regime change, especially if the fragmented resistance groups are able to forge their united front and the May 2006 presidential election is perceived to have been rigged.

Under any probable scenario, Chad's oil industry does not appear to be vulnerable or to be threatened with nationalization.

Aware that Chad faces the stress of more than 200,000 refugees from Darfur on its soil and that it might become a failed state and a breeding ground for Islamic revolution if it is allowed to collapse, Western donor states are unlikely to follow the World Bank and I.M.F. in pulling the financial plug. Indeed, they might, as Wolfowitz has suggested, step up their aid.

Chad's basic problem is not of its own making, but is the result of its colonial legacy which has left it with a pattern of violent regime change that shifts power from one faction and strongman to another, but that does not take on ideological or structural import. Nothing in the present situation suggests that the basic pattern will be broken by the achievement of a coherent political community or the imposition of a comprehensive dictatorship, whether or not Deby is able to fight his way out of the corner and hang on to his waning power.

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