Chad was a big winner from this year's French-led intervention in Mali. The swift victory over militant Islamist groups demonstrated the strength of the Chadian military, pushing the country up world power indexes. And with Western powers looking for allies in the Sahel, Chad has emerged as an unlikely but possibly indispensable ally.
But a failed coup attempt at the start of May shows that Western powers may be getting into bed with a regime which is not entirely stable – a regime many onlookers predicted would fall following a rebel assault on the capital N'djamena in 2008. What, then, is fuelling this new found confidence, or fear, in N'djamena?
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi invested significant political capital in the Sahara and the Sahel. His downfall left a power vacuum across the region, one which it appears President Déby of Chad has been keen to fill. This added to the strength of the Tuareg uprising that occured in northern Mali in January 2012, which evolved into a militant Islamist takeover of the north following a military coup two months later.
It has traditionally been Algeria, not Chad, that has played the role of mediator in northern Mali. The country is also not a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and therefore did not take part in their negotiation efforts. But its prominence in the January 2013 intervention was undeniable.
French troops had little to do with those sent by ECOWAS member states and limited their fighting alongside the Malian army. But as James Hackett, an analyst from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, intimated they trusted the Chadians and the Chadians alone due to their “knowledge of the terrain”.
However, Déby's show of strength came at a high price: it cost an estimated 87 million euros ($116 million USD) and the lives of over 30 Chadian soldiers were lost - the most of any foreign country involved in the operation.
This new-found friendship signalled an about turn in relations between Chad and its former colonial power.
French President François Hollande ran for office on a platform which included ending "La Françafrique", a neo-colonial arrangement between French state and business interests and rulers of former colonies, which presumably meant reducing ties with the Déby regime. The Chadian president then refused to participate in the biannual Françophonie conference of francophone states. This swiftly became water under the bridge as Déby saw the “opportunity to solidify the French relationship”, Hackett commented.
Yet Chad’s reach wasn’t limited to Mali. Déby’s regime was accused of aiding the rebel alliance which ousted then president of the Central African Republic (CAR), Francois Bozizé, from power. Bozizé maintains that Chadian special forces were behind decisive multiple attacks on his troops and the South African forces supporting him. It is thought that Déby turned against his erstwhile ally due to his inability to force Chadian rebels out of CAR territory.
Many followers of Central African politics have seen Chad as the winner of the rebel victory in CAR. One newspaper, La Nouvelle Centrafrique, went so far as to proclaim that “Déby was recolonising the Central African Republic”. Although this claim may be exaggerated, Chadian forces do maintain a presence within the CAR.
Déby's decisive action in Mali does not simply fall into the category of foreign policy - it was also an effective way to exude authority domestically. Roland Marchal, Head of Studies and International Research at Science Po University in Paris, explained to Think Africa Press that now "Déby will be able to brand any armed rebellion against his rule as Islamist based", and ensure international support.
Déby is certainly worried about the possibility of being forcibly removed from power. Martin Plaut, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, told Think Africa Press that the "government doesn't give it's new army recruits weapons for fear of a coup". And Déby has reportedly responded to last month's foiled coup plot by cracking down on dissenting voices - arresting scores of parliamentarians, officers and journalists.
After 23 years of Déby’s authoritarian rule, which has seen the country drop down various freedom rankings, there seem to be few viable alternatives. Celeste Hicks, a journalist and Sahel analyst, explains that “the opposition is very weak” and “it has failed to produce any candidate who can challenge him”. Few hold out much hope for change through the ballot box in 2016, with a divided opposition that, according to Marchal, “can be bought off with money”. Indeed, Marchal told Think Africa Press, "that the greatest threat to Déby's regime comes from inside his own ethnic group, the Zaghawa. He is more likely to be gunned down by one of his bodyguards".
However, the differences between the Gaddafi and Déby regimes remain crucial.
Gaddafi was able to play regional politics using oil money and its relative domestic stability enforced through a combination of state oppression and state generosity. But the Déby regime is neither that rich, nor that generous to its citizens. Despite strong headline economic growth rates of 13% in 2010 and projections of 7% this year, the majority of Chadians are poor. Over 80% of the country relies on subsistence farming and 87% of the rural population live below the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme.
Development funds are urgently needed. Chad's oil reserves and a World Bank-funded pipeline had been an initial source of optimism. These revenues were "meant to be used for developmental purposes, but it was stolen by the Chadian Government for weapons", Plaut explained. Déby appears to be prioritising guns over grain.
This is perhaps unsurprising, given that he has roughly ten times less oil than Gaddafi had, which “is not enough to make Chad a oil power”, says Marchal. Indeed, the oil may cause as many problems for Chad as it solves. Marchal explains that since the extraction of oil started in the last decade, "social inequalities have risen" and "there has been a rise in the polarisation of the population, for example, they are building schools and yet they aren't putting anyone in them".
Chad's military power may be real but there's plenty to suggest that its rise is not being managed sustainably.
Alex De Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Programme thinks that "the combination of oil, military capability, and good relations with France have turned Chad into a regional force to be reckoned with". "Deby is certainly presenting himself as capable of filling the security vacuum in the central Sahara, though that is not exactly filling the gap left by Gaddafi."
On the other hand, "a more important state in the Sahel is more likely to be Algeria" says Martin Plaut. In the eyes of Western foreign ministers, the Déby regime seems like a pillar of stability in a Sahara swept by flames, but, as Plaut says, "no Chadian Government has ever been strong". A position seconded by Marchal, who suggests that while "Déby can export his army, but this is not a permanent way to become powerful".
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