The Chadian rebels’ dawn attack on the capital Ndjamena on 2 February 2008 was yet another case of a frustrated group of disgruntled African politicians throwing child soldiers at a sordid ethnic dictatorship they were hoping to overthrow in order to replace it with their own.
But it was also much more than that. It was a desperate gamble by a revolutionary Islamist regime gone commercially corrupt and ideologically bankrupt to try to regain control of a revolting periphery that was coming to pose an increasingly dangerous challenge to its rule.
What is the link between the two?
The mess called Chad
In an earlier openDemocracy article, I chronicled the political evolution that led Chad from the position of an impoverished part of France’s former colonial empire to the sorry status of an (unofficially) failed state (see "Chad’s tragedy", 7 September 2007). But even since then, during the last months of 2007, the Chadian tragedy accelerated and deepened. In the period, increasing numbers of Darfurian refugees crossed the border to an ever more questionable "safety"; more and more Chadians became displaced in their own country; and large groups of frightened and hungry refugees trekked north from the progressively affected Central African Republic (CAR).
By the end of 2007 there were 234,000 refugees from Darfur in eastern Chad together with 180,000 Chadian internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and 43,000 refugees from the CAR (see "Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict", 18 April 2007). None of these people could feel safe. There was constant fighting between the so-called Armée Nationale Tchadienne (ANT) - in fact the government’s largely Zaghawa militia - and various rebel groups in the east; this killed hundreds, disrupted communications and humanitarian aid, and put the refugees and IDPs at continual risk. In October 2007, Muammar Gaddafi brokered an uneasy "peace agreement" in Tripoli between the various rebel groups and Idriss Déby’s government. The "agreement" mediated by the Libyan president lasted barely a month; by November the fighting had restarted in earnest.
Who were the rebels?
The largest group is the Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Développement (UFDD) led by a former officer and civil servant of the Idriss Déby regime, Mahamat Nour. The UFDD is a mostly Gorane movement (the Gorane being the Arabised African nomads who hail from the northernmost region of Chad called Tibesti)
The second largest group is the Rallye des Forces pour le Changement (RFC), a Zaghawa guerrilla movement led by the twin brothers Timan and Tom Erdimi (who are not only Zaghawa but President Déby’s nephews)
The third largest is the Front Uni pour le Changement (FUC), led by the Tama former defence minister Mahamat Nur Abd-el-Kerim (the Tama are a small eastern Chad tribe and most of the FUC fighters belong to this ethnic group)
The fourth largest is a splinter from the UFDD called UFDD-Fondamentale which is led by an Arab, Abdel-Wahid Makaye.
In addition there were a good six or eight other movements which kept popping up, mushroom-like, in various parts of the country as it looked likely (as on several previous occasions) that Idriss Déby could fall. All together the various guerrilla groups could muster perhaps 10,000 fighters; but at the same time that number was theoretical - there were so many ethnic and personal divisions between the various movements, and their combatants were of such varying levels of military competence (the vast majority were young unemployed rural boys whose only skill was being able to roughly use an AK-47) that it would be quite wrong to see them as some sort of a coherent "army".
The "serious" hardcore fighters based in Darfur numbered between 3,000 and 5,000 men, whose own ability to operate depended on the availability of that ubiquitous tool of modern desert warfare: the armed Toyota pick-up. None of these rebels had any ideology or clear social agenda beyond the usual ritualistic invocation of democracy and good governance. But in light of their pedigree of long association with the regime they were trying to overthrow, it was obvious that they simply wanted to remove Idriss Déby in order to replace him and put their hands on the valves controlling Chad’s oil pipeline.
As the situation deteriorated, France became increasingly agitated in pressing for some kind of a multilateral reinforcement with which to legitimise its support for Idriss Déby. But the Chadian president’s supporters within the French administration had to fight two battles at once: with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had already announced his intention to avoid capture by what is known in Paris as Françafrique (the "old boys’ network" of French military men and civil servants who deal directly with their old African friends) - and with the international community (see James McDougall, "Sarkozy and Africa: big white chief’s bad memory", 7 December 2007). For even if Sarkozy could be persuaded to act, the new international climate does not allow unilateral French action, as had been the case up to 1990.
Thus, Paris had to resort to exerting pressure on Brussels to deploy a European force (Eufor) in the region. Of the 3,700 Eufor soldiers, 2,100 were going to be French; but the presence of fourteen national contingents in all (including Irish and Romanian, and several others from countries with historic ties to France) gave Eufor the right tinge of political correctness. The Eufor mandate could not include the saving of such a dictatorial and corrupt regime as that of Idriss Déby from its internal enemies; so it focused instead on the protection of the various refugees and IDPs who were indeed under threat in eastern Chad. The Chadian opposition understood Eufor’s dual role perfectly well, and declared that it would consider it to be an enemy force and fight it if it arrived with the intention of securing Déby’s regime. In early January 2008, Brussels gave a final green light to Eufor and thus - without realising it - started the countdown on the other side.
Khartoum’s Darfur headache
Since the beginning of Darfur’s genocidal war in 2003, the conventional wisdom has been that this was a conflict between "Africans" and "Arabs". The problem with that explanation is that it is half true and that the true half is largely the product of Khartoum’s manipulations. From the beginning, the heart of the problem between the Darfurians and their Nile-valley Arab masters has been the social, economic and political marginalisation of a periphery. From that point of view both the "Africans" and the "Arabs" in Darfur were at the wrong end of the relationship with the centre. But through the manipulation of ethnic and cultural feelings, Khartoum’s rulers managed to get the Darfur Arabs (whom they despise as second-class "black" Arabs) to do their dirty work for them and suppress the "African" insurrection in a most bloody way. This system has now worn thin and is progressively dying out , with potentially disastrous consequences for the "Islamists" at the centre (see "Darfur’s Sudan problem", 15 September 2006).
During the last three or four months a number of "Arab" leaders have changed sides - from apprentice democrats like Anwar Khater to former janjaweed killers like Mohamed Ali Hamdan Dogolo "Hemeti". "Hemeti" even changed sides with the money and equipment Khartoum had just given him to prepare an offensive against the guerrillas. He later entered into new talks with the government (which declared on 4 February that he had re-defected). But whether he really has returned to the government’s side or is simply trying to raise the stakes and get more supplies is not yet clear.
The problem for Khartoum is that for all its money it lacks manpower, and that the despised Darfur Arabs were a fundamental piece of its jigsaw puzzle. Without forces on the ground - which it is again attempting to amass in addition to increased air-strikes - it cannot hold on to Darfur, and the growing defections showed in many ways that the countdown to defeat in Darfur had started. If this ethno-political slippery-slope is combined with the planned deployments of both Eufor in Chad and the United Nations/African Union hybrid force (Unamid) in Darfur, the picture began to look rather threatening for the Islamists-turned-businessmen who run things in Khartoum. Their conclusion was that immediate action in Chad, intended to overthrow Déby and cut off support for the Darfur guerrillas, had become a priority.
The Sudanese situation is a perfect illustration of Abraham Lincoln’s famous attributed remark that you can lie to all the people for some time, to some people all the time, but not to all the people all the time. The Sudanese regime has consistently betrayed the spirit (and often the letter) of all the "peace agreements" it has signed, from the CPA with the southerners in January 2005 to the DPA with the Darfurians in May 2006 by way of the EPA with the easterners in October 2006 (see "Sudan between war and peace", 1 November 2007). None of the agreements have done anything except buy time for the rulers at the centre who stick to their time-honoured prevaricatory and manipulative politics. As a result, Khartoum’s time is now running out.
In October 2007, the southern Sudanese fired a warning-shot when they temporarily withdrew from the misnamed "government of national unity" and rejoined only after a number of important cabinet changes had been made. As a result, all the "peace agreements" are now under constant scrutiny. Although the international community, in its naivety, still wonders why the Darfur guerrillas are not very keen to return to "peace talks", everybody knows that their ultimate outcome is a foregone conclusion, regardless of the paper which gets signed.
The military interlocking
With time running out, the Khartoum government unleashed "its" Chadian rebels. Although the Sudanese regime denied any direct involvement, the rebels’ rear bases in western Darfur were like an official signature as to their role. In addition, General Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein, Sudan’s minister of defence, declared at a press conference on 6 February: "We have the capacity to destroy Ndjamena with air strikes. But we won’t do it because this would lead to a war with France". It was hardly a neutral declaration. Idriss Déby, under attack from Khartoum-supported rebels, naturally turned for help to his enemies’ enemies - the Darfur guerrillas. As a result Sudanese fighters from Khalil Ibrahim’s Justice & Equality Movement (JEM) hurried over to Ndjamena even before the rebel attack and they were already in place when fighting broke out in the morning of 2 February.
As the combat unfolded the interlocking between the two situations became deeper. When the rebels were pushed out of Ndjamena on the second day of the battle, they phoned their rear bases in Darfur to get resupplied and more Darfurian guerrillas entered Chad to cut off the intended reinforcements. Since many of the combatants on both sides were Zaghawa, the whole thing turned into an intra-Zaghawa civil war. The Idriss Déby/JEM camp seems to have scored tactical points and saved Ndjamena, at least temporarily. But the retribution on the Sudanese side of the border was devastating: on 8 February the Sudanese air force attacked a number of villages in western Darfur, almost on the Chadian border, and killed an estimated 200 civilians.
The official reason given by the ministry in Khartoum was that its ground forces had come under attack. The story later changed: this time, the air force had bombed JEM rebels who were moving towards Chad (a more likely explanation even if the pilots do not seem to have distinguished much between guerrillas and civilians). The basic reason for these bloody and unremitting attacks was vengeance, and also an attempt to disturb the JEM supply-lines as the guerrillas were moving towards battle inside Chad.
The international dimension
For the time being, even if the rebel attack has failed, it has achieved at least one thing: Eufor’s deployment was postponed on 1 February for a month (albeit while allowing for a limited resumption on 12 February). Behind the scenes the French are trying to make sure the postponement does not turn into outright cancellation, and Idriss Déby is frantically calling on Brussels not to abandon him. Paris and the Chadian rebels are trading contradictory accusations: the French denying that they intervened in the fighting and the rebels saying they did so "massively". The truth is somewhere in between. The French forces did not intervene "massively" but they supplied the government with intelligence, ammunition (shells for the T-55 tanks flown in from Libya) and fuel. They also defended the airport when the rebels tried to attack it, which enabled Déby’s three combat-helicopters to use it for refuelling in between combat missions. These helicopters proved essential in destroying about 200 out of the rebels’ 300 vehicles.
The fighting occurred just as the African Union (AU) was meeting in Addis-Ababa and the AU was unanimous in condemning the attack. For once there was no split along Francophone / Anglophone lines as is often the case with the African organisation; and chairman Jakaya Kikwete said that if the rebels took power in Ndjamena, they would be "excommunicated". On 4 February the United Nations passed a carefully-worded non-resolution which in contorted language allowed the French to take unilateral action to protect Déby if he came under threat. President Sarkozy was relieved and immediately allowed his defence minister Hervé Morin to declare that if it was needed Paris would "do its duty".
The rebels understood the message and immediately said they were ready for a ceasefire. Sudanese defence minister Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein was so upset that on 6 February he broke down and cried in public during a government function. The Americans remained completely silent; there are reports that off the record Condoleezza Rice said that the matter should be left to the French "who know how to handle this kind of thing".
In fact Washington was probably relieved not to have to face the contradictions of its Sudanese policy. For at least two years now the state department has let it be known that it does not and cannot trust Khartoum, while the Pentagon kept assuring that the Sudanese leaders were "reformed terrorists", now good friends of the United States and very useful in the war on terror. The attack on Ndjamena threatened to explode this contradictory stance and pit sections of the US administration against each other.
Khartoum’s - and Paris’s - dilemma
In spite of the rebels’ tactical defeat, Chad is far from having returned to any kind of "normalcy", provided that the pre-attack situation could be described as such. Idriss Déby is hanging to power by the skin of his teeth but he is likely to hang on only as long as Paris and Brussels continue to support him under some kind of a pseudo-humanitarian face-saving dispensation. But saving face might be a bit difficult because as soon as the rebels attacked, Idriss Déby reverted to his usual dictatorial behaviour and had all the key civilian opponents (Lol Mahamat Choua, Ibn Oumar Mahamat Saleh, Abd-el-Kader Kamougué, Ngarjely Yorongar) arrested and detained incognito in military jails. Their lives are definitely in danger at the time of writing.
But for Khartoum the blinking orange lights are on; the Chadian rebels’ defeat is actually a Sudanese government defeat and the regime in Khartoum knows it. It is even more likely now to try to circumvent any further international deployment of the Unamid force in Darfur - or, if it cannot stop it, to fight it by proxy. But its problem is going to be: through which proxies? Darfur has to get the Arab tribes in Darfur back on its side, and this is the explanation for the recent nomination of the notorious janjaweed leader Musa Hilal to the position of advisor to the minister of federal affairs. But will an official appointment be enough to reconcile the increasingly alienated Darfur Arab tribes with the government?
In the meantime the priority remains for the men in power in Sudan to get rid of Déby and his Darfur guerrilla support-system. The various Chadian rebel groups have been reorganising and preparing for another assault on the capital. This will pose a very serious problem for the French. If they do not intervene they run the risk of seeing their man fall. If they do intervene they have to pray for the continued "understanding" of Brussels, New York and Addis Ababa.
Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He is the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1998), Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (C Hurst, revised edition, 2007), and From Genocide to Continental War: The Congolese Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2006)