Rebel Incursion Exposes Chad’s Weaknesses

An early February incursion by the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) into Chad from Libya was halted by French air strikes, conducted in coordination with the Chadian army. This most severe security threat for several years highlights the weakness of the country and President Idriss Déby’s rule.

What happened?

On 3-6 February 2019, at the request of N’Djamena, planes from the French Operation Barkhane proceeded with a series of strikes against a group of Chadian rebels in the north east of the country. According to rebels’ spokesperson Youssouf Hamid Ishagh, the Union of Resistance Forces (Union des forces de la résistance – UFR), a coalition based in Libya, intended to reach the capital N’Djamena in order to overthrow President Idriss Déby and “set up a transitional government uniting all of the country’s forces”. The plan was aborted following the French intervention. Composed mainly of Zaghawa fighters from Déby’s own ethnic community, this rebel movement is directed by Timan Erdimi, the president’s nephew, who lives in Qatar. He first tried to overthrow his uncle in 2008, and again in 2009 after forming the UFR.

According to a statement released by the Chadian army on 9 February 2019, “more than 250 terrorists, including four leaders” were captured, and over forty of their vehicles destroyed. These figures were refuted by Ishagh, who described them as fanciful.

Paris defended its intervention, conducted “in response to a request from Chadian authorities”, and justified it by the need to preserve stability in both Chad and the sub-region. The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian declared in front of parliament on 12 February that “France intervened militarily to prevent a coup d’Etat”. French authorities added that Chad is a strategic ally whose army is deployed in operations against terrorism in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.

What is the link with Chad’s domestic context?

By asking France’s military forces to intervene on his territory for the first time since 2008, President Déby showed that he took the risk very seriously. This is due to a domestic situation marked by growing social upheaval, but also to burgeoning dissent within his own ethnic community, which the rebels hope to exploit.

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A Shadow Rebellion in Chad

In early February, France revealed it had bombed Chadian rebels who had crossed from Libya to prevent a coup against president Idriss Deby. But as Ben Taub writes in The New Yorker, the situation underscores how Western states prioritize short-term solutions to the complex issues facing fragile African states.

In the summer of 2017, a Chadian spy called me from a military base in the capital, N’Djamena, to inform me of a rebellion brewing to the north. The rebellion itself was hardly news—there have been scores of failed coups in Chad since it gained independence from France, in 1960—but the spy surmised that this revolt might come to pose a real threat to the regime. It was lead by Timane Erdimi, a disenchanted nephew of the President, Idriss Déby, who had seized power in 1990 in the same fashion as each of his predecessors: by capturing the Presidential palace in a rebellion of his own. For weeks, Erdimi’s rebels had been amassing weapons and personnel in the lawless desert of southern Libya. “Some soldiers are loyal to the President, some soldiers are not—no one knows how this will develop,” the spy told me. “They’re far from N’Djamena, but who knows how long that will remain true.” Now, on a hot summer night, he continued, Déby was deploying military and intelligence officers on an aerial surveillance mission. Their task was to photograph the rebels’ positions, and to assess their numbers and capacity. The sound of revving airplanes drowned out the end of the call.

In the following weeks, there were several indications that things were getting worse, although there was no conclusive reporting on the rebellion itself. In late August, Déby severed relations with Qatar and expelled its diplomats, and reporters speculated that this act was in political solidarity with various Arab nations that, months earlier, had accused Qatar of supporting terrorism; in fact, the spy said, it was because Chadian forces had found evidence that Qatar, where Erdimi lives in exile (and from where he has remotely directed the rebellion), was providing cash and equipment to the rebels—an explanation that I was unable to verify, but that better fit a terse public statement, issued by Chad’s foreign ministry, calling on Qatar to “stop all activities aimed at destabilizing Chad.” In September, the spy reported that some Chadian élites had quietly left the country, out of fear that they would be detained for their past ties to Erdimi. Then, in October, Déby withdrew hundreds of Chadian soldiers from Niger, where they were fighting Boko Haram as part of a multinational African counterterrorism task force, which is backed by Western countries, including the United States. Chadian officials refused to offer an explanation, and reporters implied that Déby was reacting to his country’s inclusion in President Trump’s travel ban. Not so, said the spy; Déby needed the troops at home to defend his northern border. The spy noted how hastily—in the absence of official information, and in a country without a free press—Western outlets had filled in gaps with lazy geopolitical narratives, without pursuing explanations that would involve an African government having domestic motivations of its own.

That fall, I set about trying to verify the existence of the rebellion. There were a few ambiguous reports of skirmishes near the Libyan border, but they usually sourced back to social media. Meanwhile, the spy kept sending grim updates. In November, he told me that there were dozens of wounded and dead soldiers in the military hospitals and the morgue. “The rebels are advancing,” he said. But, when I called an American official who was based in Chad, he wasn’t sure what to make of the spy’s uncorroborated reports; it was possible that there was a rebellion, he said, but something of this scale had never come up in his meetings with Chadian military brass. His uncertainty raised uncomfortable questions: If the state of the rebellion was as the Chadian spy had described, how could the United States not know? And, if military clashes had taken place, was the Chadian army using training and equipment that it had solicited from Western militaries, under the guise of counterterrorism, to quash Déby’s political opponents?

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Sent by Edouard Bustin