Thursday, December 06, 2007

War escalates in Chad

Chad’s army has launched a major offensive against two of the rebel groups massed in the east of the country close to the border with Darfur. For the last two days government troops have attacked fighters of the Rally of Forces for Change (RFC), a fact confirmed by an RFC spokesman. The fighting comes barely a week after government forces fought several major battles with the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) that left hundreds dead.

The RFC said its positions had been bombed by Chadian helicopters on Saturday. That same day Chadian Foreign Minister Ahmat Allami said RFC rebel forces had clashed with government forces around Kalait, about 200km north of regional capital Abeche. Meanwhile 100km east of Abeche at Abougouleigne, military sources said battles between the government and the UFDD left "several hundred (rebels) dead, several injured and several prisoners of war" in military custody.

Hostilities have broken out after the collapse of a Libyan brokered ceasefire in October between Chad and four rebel groups (including the RFC and the UFDD). N'Djamena blames Sudan for backing the UFDD. The conflict is intertwined with the one in Darfur. Chad's president is from the same ethnic group as some of Darfuri rebels who oppose Sudan’s Arab-dominated government, and each country accuses the other of supporting rebel groups on their soil. London based African analyst Rolake Akinola said the peace deal was not well respected and was very complex to begin with. "Commitment from both groups and both sides has been very shaky," he said. "On the one hand, the rebels have accused N'Djamena and the government of failing to attend Sudan for peace talks. The government itself is not entirely sure how it is going to accommodate the various ethno-regional interests into one political dispensation.

The fighting could push back the deployment of a planned European force to the region until January. On 1 December the UFDD declared war against the French and other foreign military forces involved in the EU mission. They released a statement saying it "considers itself to be in a state of war against the French army or against any other foreign forces on national territory". France already has troops in the country and the UFDD said French warplanes had overflown rebel positions. “Providing diplomatic, strategic and logistical support to the tyrant Idriss Deby (Chad’s president) is an act of hostility and will be treated as such," the UFDD said.

French President Sarkozy said the declaration of war would have no effect on the planned EU mission to Chad. France will make up half of the 3,500 force, with Ireland, Austria, Netherlands, Poland and Sweden also contributing. The operation will go ahead," said Sarkozy. "If we decided to send a European force to one side of the border and a mixed force on the other side it is because there are problems, conflicts, difficulties.”

There is no doubt this is a complex war. Initially a fight between nomadic Arab tribes and settled African farmers, the conflicts in Chad and Darfur have grown increasingly complicated as rebel groups splintered and formed new alliances. Anarchic bandits have taken advantage of the lawlessness to attack civilians, and local politicians do what they do everywhere and used ethnic rivalries to fan the violence. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees an estimated 180,000 Chadians have been internally displaced by the wars which erupted in 2005 and again in 2006 and 2007.

The proposed EU force is widely recognised as strengthening Chadian President Deby's regime. Idriss Deby has been in power since 1990 when he seized power from former dictator Hissène Habré. Before being overthrown in Habré unleashed his troops on a killing spree in the capital N’Djamena. Thousands died. Habré drained the treasury of millions, fled the country and left much of the capital in ruins. Deby was treated as the country’s liberator. But many observers believe he has now stayed in power for too long. He won his third election victory in 2006. Outsiders declared the election fair but opposition parties boycotted the ballot denouncing the process as a sham.

While Deby's shenanigans in Chad were neglected for many years, that has all changed with a new and thriving export market in oil. It was discovered in the Doba Basin in the south of the country in 1974 and established in commercial quantities in 1996. A consortium of Shell, Exxon-Mobil and Elf relied on a 1070km oil pipeline between Doba and Cameroon’s coast to be financed by a $3.6 billion loan from the World Bank. The project was delayed by fights between the multinationals and local environment groups who accused the World Bank of ‘corporate welfare’. The project was delayed by Shell and Elf pulling out and the difficulties of laying the pipe through heavily populated areas in Cameroon.

When the project was finally completed in 2003, Chad began exporting oil on a significant basis. But Chad’s government reneged on the World Bank conditions that profits would go to poverty alleviation programs and gave itself more discretion to spend the oil revenue as it pleased. At least $30 million was diverted to President Deby’s military programs. In response the World Bank froze large sums of development aid and suspended its loan programme to Chad over the government's breech of the agreement.

The problem as Asuman Bisiika reports is one common to many African countries: where there are no strong national institutions, it is very difficult to stop a small group of political elite from "eating" public funds under their trust. Deby has shown he has a big appetite. The question is who is prepared to clean up after him.

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