Clay Feet: Chad’s Surprising Rise and Enduring Weaknesses

Clay Feet: Chad’s Surprising Rise and Enduring Weaknesses
A Chadian soldier patrols the streets of Gao, northern Mali, Jan. 29, 2013 (AP photo by Jerome Delay).

In recent years, Chad has begun to emerge as a regional leader in Africa, playing a role in the 2012-2013 Mali conflict, contributing to the overthrow of President Francois Bozize in the Central African Republic and forming a significant military partnership with France in 2014. However, these signs of power mask an ongoing political stagnation in Chad and the failure of the government to make any serious improvements in living conditions for the vast majority of the population. Frustrations with how oil money has failed to deliver economic development, along with power struggles at the heart of the Chadian government, may yet destabilize the country and lead to a change in leadership.

International Player

Chad’s government recently announced that it had been involved in mediating a behind-the-scenes negotiation with the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram to secure the release of the more than 200 teenage girls taken hostage from a school in Chibok. The mediation is yet another sign of Chad flexing its muscles as a regional player. Rumors that the girls were about to be released were picked up with much excitement by Western media outlets, but so far they have come to nothing.

This is perhaps a sign of how complicated the situation is in the Lake Chad border area, where Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad meet. Due to the shrinking of the lake, these borders are poorly defined, and Boko Haram has taken advantage of this to expand its operations from its original base in northeastern Nigeria. Concerned that the group may attempt to attack Chad, N’Djamena has in recent months taken a leading role in establishing joint border patrols with its regional neighbors. Chadian representatives have been vocal at several international meetings in London and Paris on dealing with the threat.

Since Chad’s high-profile deployment in early 2013 in support of the French Operation Serval fighting against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and associated groups in northern Mali, President Idriss Deby Itno has been seeking to project himself and his country as a beacon of stability in a difficult neighborhood. Chad’s involvement in Mali was largely seen as a success, with the Chadian soldiers proving much more competent and experienced in desert warfare than any of the other African soldiers sent to join the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). They fought bravely alongside their French counterparts in Mali’s extreme north and were widely praised. They were even responsible for the operation that eliminated a high-profile AQIM leader, Abou Zeid.

At around the same time, Chad also ramped up its involvement in the Central African Republic (CAR), its southern neighbor that was on the verge of a rebel takeover. Deby had once been a supporter of the CAR’s ineffectual leader Francois Bozize. But when it became obvious in early 2013 that the former general’s days were numbered as rebels from the northern Seleka coalition marched twice on Bangui, Chad appears to have allowed a number of its irregular troops based in the country to lend support to the rebels in bringing down Bozize. Chad was then one of the first countries to offer troops to the African Union peacekeeping mission in CAR, although this deployment ended in ignominious failure when they were forced to pull out in April 2014 amid accusations that they had committed human rights abuses against civilians.

This ability to send significant numbers of well-trained troops on short notice to act as the region’s policemen demonstrates a significant shift from the days when Chad was on the verge of its own coup and military takeover in 2008. In February of that year, rebels from the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) coalition led by Deby’s nephew Timan Erdimi crossed more than 600 miles of desert in a matter of days in lightly armed 4×4 vehicles. They arrived at the gates of the presidential palace in the capital and fought in face-to-face combat with the presidential guard. By all reports, they were within hours of unseating Deby. He escaped only because of infighting among the rebel groups and intelligence support from France. Regional neighbors such as Libya, Sudan and Nigeria looked on in alarm, fearing that Chad would implode with a weak national army unable to maintain stability.

So how has the country been able to affect such a dramatic change in its military image? Up until 2008, Chad’s national army, the ANT, had been an unreliable fighting force, starved of resources and beset with problems of corruption and poorly paid soldiers whose loyalty was questionable. In the series of rebellions by groups such as the UFR and the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD), which received financial backing and equipment from Sudan during the worst of the Darfur crisis, the rebel forces had been fairly evenly pitched against the military in well-tested hit-and-run tactics using highly mobile, lightly armed vehicles.

However this situation changed dramatically from 2008 onward, as Chad began to earn serious money from its Esso-controlled Kome oil fields located near the town of Doba in the southwest. The fields had begun producing approximately 225,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2003 thanks to a World Bank-supported project in which an export pipeline to the Cameroonian coast was built. In 2006, the first tax payments were disbursed to the Chadian treasury from Esso and its partners, Chevron and Petronas. In 2007, a country with a GDP of just $2.1 billion earned over $1 billion in government revenue from oil. By 2011, that figure had risen to over $7 billion.

Civil society monitoring groups began tracking what Chad spent that money on and found that a significant portion was on arms. In 2003, several million of a $25 million signature bonus paid on a contract for the Doba fields in 2003 was spent on weapons. By 2009, the Alternative Monitoring Group for the Chad Cameroon Development Project (GRAMP-TC) estimated that $600 million had been spent on new weapons, including six reconditioned Sukhoi fighter jets, armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters. Huge sums were also spent regularizing the situation of many fighters in the ANT and buying loyalty. IMF estimates suggest that by 2012, around $4 billion of government revenue earned from oil had been spent on improving the military. A significant proportion of that had been authorized through extraordinary budgetary procedures, which effectively meant that the expenditure was hidden.

The result was a dramatically improved fighting force that was able to destroy the rebels when they struck again for the last time in 2009. This time, the rebels were obliterated when they crossed over the border from Sudan and met the ANT at Am Dam. Attack helicopters and jets were used to pound the rebel 4×4 vehicles from above; roughly 200 rebels died and the rest fled to Sudan. The group has not been able to pose a similar threat since then.

This military strength has encouraged international players such as France and the U.S. to reach out to Chad as an important partner in the fight against regional terrorism. The U.S. announced in May 2014 that it was sending around 80 military advisers to Chad to coordinate an aerial search for the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Chad’s western border with Cameroon is a short distance from northeastern Nigeria, the radical group’s main area of operations. It is significant that the U.S. chose Chad as the base for these advisers, as it suggests that Chad has a good grasp of the group’s activities and may have expressed more commitment to finding the girls than the much-criticized government in Abuja.

France has also chosen Chad as the base for its new pan-Sahelian counterterrorism initiative Operation Barkhane, which was launched in July 2014 with the aim of fighting the threat from extremist groups such as AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), which took over large parts of northern Mali following a military coup in 2012. This redeployment of French soldiers in West Africa will see smaller bases established in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, with the headquarters in N’Djamena. This largely seems to be because Chad already has a good military infrastructure and set of runways, having been home to a contingent of 1,000 French troops since the late 1980s. It now also appears to be the most stable country in the region. The crucial role Chad is playing in the fight against terrorism was indicated by a visit to N’Djamena by French President Francois Hollande to announce the launch of Barkhane in July 2014.

However, despite this strong stance against terror, the unfulfilled promise of freeing the Chibok schoolgirls shows that the Chadian authorities may not have the situation as under control as they would like. Boko Haram is in fact impacting on Chad’s stability. Around 1,000 refugees from northeastern Nigeria arrived on Chadian territory in August, and Boko Haram has made a number of threats against Chad itself. The group has reached well inside Chad’s neighbor Cameroon, where there have been dozens of kidnappings and attacks on military posts. And while Chad has largely escaped the threat posed by groups such as AQIM, mostly because of the distance from the group’s core area of operations in northern Mali, there is a danger that being so openly supportive of France’s counterterrorism operations could make the country a target.

A number of security analysts have also pointed to the danger posed by a weak Libya, which has effectively been without a functioning government since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011. There are fears that AQIM and a number of splinter groups may have moved into southern Libya after being dislodged from northern Mali by Operation Serval to take advantage of Tripoli’s complete lack of control in the southern desert areas. This raises the possibility of radical groups basing themselves on Chad’s northern border, where they may be able to link up with groups historically opposed to Deby, such as the nomadic Toubou. In 2014, France’s understanding of this threat led them to announce an increase in the number of soldiers permanently based in the northern capital Faya-Largeau.

Chad’s efforts on the regional stage in recent years have been impressive, demonstrating how much the ANT has improved its capabilities. However, the army has not been able to fully escape its reputation for indiscipline, which has tarnished Chad’s achievements. And the failure to assert control over the troublesome border regions around Lake Chad where Boko Haram is known to operate shows the limitations to Chad’s projected “strongman” role.

Oil and Politics

Chad became an oil producer in 2003, and although its reserves are moderate in size, there was great promise that the resulting revenues could deliver social and economic development for one of the world’s poorest countries. There is little doubt that the advent of oil production has bolstered Deby’s grip on power. From the country’s vastly improved military capability to the billions of Central African francs being ploughed into infrastructure development in the country since 2008, Deby has tried to project an image of a rapidly developing nation. GDP growth has been strong for several years, and the IMF expects it to be 9.6 percent in 2014. Since the Esso-led consortium began production in 2003, the country has earned at least $10 billion in government revenue from oil, mostly on taxes paid on the exportation of Doba crude via Cameroon. The government’s budget is now around 75 percent dependent on oil receipts.

In 2011 the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) began production from its concession at Ronier in the Bongor Basin, with approximately 15,000 bpd being sent via a pipeline to a Chinese-run refinery north of N’Djamena. The CNPC is now paying significant taxes on these petroleum products, which are being sold on the local market. The CNPC is also hoping to begin exportation in the near future. The Canadian company Caracal began production and export from a number of reconditioned wells near the main Esso site at Doba in 2013. A number of other oil companies, including Simba, Global and EHRC, hold exploration licenses in Chad.

The government is keen to expand production, with the country’s oil minister declaring in 2013 that the daily output would double within a few years with the promise of new discoveries in the Lake Chad basin. Significantly, in April 2014 the commodities giant Glencore bought up Caracal’s assets in the south. The company also lent the government over $1 billion, which Chad used to buy up the assets of the U.S. oil company Chevron, which just pulled out of being a junior partner in the Doba/Kome Consortium. This will allow the national oil company Societe Hydrocarbures du Tchad (SHT) to play a much greater operational role in the Doba oil fields production.

Using money earned from oil, an enormous program of road construction began in 2008, as well as promises mostly from Chinese construction companies to build a new airport and railway link with Sudan. A number of new government buildings have also sprung up along with schools and hospitals, and the center of N’Djamena, once a dusty backwater, has been transformed.

Despite this commitment to improving infrastructure, there has been very little dent in the crushing poverty experienced by most ordinary Chadians. The country still comes out almost at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, with literacy levels only at 34.5 percent of the adult population. Just 1.1 percent of the government’s spending is on health care, and life expectancy is just 49.9 years. Polio, measles and malaria still affect thousands of children unnecessarily every year. The country has one of the worst maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. In 2011, some 3.6 million people, mostly children, were affected by hunger after poor rains, and the nationwide malnutrition rate stays stubbornly high at 15 percent, classed as an emergency by most international aid groups. Corruption at all levels is still rampant according to Transparency International.

This lack of significant change for ordinary people has created a strong sense of resentment against the government for seeming to waste the country’s “golden opportunity” for development. A number of civil society monitoring groups, such as GRAMP-TC and the College de Controle, have detailed numerous examples of poor-quality spending by the government, where projects have either not been completed or buildings such as hospitals and schools have been finished well before teachers or doctors have been trained to work in them.

The government has also fallen victim to the notorious volatility in global oil prices. In 2009, the IMF was forced to step in with a Staff Monitored Program of budgetary support to the government, after a crash in world oil prices following the global financial crisis left the government’s annual budget in tatters just at the moment it had authorized a number of important new investments.

Future expansion in oil is threatened by the country’s seeming inability to create a stable environment for foreign investors. This was demonstrated by a high-profile dispute with the CNPC, which only began producing oil in the country three years ago. The first sign of discontent came over the price of locally produced fuel in late 2011. The CNPC claimed to have lost $4 million in a matter of weeks, but Chad refused to allow them to increase the price. The government closed the Djermaya refinery twice, and eventually the Chinese director was forced to leave the country. Relations soured even further in August 2013 when Oil Minister Djerassem Le Bemadjiel claimed to have uncovered serious cases of environmental damage at the Ronier project site.

The government closed down the exploration arm of the CNPC twice, and in April 2014 fined the company an enormous $1.2 billion and ordered it to clean up. Five of the company’s exploration licenses were revoked in July 2014, and Chad threatened to take the company to an arbitration court in Paris. The head of the CNPC in Chad was forced to return to Beijing. The dispute remains unresolved, and business analysts suspect that the country could be gearing up to revoke the company’s operating license to give it to other investors who may be offering more.

Chad remains one of the hardest countries in the world to set up a business according to the World Bank, and has time and again demonstrated that business development can often be manipulated for political ends. For example, established companies such as Esso have had a number of disputes with the government over the cost of staff work permits for expatriates, and Chevron and Petronas were threatened with expulsion in 2006 for allegedly failing to pay taxes. Chad famously ripped up the agreement on the conditional loan from the World Bank in 2006, which had obliged it to spend most of its oil revenues on social development when the rebel threat in the east was at its highest, pushing the international financial institutions into a humiliating exit from the country. This latest dispute with the CNPC, which as recently as 2006 had been greeted as a welcome new investor and an alternative to Western companies, shows how easily relationships can deteriorate in Chad.

Political Opposition Ahead of 2016 Elections

Domestic opposition to the government’s perceived failure to manage the country’s considerable oil wealth and refusal to encourage democratic space may become more vocal as the country gears up for presidential elections scheduled for April 2016. Deby has presided over a controversial change in the Constitution in 2006 allowing him to stand for president until his 70th birthday in 2022, and looks likely to put himself forward for the next contest. He won a convincing victory in the last election in 2011 after three of the country’s most well-known opposition figures—Ngarlejy Yorongar, Saleh Kebzabo and Wadal Kamogue—boycotted the poll, citing irregularities and political interference.

While the political debate is currently quite muted, especially as the established political opposition has again failed to mobilize popular opposition to Deby’s Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS), there are many in the country who are quietly frustrated with Deby’s 24-year grip on power. There is much resentment about nepotism and the continuing dominance of Deby’s close family and fellow Zaghawa tribal kinsmen at the heart of the country’s politics. Family members have held political posts, as well as heading up the national bank and important commercial companies. There are some hopes that regional movements toward democracy may encourage popular opposition to Deby’s rule. For example, in nearby Burkina Faso, longtime President Blaise Compaore was chased from power by popular street protests after trying to force through a deeply unpopular constitutional change. In Chad, demonstrations against the rising cost of living and the cost of petrol did in fact break out in early November in Sarh, Moundou and N’Djamena, and a number of people were arrested after police broke up the crowds.

There also remains a real and present danger of a military overthrow or palace coup from close insiders in Deby’s government. Moves to buy off opposition in the lower ranks of the army have been largely successful, but there has not been accompanying success at dealing with the serious rivalries at the heart of the government between different arms of the extended Deby family and the Zaghawa network.

These rivalries have been a constant threat to stability in Chad since Deby’s takeover in 1990 and are as pronounced today as they have ever been. Deby has consistently failed to indicate a stable succession plan. In May 2013, the government announced it had foiled a coup plot. Two army generals, ruling coalition MP Mahamat Malloum and opposition MP Saleh Makki, were arrested and at least eight people were killed in fighting between the security forces and the alleged plotters. In early 2014, the prominent lawyer Jean-Bernard Padare, who after a long career of opposing the government was briefly made minister of justice, fled into exile in France, fearing a prosecution on what he described as trumped-up corruption charges.

More positively, there has been a significant reduction in the threat posed by armed opposition groups in Chad. From 2005-2009, the country became synonymous with armed rebellions as a number of rebel groups such as the United Front for Democratic Change (FUC), the UFDD and the UFR attempted to unseat the president through lightning raids against N’Djamena. The worst of these, in February 2008, saw Deby hours from being unseated. So what has changed?

These rebellions were intimately tied in with the war in neighboring Darfur. Deby was accused by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of supporting Darfur rebel groups such as the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), several of whose leaders were from Deby’s Zaghawa clan and were known to have bases inside Chadian territory. In retaliation, Sudan provided arms and backing to the Chadian rebel groups, and the two countries were stuck in a paralyzing proxy war for several years, during which hundreds died and thousands were displaced. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Darfur spilled over the border into eastern Chad, where many of them remain to this day.

This situation changed dramatically in 2010, when the two presidents suddenly announced they had put their differences aside. Ambassadors were exchanged and the two countries agreed to a joint border patrol force to replace the U.N. Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT), which had failed to pacify Chad’s east. The change in heart appears to have been driven by Bashir’s decision to focus his energy on the dangers posed by the secession of South Sudan, having lost hope for a total victory in Darfur. At the same time, the huge improvement in the capability of Chad’s ANT, thanks to the billions in new equipment bought with oil money, made the UFR rebels’ tactics of attacking in lightly armed pick-up trucks ineffective. Their last attack at Am Dam in May 2009 was a complete rout.

After the rapprochement between Chad and Sudan and the withdrawal of Bashir’s financial support, the leader of the UFR rebels, Timan Erdimi, fled into exile in Qatar, and the group disbanded. Many of its fighters were subsequently reintegrated into the national army, and since then there has been no repeat of the threat posed by armed opposition groups.

Human Rights and Transitional Justice

Chad continues to be criticized by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for its repressive attitude to civil society. The government has recently tried to push through a tough bill proposing 20-year jail terms for homosexual acts. A number of journalists and newspapers continue to be harassed and intimidated despite the passing of a nominally improved media law in 2011. Former BBC correspondent Eric Topona spent several weeks in detention in 2013 after being charged with defamation, and the Cameroonian editor of a national newspaper fled into exile in 2009. The popular newspaper N’Djamena Bi-Hebdo was closed down for three months in 2010.

However, it is the apparent intention by the authorities to frustrate the prosecution of Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habre that is currently causing the most concern to civil rights groups. Habre, a Toubou and former rebel from the country’s desert north, was in power from 1982-1990, a bleak period in Chad’s history. Throughout his rule, Chad was at war with Libya, with Gadhafi’s forces overrunning and occupying a worthless area of desert in the north known as the Aouzou Strip. At the same time, thousands of opposition figures were reported to have been killed or tortured in prisons run by Habre’s notorious secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). Habre was finally toppled by Deby’s rebel forces, who marched on N’Djamena from Sudan in 1990, and he was forced into exile in Senegal.

The attempts to prosecute Habre for his crimes have become infamous in international justice circles. Several promises by Senegal and the African Union to set up a special court came to nothing, and at one point Belgium tried to use its international jurisdiction law to set up a trial. But the situation changed dramatically in 2012, when President Macky Sall came to power in Senegal and made good on a promise to set up a court known as the Extraordinary African Chambers to try Habre.

The case is expected to start in early 2015, and the prosecutors in Senegal have been working hard with victim’s groups to compile evidence to support the charges of crimes against humanity. However, in recent months the Chadian authorities’ initial enthusiasm for the trial seems to have cooled. Human rights groups suspect that Deby himself may fear an indictment because he served as minister of defense under Habre in the early 1980s. While there is no firm evidence against Deby, a number of requests from Senegal to extradite two of Habre’s most trusted lieutenants, Mahamat Djirbrine and Saleh Younouss, have been ignored by the Chadian government. The two men have been in custody in N’Djamena since last year, and the government says it wants to try them itself, but there are serious concerns that an independent trial cannot take place on Chadian soil. At one point the government even tried to lodge a complaint at the court against Habre on behalf of the Chadian state, but this was rejected by prosecutors. A number of others suspected of supporting Habre remain at large, and many of the dictator’s former victims are beginning to fear that the Chadian authorities may wish to protect them.

Regional Power: Fact or Fiction?

Chad’s increasingly prominent role on the West and Central African stage in recent years has led many to ask whether the country has in fact put its history of coups, rebellions and chronic instability behind it. Certainly there have been a number of significant changes in recent years, most notably the end of the devastating proxy war with Sudan and the constant threat of rebellion. The UFR, for example, has been unable to pose a significant challenge since its ill-fated attack on Am Dam in 2009. Billions of dollars of oil revenue have helped the authorities to whip the armed forces into shape, buying off many of those who may have formerly been tempted to launch rebellions.

The strength of the ANT was clearly demonstrated when Chad sent 2,000 elite troops to support France’s Operation Serval in Mali, and the country has been rewarded with the decision to base the new French deployment in N’Djamena, where about 1,000 French troops will remain. Far from being seen as an international pariah, Deby now claims to have the ear of the French president. Chad’s political figures have been important guests at international meetings on Mali and Boko Haram in London and Paris, and they have also been working with the U.S. military.

However there are still serious geopolitical challenges facing the country. Although the Mali foray was broadly successful, Chad’s attempt to intervene in the Central African Republic was a disaster. Not only were Chadian peacekeeping troops accused of killing at least 30 civilians in a suburb of Bangui in April 2014, bringing sharp criticism from the U.N., but the activities of badly disciplined irregular ANT troops in the border regions seem to have made the insecurity worse. Local populations have come to deeply resent the mostly Muslim Chadian troops, associating them with the Seleka rebel coalition that toppled Bozize.

Furthermore, the interreligious violence between CAR’s Christians and Muslims, which peaked in early 2014, sent thousands of people over the border into southern Chad. Many of them are refugees, but others are returning Chadian families who had lived in CAR for many years and were suddenly claiming Chadian citizenship. The Chadian government and aid agencies have struggled to assist the new arrivals, and the government remains concerned that rebel groups may attempt to infiltrate these displaced populations to set up bases in the troubled border region.

Although Chad has shown leadership through its open commitment to tackling the regional menace posed by Boko Haram, making much more effort than neighboring Cameroon or Nigeria, the group has been able to attack Kousseri in Cameroon, which is less than 7 miles from N’Djamena. Openly welcoming the French Operation Barkhane deployment to the city may serve as a provocation to AQIM, which has already proved they are willing to strike against countries that cooperate with France. Niger, for example, was struck by a devastating twin suicide attack in May 2013 claimed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s splinter faction. The inability of the Libyan authorities to control their southern flank remains an opportunity for groups opposed to Deby. In Sudan, although there has been a significant reduction of violence in Darfur, that region is far from pacified and could also in the future serve as a base for Chadian rebel groups.

Domestically, the dangers posed by the continuing authoritarian nature of the leadership in Chad cannot be underestimated. Although at present there does not seem to be any significant organized political opposition to Deby’s rule, tensions may well increase as the 2016 election approaches, especially if most ordinary Chadians continue to see no tangible improvement in their economic situation. Civil society groups are beginning to get the message across in public forums that oil wealth has yet to provide the kind of economic boom many had hoped for, and the rising cost of living is making daily life more difficult for millions. Poor harvests, erratic rains and high unemployment may lead to further food crises in the coming years, and mass civil society movements against Deby’s long autocratic rule may begin to manifest themselves in public protest. The threat of an internal coup from close associates and rival family members eager to get their hands on oil wealth has never been adequately addressed in Chad.

Chad may be distinguishing itself on the international stage as a seeming beacon of stability in a troubled neighborhood, but most ordinary Chadians know how fragile that impression is. They know also that it has come at the cost of democratic accountability and social development for millions.

Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Africa and the Sahel. She was the BBC’s correspondent in Mali and Chad from 2007 to 2010.