In late May, the leader of a Darfur rebel group, Khalil Ibrahim, was denied entry into Chad — a country that has long been a host for Ibrahim’s rebel forces. In an e-mail interview, Roland Marchal, research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Resarch (CERI), explains the current state of Chad-Sudan relations.
WPR: What is the current state of Chad-Sudan relations?
Roland Marchal: An armed peace. To a certain extent, we are back to the pre-2005 situation when Chadian President Idriss Deby and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir were cooperating to secure their common borders and consolidate their regimes. The added value of that situation was then, and is now again, warmer relations with France. Nevertheless, throughout the last five years, Khartoum and N’djamena have provided support to insurgent groups, though the reasons for this support were different.
The improvement in relations between the two countries is therefore both real and fragile. Both regimes need it, but the underlying crises that triggered the end of their friendship in 2005 are not solved, only frozen. The Darfur conflict, with all its transnational dimensions, is yet to be resolved, and there remains a long way to go before it is. In Chad, governance issues and the question of how the succession of Idriss Deby will be organized are still creating dissension among the elites, as well as deep political tensions.
WPR: What is the significance of Chad’s decision to refuse entry to Khalil Ibrahim?
Marchal: Without entering into a discussion of intra-Zaghawa politics (Zaghawa is the common ethnic group of both Khalil Ibrahim and Idriss Deby), one can say that after Deby came to power in December 1990, he was strong enough to address all challenges raised by his kinsmen in the border area. But Khalil Ibrahim, because of his family links and political skills, never accepted being under Deby. When in 2005 the two leaders found a modus vivendi, it was on an equal footing. Ibrahim defended Deby for reasons having to do with his own interests, not because of any sympathy for the Chadian ruler. Likewise, Deby never liked the ambitious Ibrahim, but knew that Ibrahim was a major concern in Khartoum.
Now, although Khartoum and N’djamena have mended their relations, Ibrahim clearly remains a casus belli. Indeed, Ibrahim refused to endorse a mediation that Deby proposed earlier this year, and now he is paying the price. By refusing entry to Ibrahim, Deby shows his commitment to the deal with Khartoum and reasserts his role as the most powerful Zaghawa figure. This attitude leaves open the question of how Chadian Zaghawas view this development. It is likely that tensions are high, including in the inner circles of N’Djamena.
WPR: What effect is this shift likely to have on the broader regional conflicts on the Chad-Sudan border?
Marchal: As the Europeans learned at their own expenses, the situation in eastern Chad reflected more the weak governance in Chad and the transformation of some insurgents into “highway bandits” than a proxy war between Khartoum and N’Djamena. Without a strong political will on both sides, nothing will change, as governance on both sides of the border has either retreated or taken on a strictly military form. This can hardly provide a sense of security for large sections of the population that remain vulnerable.