Rond point de l’Armée in N’Djamena, Chad. By Ismouz.
Chad’s been in the news recently primarily because of Boko Haram and the subsequent ban on the Islamic face veil. In June and July, several attacks in N’Djamena and on Lake Chad islands killed around 55 people. Despite N’Djamena’s physical proximity to Boko Haram areas in Nigeria and Cameroon, these were the first major attacks in Chad by Boko Haram following Chad’s entry into the international coalition fighting the group. These attacks have happened against a political backdrop of extreme poverty, government repression, and a history of armed conflict. Among the many problems that Chad currently faces, probably none of them alone are existential threats to Deby’s regime or the harbinger of impending mass violence, but Chad faces a uniquely toxic cocktail of political, economic, and social problems.
Chad is 45% Christian, but since independence, Christians have been largely shut out of political power. It’s not that they’re second-class citizens, as most people besides a small elite have been shut out of political power, but even Christian elites have few political prospects.
There is also discord within the Muslim community. Historically, Chadian Islam has been dominated by Sufi sects, but recently there’s been an increase in more conservative forms of Sunni Islam, partially due to increased funding from the Gulf. The government, and its allied religious leaders, has cracked down on these forms of Islam, claiming they promote violence and are anathema to Chadian tradition (some of these religious leaders are using Boko Haram attacks to settle scores with rival Salafists, who in Chad have almost always advocated peace). While Chadian imams have traditionally preached against violence, there is a danger “moderate” Muslim authorities could become complicit in a large-scale government crackdown. Additionally, these imams might come to be seen as government puppets, lose credibility, and thereby create a power vacuum that could be filled by more radical individuals.
There is a major gap, both in terms of wealth and government attention, between rural and urban areas, leading to significant discontent and frequent clashes between farmers and pastoralists. The Toubou in Chad’s far north are particularly neglected, but they are generally disorganized and it seems unlikely they’d launch a large-scale rebellion (however some analysts worry that after the defeat of jihadist forces in northern Mali, they’ll link up with the Toubou) due to a lack of capacity and the strength of Chad’s armed forces. In these areas, traditional authorities have generally kept the peace, but when they have been weakened, either by the government or other external factors, violence and crime have generally increased.
Civil society only became a force in Chad after the ascension of Idriss Deby to power in 1990. However, it’s never become a major player for a few reasons. The government associates it with the opposition and Christians, so any activity is generally seen as a direct challenge by the government, and sometimes even a Trojan Horse by Christians to gain political power. There are few forums for political activity not organized by international NGO’s. Independent media does exist, but it only reaches a small number of people, whereas government-controlled media has a mass audience. Print media is dominated by Southern Chadians, further earning the ire of the government.
Recently, after many years of essentially being an international pariah (partially because of his close links with Gaddafi, who was also in the process of being rehabilitated at the end of his rule), Chad has reinvented itself as a key counterterrorism partner for Western countries. This shift in policy began in 2008-2009. In the last three years, Chadian troops have served in Mali (under AFISMA), CAR, and Nigeria. In Mali, Chadian forces distinguished themselves in desert warfare, and lost around 30 soldiers. Following these losses and what Deby felt was insufficient support (diplomatic and material) from the international community, Deby chose to withdraw Chad’s forces in Mali. Chad’s intervention in CAR, however, was a disaster. Chad was accused of backing Seleka, then pulled back support from Bozize late on, and Chadian troops massacred Central African civilians. However, Chad has redeemed itself in Nigeria. It has successfully cleared large areas of Boko Haram, and has been recognized as the most effective fighting force in the conflict.
The US and France are Chad’s major allies when it comes to counterterrorism. Chad is a member of the US’ Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and the US has been slowly expanding its presence in Chad. The US already runs many air operations in Central Africa out of N’Djamena (like assisting in the search for the Chibok girls), but is quietly moving toward establishing a more permanent base. Though Chad had previously been cited for using child soldiers (in 2010, 2011, and 2013), it controversially received a waiver in 2013 and since hasn’t appeared on the State Department’s list of countries using child soldiers. The US has trained Chadian soldiers and intermittently donates equipment to the armed forces. France bases its 3,000-strong regional counterterrorism force in N’Djamena, with 1,200 soldiers permanently stationed in Chad. France has two bases in the country. Though France has previously come to Deby’s rescue, Hollande is trying to move away from propping up strongmen and toward fighting terrorism, securing borders, and supporting small teams that can prevent hostage-taking or free hostages.
Chad’s relationship with Sudan is also crucially important. Chad and Sudan were de facto enemies, and supported rebels (the JEM and various Chadian rebellions, respectively). In 2006 and 2008, rebellions sponsored by Sudan almost overthrew Deby (requiring French support in 2008). However, in 2010, the two governments came to an agreement, and ceased supporting cross-border rebel groups. The alliance was solidified by the marriage of Deby to the daughter of Musa Hilal, a key player in the Sudanese government in Darfur (who has since defected from the NCP, so that’s a relationship to watch). Without Sudanese support, it’s highly unlikely an insurgency would have the capacity to seriously challenge Deby, and since 2010, there’s been no renewed insurgencies or problems with Sudan.
Chad has also had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Nigeria recently. While Buhari has cautiously welcomed Chadian help in fighting Boko Haram, he has been careful not to give them too much credit or leeway. Both countries have reported there is little to no coordination between their forces in the fight against Boko Haram.
Since independence, governance in Chad has been kleptocratic and reserved for a small elite. Deby’s regime is also quite repressive. Opposition MP’s only have a few seats in parliament and the judiciary is loyal to Deby. Opposition politicians and government critics are routinely arrested. A democratic opposition does not really exist; opposition leaders may make perfunctory statements about democracy, but they would likely implement a similar system of governance, only they’d be the beneficiaries..
To prevent alternate power bases from developing, Deby frequently reshuffles his cabinet and military leadership. The Deby regime is heavily dependent on Deby’s Bila-Bideyet clan, which is a sub-group of the larger Zaghawa, who have filled many key positions in the security forces and government. Furthermore, some of his family members hold top positions. Beyond ethnic ties, the government is heavily reliant on patronage to buy fealty.
That patronage is largely funded through oil revenues, which only began flowing in the early 2000’s. Oil has had a major effect on the Chadian political scene. It has allowed Chad to dramatically strengthen its military, which prior to 2008 was poorly equipped and trained. The strength of the army has allowed Deby to disregard calls for reform, repress domestic opposition, and gain international prestige (and more money) through its participation in international counterterrorism efforts. A big reason all of this was possible was the stronger position in which Deby found himself. He faced serious armed challenges in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, but since then, excluding a 2013 coup attempt that may have been invented by the regime, the government has appeared much more in control.
Oil revenues have been used for development, but these projects have mostly happened in urban areas to the benefit of the elite. The lack of benefits provided by oil revenues to the urban poor, rural populations, and oil-producing region has prompted protests, but these have been repressed. However, the number and intensity of protests may increase in the run-up to the April 2016 presidential election if no tangible economic benefits are provided to most of the population.
Recent Boko Haram Attacks and Government Response
Four suicide attacks in June and July in N’Djamena killed about 55 people. The perpetrators were widely suspected to be Boko Haram after the group threatened Chad in its released videos. In response, the Chadian government launched airstrikes against Boko Haram targets in Nigeria, attacked Boko Haram militants on Lake Chad islands, banned the full face veil (the niqab/burqa because one of the bombers was wearing the garment), and arrested suspected Boko Haram members (and unidentified “foreigners”). Religious leaders publicly supported the decision, but they probably didn’t have much of a choice. In the short-term it’s unlikely this leads for widespread support for Boko Haram, but Chad does risk alienating more conservative Muslims with its heavy-handed and probably ineffective tactics. Additionally, it’s unclear to what degree the regime will use the Boko Haram threat to crackdown on non-jihadist opponents.
Key Things to Watch
- Inter-Zaghawa tensions: Probably the biggest threat to the Deby regime is a coup by Zaghawa allies, and any public break between Zaghawa elites and Deby could be a sign of an impending coup. Many Zaghawa are unhappy with Deby for his abandonment of the JEM in Sudan, who were mostly Zaghawa. Additionally, many elites, including some in his own family, seek to improve their position, and it’s unclear if patronage will mollify them. While Chad’s newly-strong army means an insurgency is unlikely to topple the government, a coup could happen either with the collusion of the armed forces or be timed to take place while they’re largely deployed in northern Nigeria. The last coup took place just before troops were about to come home from Mali. A coup probably wouldn’t descend into mass violence, but given the number of well-armed troops and foreign interests at stake, it’s possible.
- Protests: Protests haven’t lead to major unrest under Deby’s rule, but it’s conceivable. Trade unions have organized medium-sized demonstrations in the past, and recently, partially because of Boko Haram, the prices of basic goods have spiked. This has caused smaller, more sporadic protests, but they could become larger as the election approaches. If protests do break out, it’s worth identifying the leaders and how the government responds.
- Relationship with Sudan breaks down: There haven’t been any outward signs of the deterioration of the Sudanese-Chadian détente, but such a deterioration would have negative consequences on both sides of the border. It’s likely Sudan would sponsor another insurgency, but given the Sudanese regime’s relative weakness and the ease with which Chad put down the 2009 attempt, it might be a flash in the pan. However, there are still 350,000 Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad, and they would likely be in the middle of any conflict. Any accusations of support for proxy groups could be a sign the alliance is collapsing.
- Boko Haram: At the moment, Boko Haram poses only a sporadic threat in Chad. However, if the group were able to launch more regular attacks and/or control territory due to popular support or unforeseen government weakness, the Deby regime would likely respond with massive violence, and that is something to watch for. At the moment, however, the government’s own repressive actions present a similar degree of danger as Boko Haram.