US support for Chad may destabilize the Sahel

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By Hilary Matfess

On Feb. 16, the United States Africa Command began its annual Exercise Flintlock in West Africa. The three-week military drill features more than 1,200 soldiers from 28 African and Western countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. The exercise coincides with the African Union–backed campaign against the Nigerian armed group Boko Haram.

But all eyes are on the host country, Chad, which has taken a strong leadership role in the U.S.-funded Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, which aims to enhance the capacity of governments in the Sahel to confront the threat of terrorism. Chad appears eager to assert itself as a regional power broker. But the United States must be cautious before lending undue support to the Chadian military.

Chad has history of meddling in regional conflicts. U.S. efforts to stabilize the region and eradicate the threat of armed insurgencies may boost Chad’s ability to undermine its neighbors. Weak capacity and regional rivalries continue to hamper cooperation in the Sahel. U.S. military support could fuel further instability.

US interests in Chad

As Reuters’ Emma Farge noted last year, Chad lies between “jihadist fighters prowling Libya’s deserts to the north, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb active in the west and rebels and janjaweed militia battling in Sudan’s Darfur region to the east.” Chadian President Idriss Déby, who came to power in a 1990 coup, has used these security threats to strengthen ties with foreign powers, particularly France and the United States.

The Flintlock exercise is intended to bolster border security and help limit the movement of rebel groups, human traffickers and criminal networks. Toward that end, U.S. support will focus on improving Chad’s telecommunications and intelligence services. In addition to Boko Haram, the U.S. is concerned about persistent instability across the Sahel and West Africa as well as the proliferation of militias and armed groups in Mali, the Central African Republic and Niger. However, Washington’s support for Déby assumes U.S. interests in the region align with Chad’s. U.S. policymakers should realize, however, that Chad has demonstrated a vested interest in promoting instability and empowering regional militias. Far from a bulwark of stability, Chad has proved a purveyor of chaos.

Chad has been a staunch U.S. ally in the “war on terrorism” since 9/11. Washington’s reliance on the country has only grown in recent years. TomDispatch’s Nick Turse pointed out last year:

The United States has for more than a decade poured copious amounts of money, time and effort into making Chad a stable regional counterterrorism partner, sending troops there, training and equipping its army, counseling its military leaders, providing tens of millions of dollars in aid, funding its military expeditions, supplying its army with equipment ranging from tents to trucks, donating additional equipment for its domestic security forces, providing a surveillance and security system for its border security agents and looking the other way when its military employed child soldiers.

Oil imports from Chad hardly justify such a robust security partnership. But Chad’s willingness to intervene in regional crises helps Washington to avoid getting dragged into African conflicts. Chad has proved useful in carrying out the tasks that the United States is unwilling to take on.

Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies.
President Barack Obama
Déby has used regional turmoil to strengthen ties with Western allies and flex Chad’s muscle. In 2013, Chad played a key role in the French-led offensive to wrest control back from armed Islamic groups in northern Mali. In July 2014, France chose Chad as the primary base for Operation Barkhane, a 3,000-strong permanent French force meant to counter terrorism and ethnic strife in the Sahel.

Similarly, in April 2014, the U.S. used Chadian bases to operate drones and conduct surveillance to help find Nigeria’s Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. In November, Déby unsuccessfully attempted to broker the release of the Chibok girls and a truce between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. Earlier this month, Chad took a leading role in the African coalition organized to counter Boko Haram.

Chad’s offensive against the Nigerian insurgent group has been relentless. In late January, the Chadian military entered Nigeria unilaterally to push Boko Haram back. On March 3, Chadian troops gained the control of the northeastern Nigerian town of Dikwa from the group. Chadian troops claim to have killed more than 200 Boko Haram fighters and liberated 200 miles of roadside towns in the region.

Meddling in regional crises

Chad’s intervention in Nigeria and its eagerness to attract Western support has an economic dimension. A poor, landlocked nation of 11.4 million people, Chad is desperate to protect trade threatened by regional instability.

“Militants squeezed paths used by herdsmen who walk one of Chad’s main exports — cattle — to market in Nigeria,” Michael M. Phillips and Drew Hinshaw, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Boko Haram also choked off the flow of manufactured goods into Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. Prices for everyday imports like plastic tubs have skyrocketed.”

While the U.S. and France might be relieved to have a battle-hardened military ally in the region, Chad’s previous involvements in regional conflicts should give them pause. True, Chad is relatively stable among its conflict-ridden neighbors, which include the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya and Sudan. But N’Djamena has been responsible for a significant amount of the instability in those countries. In 2013, Déby allegedly facilitated the coup against President François Bozize in the Central African Republic by lending support to the Seleka rebels. The situation there has since devolved into brutal fighting between rival armed groups, resulting in a humanitarian crisis and a flood of refugees and internally displaced people. (Ten years earlier, Déby provided sanctuary for Bozize during his attempt to overthrow then-President Ange-Felix Patasse.) Having facilitated the crisis, Chadian troops were then sent into the Central African Republic as a part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, only to be withdrawn in April after soldiers opened fire on civilians.

Similarly, in 2005 relations between Chad and Sudan hardened over Déby’s support for Sudanese rebel groups and proxy militias in Darfur. By the time Chad and Sudan settled their differences, the rebel groups were difficult to control, defecting from their patrons to pursue local grievances. Chad’s eastern region and Sudan’s west have become deeply divided and ungovernable. Chad’s support for rebel groups in Sudan and the Central Africa Republic has spun out of control and devastated local communities. And its enthusiastic military intervention in Nigeria is being viewed with suspicion. Some Nigerians have even suggested that Déby has provided support for Boko Haram. The claim illustrates Chad’s tainted history of regional excursions.

Chad’s domestic policies are no less problematic. The country is one of the world’s least free, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World index. Under Déby’s rule, Chad’s already dismal record for political and civil rights has continuedto decline.

“Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change,” President Barack Obama said in a Los Angeles Times op-ed a day after the Flintlock Exercise began. “Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies.” In that regard, Chad has not only failed to safeguard the rights of its citizens but also played a key role in some of the most devastating conflicts in the region.

The international community has a responsibility to help mitigate the threat of Boko Haram and other regional insurgencies. However, empowering irresponsible actors such as Chad through military aid threatens to do more harm than good.

Hilary Matfess is a master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where she focuses on issues of governance, security and development in sub-Saharan Africa. She is also a researcher at the Nigerian Social Violence Project.

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