Chad-Sudan : Khartoum’s failed Blitzkrieg Is not the end of the war
March 14, 2008
The forty eight hours of fighting inside Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, in early February 2008 have left President Idris Deby in power without solving any of the underlying causes of the conflict. The Sudan-backed rebels were pushed out of the capital, but they had not been crushed, only dented, and a renewal of the fighting is possible at any time. On March 13, in Dakar, Senegal, Deby and Sudan’s President Omar Bashir signed a peace accord pledging the two governments to prevent armed groups on their territory from destabilizing the other regime. But like earlier peace pacts, this one may well be doomed to failure. Why did the Sudanese government go out on such a limb in February and try to overthrow its neighboring government? The answer can be found in the deterioration of the situation in Darfur, the vast, France-sized territory in the west of Sudan. The international community is understandably preoccupied with the increased insecurity and the (not so) slow-motion collapse of the humanitarian support system for over 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur. It is also worried about the (very) slow pace of the hybrid UN/African Union hybrid peacekeeping force (UNAMID). But from Khartoum’s point of view this is not at all how it looks. What worries the Islamist regime is that its military control over Darfur is slipping. The reasons are simple: since the beginning of the conflict exactly five years ago, Khartoum has systematically attempted to pit the “Arab” tribes against the “Black African” tribes in order to isolate the mostly black guerillas. Racial stereotyping, financial rewards, and the toleration of rape and looting were key elements in the practical and symbolic rewarding of the killer militias. Now this “incentive system” has reached its limit: there is not much left to loot, the promised financial rewards are wearing thin, and traditional Arab leaders are worried that when the war stops it will be extremely difficult for them to recreate any type of trans-communal functioning society. As a result, the men who used to carry the guns are, in many cases, having second thoughts, and many are changing sides. Several of the “Black African” guerilla leaders – Abd-el-Wahid Mohamed an-Nur and Khalil Ibrahim among others – have made very conscious efforts to attract these disaffected Arab militiamen over to their side, often with a fair amount of success. In a way, this is logical: the social, economic, and even political marginalization of all Darfurians is a long-standing phenomenon and has not been restricted to the “African” tribes. Even at the symbolical level one should not be deceived by the term “Arab:” Nile Valley Arabs who call themselves Awlad al-Beled (or “true sons of the land”) have never considered their rough western cousins as anything better than country bumpkins with whom they had very little in common apart from language. The problem for the Khartoum Islamist elite is that without these despised country cousins, they do not have the manpower with which to control Darfur militarily. And losing control of Darfur could have the most severe consequences a year before Sudan’s scheduled general elections and three years before the self-determination referendum in the Southern Sudan. (See Simon Roughneen, “No EUFORia as Chad Plans Go Awry” http://forums.csis.org/africa/?cat=14.) Khartoum has already hinted it might want to organize general elections without Darfur taking part in them. It is this problem of military control which has turned the question of who is in charge in Ndjamena from a peripheral sideshow to a vital survival issue. Given the progressive slipping away of the Arab militia’s support for the government, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) guerilla movement had been progressively taking control of more and more of the Chad-Darfur border. By early January, the Sudanese army was in danger of completely losing control of western Darfur, and the Khartoum authorities became so desperate that they began handing out guns to the (mostly Arab) population of the border capital, el-Geneina, fearing that the guerillas were about to risk a frontal assault on the town. The situation was exacerbated by the constant help that Chad’s President Idris Deby was giving to the rebellion, particularly to JEM, which is made up of Zaghawa, Deby’s own tribe . In addition, two international factors were threatening to make the situation even worse for Khartoum. Slow as it may have been, UNAMID was progressively slipping into place. The UN/AU hybrid force was not yet making any difference militarily, but if it eventually grew to its planned 27,000 strength and if it found the helicopters it was still lacking, it could slowly begin to challenge Khartoum’s control of Darfur. The worst fear of the Sudanese authorities was that it would begin to look into the possibility of enforcing eventual International Criminal Court (ICC) mandates against alleged Darfur war criminals. And on the Chadian side of the border, constant pressure from Paris on Brussels had finally succeeded in securing a European Union mandate for the deployment of a EUFOR force into Chad. EUFOR was of course not supposed to “protect” the Idris Deby regime. But since a large segment of its troops were going to be the very same French troops already present in Chad, it looked more and more (at least from the point of view of the Chadian rebels) like a case of Brussels providing a convenient international label for a French neo-colonial operation. By mid January, as all these factors were put together, the amber lights were flashing in Khartoum. Deby, the weakest link in the Darfur danger chain, had to be removed from power. Without the French in Chad, the attempt would probably have succeeded. In comparison with the April 2006 raid on Ndjamena, the February 2008 attack had more men and most of those were experienced . But Paris stretched “non-interference” to the most extreme limit. Without engaging its troops into direct frontal fighting, it defended the airport at Ndjamena, Chad’s capital, against rebel attack. This enabled Deby’s three combat helicopters to refuel and rearm continuously, and they did a very effective job of busting up attack vehicles in the streets of the capital. More importantly, Deby’s control of the airport allowed re-supply flights to Libya, from where ammunition for Deby’s Soviet-era T-55 tanks was brought in. The French Army did not have such shells in stock, but Gaddafi did, and he gave them to the French to pass on to the Chadians. Deby’s victory was swift and pitiless, but superficial. The rebels are still all over the country, ready to pounce if they see a favorable opportunity. Meanwhile, the Chadian warlord-President has arrested all the leaders of the civilian opposition. He denies having done so, even though his troops were seen doing it, and there is a strong fear he might murder the civilian politicians. The reason is simple: the rebels are brutal men of war whose civil rights record is not any better than that of the President himself. But If they had managed to attract the more respectable civilian figures, they might have constituted the embryo of a credible and potentially legitimate new government. Without such an adjunct, the rebels remain what they are, armed bands without program or ideology and with very dubious backers in Khartoum. All this adds up to one bitter conclusion: the Chad-Sudan war is far from over. Khartoum is still afraid of losing control of western Darfur. The incredibly brutal aerial bombing it carried out in Dafur, and militia raids it sponsored in the wake of the defeat of it allies in Chad, is a clear proof of its fears. The attacks on the towns of Abu Suruj, Sirba and Sileia, brutal as they may have been, were not just expressions of gratuitous outrage. Rather, they were a calculated operation through which the Sudanese army began the process of re-securing the Chadian border to be able to resupply its rebel friends in Chad, to protect its rear lines from attack by the (pro-Deby) Darfurian guerillas, and to safeguard el-Geneina. The Sudanese authorities forbade all humanitarian flights north of el-Geneina and then moved on to bomb and attack the Jebel Moon area. Far from being embarrassed by the violence, Khartoum intended these moves to have a demonstration effect on UNAMID and to show the international community that it would not let itself be intimidated into military defeat. EUFOR has now begun to deploy itself in Chad, and Paris hopes that it will have a deterrent effect on further rebel attacks against Ndjamena. But in case it does not, the French will face a dilemma. If they do not intervene directly in any new fighting, their man, Idris Deby, could be swept off the board this time around. And if they do intervene, the EUFOR fig leaf covering French intentions will be stretched to the tearing point . Intense international pressure and the mediation of Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, supported by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, have resulted in the March 13 peace accord, and the world community should be grateful for this. But the basic situation facing the Bashir government has not changed, and its calculus of how it can turn that situation to its advantage may well not have changed either. Sudanese Army forces are at present preparing a renewed offensive in western Darfur, and cooperative rebel groups will certainly be enlisted in the effort. Will the offensive go all the way to the border? Perhaps beyond?
Gerard Prunier is a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris and Director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.
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