Porous Borders and Fluid Loyalties: Patterns of Conflict in Darfur, Chad, and the CAR
May 20, 2009
Recent events in Chad and Sudan show once again that a regional approach is required if there is to be any hope of a lasting solution to the persistent conflict in this part of Africa. In February 2008, a Chadian rebel alliance backed by Khartoum launched an unsuccessful attack on N'Djamena, Chad's capital. Three months later, fighters from the Darfurian Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which has been a close ally of the Chadian regime for the last two years, carried the conflict into Omdurman, just across the Nile from Khartoum, Sudan's capital. While there is no definitive indication that Chad's President Idriss Déby's was involved in JEM's assault, it is clear that the conflicts in Chad and Darfur have become increasingly intertwined.
The Central African Republic (CAR) remains at the margins of the regional crisis: President François Bozizé has been able to maintain good relations with the Sudanese regime while being Déby's ally. However, CAR has been affected since 2003 by the presence of Chadian men in arms who can be found on all sides, including Bozizé's personal security guard, rebel forces and transnational networks of road bandits.
While the existence of a regional web of hostilities is nowadays widely acknowledged, the complex logic behind the crisis has not received adequate attention. Its regional dimensions are often reduced to a mere ‘darfurization' of eastern Chad - and to a lesser extent of the north-east of CAR. Seeing the crisis through the lens of Darfur is misleading and draws attention away from other aspects of the entangled conflicts in the region. The cross-border activities of armed combatants with fluid loyalties are a particularly important factor that is often overlooked.
Before these conflicts gained international attention, many combatants involved in the Chad, Darfur, and Central African crises had already fought in several wars in the region, either as rebels or soldiers. The repeated re-conversion of armed combatants, who easily shift allegiances, is indeed a structural pattern of the current conflicts which has major implications both at the local and transnational levels. There are three main reasons for these tumultuous trajectories.
First, the persistence of armed factionalism is linked to the rules of the political game which prevail in the region - and the main rule is that arms are the key to political success. Chad, for example, has never experienced non-violent regime change. Political leaders who chose to be part of the non-armed opposition have been little rewarded. A key civilian figure, Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, was arrested in February 2008 and is still considered "disappeared." The numerous peace deals which have been signed since Déby seized power in 1990 are the outcomes of bargaining among prominent armed actors for lucrative political and military positions. They have never addressed substantive political issues such as free and fair elections, weeding out impunity for human rights abuses and corruption, or restructuring of the armed forces to serve the needs of a country at peace. Another regional reality is that armed factionalism has always had a transnational dimension. Intervention by foreign states is the norm rather than an exception in the region: Libya, Sudan and Chad had been supporting insurgent groups in neighboring countries long before the international community began to show some interest in the conflict in Darfur.
Second, kin-based social networks which straddle borders play a crucial role in the mobility of combatants and their shifting allegiances. Transnational flows of civilian and armed populations have always been important between Chad and western Sudan. Today, many Chadian and Darfurian fighters have ethnic and family ties with combatants and soldiers who are on the other side of both the conflict and the border. The division of the Zaghawa ethnic group is an example of the implications of kin-based social networks on combatants' complex allegiances. A Chadian Zaghawa recently told the author, as JEM was retreating from Omdurman: "I am a Chadian military officer, but I am also with JEM. And, as you know, I support RFC (Rally of Forces for Change). On JEM's side, there are my maternal uncles, on Déby's side as well as on RCF's side, there are my paternal uncles. If any of them call me, I can't refuse."
Indeed, the RFC, one of the main Chadian rebel movements, is composed of Zaghawa, the ethnic group of both the Chadian President and the JEM leader - though the two do not belong to the same sub-group. Chadian government forces have been fighting RFC for more than two years, while having forged an uneasy alliance with JEM. Yet, ethnic solidarity is never automatic and alliances among rebel groups do not follow ethnic lines. At the macro-level, ethnicity cannot explain the logic of alliances. However, at the micro-level, kin-based social networks are crucial to understanding how combatants (and the supporters of rebellions) may not only easily change allegiances but also have close ties with armed groups whose aims are not compatible. Social networks which existed before the war are crucial to explaining the mobility of combatants during war.
The third factor explaining the fluidity of armed groups is that the marginalized youth of the region need little persuasion before embarking on war activities on their home turf or abroad as a means of upward social mobility. Years of violent conflict and repression have produced a large cohort of freelance military entrepreneurs. The trajectories of the ‘Chadian ex-liberators' in the Central African Republic are only one example of combatants who cycle between different forms of ‘armed labor' and readily cross borders to continue their fighting careers. When François Bozizé staged his successful coup against Ange-Félix Patassé in March 2003, a large number of his combatants were from Chad. They had been recruited with Idriss Déby's blessing. High bonuses were promised to them. For instance, the dual-nationality ex-liberators whom this author met in 2006 in a refugee camp in southwest Chad were promised up to CFA15 million (about €22,867) as well as full integration into the regular forces after the victory.
The relationships between Bozizé and the ex-liberators who pressed for payment deteriorated rapidly after the takeover. Most of them did not wait long before taking up arms again. Some drifted to the northwest of the country and joined the zaraguinas, the infamous road bandits whose attacks have increased dramatically since 2003. Others were recruited into Chadian rebel groups, which found rear bases in Darfur. A section of them joined a conglomeration of armed groups active in the north-east of CAR, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2007 and is today taking part in the national dialogue. The Darfur-Chad-CAR region is not the only African region characterized by fluid loyalties on the part of combatants. Since the late 1980s, regional warriors from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire have crossed the porous borders of West Africa. Transnational flows of combatants have also had disastrous consequences in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the experience of these countries shows, understanding the potential for re-recruitment due to the political utility of armed conflict in the local context, cross-border kinship ties, and the social and economic marginalization of young men is essential to constructing a peace process that has a reasonable chance for success.
However, the tendency for neighboring states to support armed factions across borders must also be met realistically. In Darfur, Chad, and CAR, armed men carried on with their politico-military careers because war was organized by military entrepreneurs who happened to be both heads of states and rebel leaders. This problem is particularly difficult to deal with. The key lies in understanding the root causes of each conflict - and most importantly why armed struggle remains more rewarding than civilian opposition - as well as the implications of the cross-border alliances forged by governmental and rebel forces.
Finally, the cycling of combatants between different zones of conflict must be taken into account as a critical dimension of entangled conflicts. While the fluid loyalties of combatants do not provide an explanation for the outbreak of conflicts, they certainly play a significant and dangerous role in the unfolding of the conflicts themselves and in their aftermath. For this reason, any peace settlement and any disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program should be designed as part of a comprehensive and regional strategy. This is all the more important because a pool of disgruntled fighters in one country may have deeply damaging consequences for neighboring countries.
Marielle Debos is currently completing her PhD dissertation on armed men in Chad at Sciences Po in Paris. She conducted ten months of fieldwork in Chad. This article is based on "Fluid Loyalties in a Regional Crisis: Chadian ‘Ex-liberators' in the Central African Republic", African Affairs, n° 427, 2008, p. 225-241.
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