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Alternative Approaches: Chad’s Regional Role amid Challenges of Political Transition

The political transformations that Chad is undergoing have raised several fears and questions about the future of Chad’s regional role in the fight against terrorism along the Lake Chad basin and in the Sahel and Sahara region. 

These fears are increasing with greater possibilities of the decline of international involvement in the region (particularly that of France). This imposes further burdens on countries of the region at a time internal challenges are mounting in Chad, in a way that pushes one of the strongest armies in the Sahel region and an important regional partner in counter-terrorism efforts in this volatile area to turn inward to its internal crises, given the political and security challenges that the country is facing. 

This may exacerbate pressures on the military institution, affecting its ability to bear the burdens of fighting terrorism regionally. 

I- Challenges of Political Transition

Notwithstanding the pressing regional context of Chad, the country suffers escalating internal challenges, some of which are related to this regional context and its internal repercussions while others are associated with the identity of the existing political and social system, which gave rise to social and tribal conflicts that took on an armed character, with insurgent groups exerting pressure on the ruling regime to overthrow it, until it ended up with the murder of Chadian President Idriss Deby during a fight on the frontline against rebels north of the country, coming from Libya.

The murder of Deby, just one day after announcing his victory in the presidential elections for a sixth term in office in April 2021, spoke volumes of the nature of the political system, which lacks any peaceful change of power. Deby came to power through a coup led by him against former President Hassan Habré, and he met the same violent fate. Deby’s heavy legacy contributes to the persistence of the challenges facing the country. Deby died, leaving the country rife with political and armed conflicts while the armed opposition continued to call for change.  This was reflected in the mounting opposition by political parties and armed movements that oppose Mohamed Deby’s assuming presidency for an interim period. 

Beyond this, the country is still facing challenges of the political transition, which in turn imposes pressure on the military institution that recently opted for negotiations with the armed opposition, as a substitute for the protracted confrontation that threatened the existing political system. The Chadian regime has been involved in confrontations with armed opposition groups, whose visibility has been reflected in policies of the ruling regime over the past two decades, particularly with the fragile security and vulnerable borders. The eastern region and its tribal extensions in Darfur was one of the pressing factors on Idriss Deby’s regime.

These armed groups pose an additional pressure on the Chadian regime, as they work separately from the jihadist groups that threaten the country from the south and the west. The Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), which is based in southern Libya, is one of the most severe groups that threaten the stability of Chad and it is the group that killed Deby. The group was established in 2016 after its founder, Mohamed Mahdi, split from the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development.

These pressures, in turn, caused the Transitional Military Council to abandon its hardline position, i.e. Deby’s confrontational approach in dealing with the armed groups. Alternatively, it worked to relieve the pressure posed on it and ensure unanimous agreement on a change in power, by openness to dialogue with the opposition, including the armed opposition. In this vein, the head of the Transitional Military Council, Mohamed Idriss Deby, called on everyone to give up weapons and resort to dialogue, in a stark departure from his father’s approach.

II- Regional Security Challenges 

Chad enjoys a geographical location that has caused the country complex security challenges. These challenges came either from immediate neighboring countries whose borders represent a direct security threat to Chad or from regional extensions in blazing regions, which exacerbated the security challenges facing Chad whether those related to borders management with Darfur in western Sudan or the Chadian involvement in combating terrorism in the Sahel. 

1. Border Management Crisis with Sudan

Due to the immediate vicinity between Chad and Sudan, the relations between the two countries experience multiple tensions, which included mutual accusations of harboring the armed opposition of one another. This historical tension between the regimes of Omar al-Bashir and Idriss Deby increased with the tribal and geographical extensions in Darfur, Al-Bashir’s regime accusation of Chad of involvement in the 2003 Darfur war, and Chad accusing Sudan of harboring the armed opposition that takes the Darfur region as a safe haven. This geographic and tribal dimension sparked a crisis for both countries. The descent of Deby from the Zaghawa ethnic group that extends in Darfur was one of the causes of tension between the two countries, with some Sudanese armed movements belonging to that tribe, e.g. the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement. On the other hand, Darfur represented a haven for Chadian armed rebel movements.

In their endeavors to pacify relations between them, Chad and Sudan signed, in 2010, a security protocol on border control, which stipulated that neither country would support the rebel groups, with an agreement on forming joint forces to secure their borders. In 2011, Central Africa joined the protocol and a joint force was formed between the three countries, in light of the border crises that threaten Chad from the east (Sudan) and from the south (Central Africa).

Notwithstanding the tensions that the Sudanese borders provoked, liquidity of borders with Libya exerted other pressures on the country, as has been reflected in the transfer of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) from Darfur to southern Libya in 2010. With the flaring up of the Libyan crisis, southern Libya served as a haven for rebel groups, where instability created a fertile environment for human trafficking, arms trade, and smuggling, with safe havens for Chadian armed militias that managed to move easily across the border. Despite border closure with Libya in 2019, this did not hamper the advancement of armed groups that threaten the ruling regime from the north, until President Deby was killed in a direct confrontation with FACT that entered into the country from the north, reflecting the magnitude of the security challenges faced by the country. On the other side, western Chad suffered crises coming from Niger, Nigeria, and Mali, which gave rise to the Chadian army’s involvement in regional efforts to combat terrorism, whether in the Sahel or the Lake Chad Basin, the latter posed a direct threat to the southern borders of Chad, with Boko Haram’s move to expand beyond the borders of Nigeria, threatening countries of the region, which prompted countries to engage in existing regional security equations.

2. Engagement in Counter-Terrorism in the Sahel

In connection with crises of the Chadian border, Chad’s regional neighborhood represents circles of pressure on the already broiling borders. These complex threats have contributed to Chad’s intense involvement in the regional security equation in more than one direction. For instance, Chadian soldiers make up 1,400 troops of the total force of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which has been deployed in Mali since 2013 to confront the security threats in the north of the country and coordinate with the French forces in the region, with France considering Chad one of its regional allies in countering terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region. Additionally, Chad hosts about 1,000 French troops deployed in the region since 2013 as part of the Serval and Barkhane operations.

In trying to involve regional countries in counter-terrorism efforts ad to gradually transfer the burdens of terrorism confrontation to armies of the region, Chad formed, along with Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania the G5 Sahel Task Force, which was established to coordinate security and development efforts among the G5 states and obtained the approval of the Security Council to deploy joint anti-terrorism forces in the region in 2017. Chadian troops comprise 1,200 troops of the total G5 force, deployed in the border area between Niger and Mali. However, in August 2021 and as part of the internal changes in the country, Chad recalled half of its troops participating in the G5 force, despite French attempts to persuade N’Djamena to keep its forces in this volatile region on the Mali border.

Chad justified its withdrawal coming as a strategic redeployment of its forces, being located in a region that experiences several terrorist threats. For Chad, it goes against logic that its forces engage in overseas missions aimed at resolving crises in other countries whereas it suffers from them. Given the intertwining of regional crises between the Sahel and Sahara region that caused Niger and Nigeria to pose common threats to all countries in the region, Chad has been hit by complex crises that prompted it to engage in multiple security arrangements. In addition to its involvement in the Sahel Force, Chad takes part with Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin, headquartered in N’Djamena and comprising 1,000 troops. This force was formed amid the escalating threats posed by Boko Haram and its splinter groups to countries of the region, after expansion of Boko Haram activity outside the borders of Nigeria since 2015, which exposed the southern regions of Chad to attacks by Boko Haram and its affiliates, prompting the Chadian army to intensify its engagement in confronting the terrorist threats coming from the south.

In response to Boko Haram’s intensification of its attacks, Chad engaged in the Jansen Tafeke operation that continued throughout 2019 until Chadian forces withdrew from Nigeria to redeploy again in the Lake Chad region, a step that Boko Haram countered by mounting an attack on Chadian forces, claiming the lives of 90 Chadian soldiers. This attack brought about a change in Chad’s position on involvement in regional anti-jihadist efforts. Simultaneously with the launch of Boma’s Wrath Operation in the state of Lake Chad south of the country in response to the threat posed by Boko Haram to its northern and western borders, the Chadian president announced that his country’s army wouldn’t engage in any overseas military operations; however, this decision was reversed and Chad continued to fulfil its regional commitments as regards the fight against terrorism.

III- The Future of Chad’s Regional Role

This internal and regional situation is indicative of the magnitude of the security challenges facing the Chadian army, a situation that necessitates its intense involvement on multiple fronts, both internally and regionally. Perhaps the internal political changes, which the military is engaged in, impose constraints on Chad’s regional commitments. This has been manifested in the partial withdrawal of Chadian forces from the Sahel Force, despite France’s attempts to dissuade Chad from this step. Earlier to this, Chadian forces withdrew from Nigeria to reposition on the opposite side of the Lake Chad Basin, when the southern regions of the country were threatened by the Boko Haram. In either case, Chad justified its steps as being a strategic redeployment within areas threatened by instability.

The decline of Chad’s regional involvement, justified by the lack of the regional support it receives despite facing the same sources of threat as its regional partners, coincided with the unilateral threats that the country faces from armed political rebel groups in the eastern and northern parts of the country, simultaneously with the terrorist threats it faces from the south, which causes the country to restrict to confronting its internal crises. These transformations, in turn, raise two issues, namely 1) the future of negotiations with the armed groups, with openness of the Chadian Transitional Military Council to dialogue with the armed opposition in the country, the same approach adopted by the transitional leadership in Mali in contradiction with the French vision that is based on armed confrontation and 2) the future of regional counter-terrorism arrangements to combat terrorism in the Sahel, if each country tends to handle its crises separately. These regional positions intertwine with the decline of external roles in the region, with the gradual reduction of the French forces in the region and Mali’s openness to negotiations with the armed opposition and its search for approaches alternative to the French ones while calling for the French withdrawal and rejecting a proposal to increase the UN forces in the country.  

These shifts in the positions portend escalating prospects of a decline in the existing collective arrangements in the region and may drive countries to search for a unilateral approach to confront its security challenges, which heralds more regional tensions. Clearly, the failure of regional counterterrorism efforts will prompt states to search for alternative approaches rather than developing collective mechanisms to fix existing initiatives.

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