Chad: A Precarious Counterterrorism Partner
Chad: A Precarious Counterterrorism Partner

 

By Benjamin P. Nickels and Margot Shorey

Benjamin Nickels and Margot Shorey think it's a bad idea to make Chad a 'go-to' partner for counterterrorism operations across Central and West Africa. Despite its recent successes against Boko Haram, the country still has too many social, economic and political problems to deal with at home.

The Republic of Chad is building a reputation as a leading African state in the fight against terrorism. Chad will provide more than a third of the 8,700 soldiers—3,000 men, nearly as many as Nigeria’s 3,250—currently assigned to the African Union (AU) approved Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF),[1] and Chadian forces have already claimed successes against Boko Haram in its strongholds along Nigeria’s borders. From the capital N’Djamena, President Idriss Déby Itno is busy working to project an image of his country as a regional powerbroker and valuable counterterrorism player. A closer look, however, reveals worrying vulnerabilities and triggers of instability that raise concerns about the risks of overreliance on this precarious partner to contain and counter terrorist threats in Central and West Africa.

This article provides an analysis of Chad’s role in regional counterterrorism efforts, examining its track record in such efforts and a number of its political, economic, and structural vulnerabilities. The article concludes by examining the implications of these concerns through some possible scenarios for instability in Chad, with serious consequences if Western partners were to rely too heavily on Chad’s help in regional counterterrorism ventures.

A New Prominence

In the past few years, Chad has earned international recognition as a regional security leader, thanks to its provision of a tough peacekeeping force and its successes as a strong counterterrorism partner in a troubled part of Africa. A large country located in the heart of Africa, Chad is strategically well placed to partner with regional and international actors seeking to counter various insurgent and extremist threats throughout West and Central Africa. In President Déby, Chad has a ruler who has demonstrated the political will to lead in security cooperation and a willingness to enforce collective decisions.

Chad has raised its regional security profile since 2013 through leadership in several multilateral bodies. Chad currently represents Central Africa in the AU Peace and Security Council, and it recently successfully campaigned for a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with its two-year term concluding at the end of 2015. A founding member of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Chad provided the organization’s current and previous secretaries-general.[2] Chad’s government has also made new connections to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) through on-the-ground operations, displaying its military prowess in responding to terrorism and instability in the neighboring sub-region.

With its strong experience fighting in the Saharan terrain, Chad’s military has been very active in countering al-Qa’ida–linked Islamist extremists in northern Mali. Chadians fought alongside the French to halt the extremists’ southern offensive towards Bamako in early 2013, and the Chadian government contributed approximately 2,000 troops to the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).[3] When AFISMA was replaced by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in July 2013, Chad again contributed to the mission, sending approximately 1,100 troops.[4] Although described in peacekeeping terms, these missions saw soldiers in direct combat with extremists, and Chad’s contingent has suffered the most casualties in MINUSMA.[5] Chad is again taking casualties in the regional counterterrorism fight against Boko Haram, with 71 dead and 416 wounded in less than three months of fighting in the Lake Chad Basin.[6]

Chad’s ability to act in Mali is in part thanks to long-term counterterrorism investments by international partners, such as France and the United States. France has provided financial and military support to President Déby for decades, and it has maintained a military base in N’Djamena since 1986.[7] In August 2014, when the French government restructured its Sahel strategy following its intervention in Mali, it showed its ongoing commitment to and reliance on Chad by basing troops for Opération Barkhane in N’Djamena, even though actual operations will likely have a West African focus.[8]

For Washington, Chad is a successful example of the light-footprint approach to security in Africa. Chad served as a base for recent U.S. support to Nigeria in combating Boko Haram and the search for the approximately 230 young women kidnapped from Chibok in mid-April 2014.[9] Chad also has been a core partner for over a decade in initiatives such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), through which the United States seeks to build African capability and capacity to combat terrorism in the region. Between 2009 and 2013, the United States obligated approximately $13 million in TSCTP funds to Chad.[10] Through the Partnership, the United States trained the Chadian Army’s elite Special Anti-Terrorism Group, the only African force to participate in the French-led offensive in Mali in early 2013.[11] In February and March 2015, Chad hosted the annual U.S.-sponsored Exercise Flintlock, a regional counterterrorism exercise for countries in the Sahel.

Enduring Vulnerabilities

Yet on closer inspection, Chad’s counterterrorism successes obscure some troubling traits in its politics, military, economy, and diplomatic relations that, if considered pragmatically, cast doubt on its leadership and hint at the possibility of future crisis.

The most salient political reality is that President Déby heads an authoritarian regime that relies on patronage and repression for its longevity. Like other African strongmen, his tenure as president has long outlasted the typical span of democratic rule. President Déby took power in 1990 by overthrowing the country’s previous ruler, Hissène Habré, whose harsh eight-year term seems brief compared to President Déby’s current quarter-century tenure.[12] President Déby claimed victory in elections in 1996 and 2001, before rewriting the constitution to do away with term limits to run and win again in 2006 and 2011. On each occasion ballots were cast, but massive restrictions, intimidation of opponents, and widespread fraud meant President Déby’s electoral successes were far from democratic.[13] Chad’s politics have prompted concerns from many quarters, including, for example, Freedom House, which has categorized Chad as “Not Free” in its Freedom in the World report for more than a decade.[14]

Politicization and patronage in the Chadian Armed Forces also creates points of concern. President Déby has cultivated a military elite that is drawn predominantly from his own ethnic group, the Zaghawa,[15] and Chad’s senior officers are loyal to the president rather than the republic. President Déby has deployed his armed forces against Chadian rebel groups. Chad’s military has been lauded for its efficiency in Mali, but the hallmark of its success, its expertise in desert warfare, stems from campaigns against insurgents in the country’s desert north and east.[16]

There are also socio-economic concerns driven by Chad’s failure to meet its potential. Despite the discovery of oil, which Chad began exporting in 2003, the inequitable distribution of Chad’s new wealth means that life for most Chadians remains extremely difficult.[17] Poor governance and corruption—Chad sits at 154 out of 174 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index[18]—have ensured that unemployment remains very high and development remains limited. Chad, for example, ranks 184 out of 187 countries on the 2014 UN Human Development Index.[19] President Déby has used Chad’s oil wealth to fund national security at the expense of other development projects, breaking a deal with the World Bank in 2006 to do so.[20] To this day, despite its military partnerships, Chad receives less international non-humanitarian development aid than its neighbors in the Sahel, such as Niger and Mali.[21]

Diplomatically, Chad’s international relations are potentially volatile because they rely on President Déby’s tenuous personal dealings with neighboring autocrats, a risky approach with great potential for sudden and complete reversals. Chad, for example, has a working relationship with Sudan at the moment, but President Déby had hostile relations with President Omar al-Bashir in the early 2000s, when both men supported rebel groups operating in each other’s country.[22] Chad still houses some 350,000 Sudanese refugees, largely from Darfur,[23] who could become a greater humanitarian or security risk if conflict between Chad and Sudan were to reignite. In addition, President Déby’s long-time links with Libya’s former leader Mu’ammar Qadhafi has complicated Chad’s relations with its northern neighbor.[24]

These long-term drivers of instability make Chad fragile, and any number of near-term triggers might tip the country into crisis. Protests, especially by young people, have become an increasingly common disturbance in N’Djamena and smaller cities across the country. In March 2015, enforcement of a new law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, like the one that sparked Boko Haram violence in Nigeria in July 2009,[25] spurred an intense round of demonstrations that led to three deaths and closed high schools and universities.[26] Meanwhile, new technologies are empowering and accelerating unrest. A recent video of Chadian police violently beating unarmed students went viral, causing outrage among civil society and invigorating the opposition.[27] These incidents could be just a taste of future events. For example, following the popularity of the #lwili hashtag in Burkina Faso’s rallies that eventually helped push the former president Blaise Compaoré from power, Chadians adopted the hashtag #Goum_Mou during November 2014 protests, demanding a leadership transition in Chad’s upcoming 2016 elections.

If a crisis in Chad were to develop, multiple vectors and sustainers of instability could easily aggravate and prolong instability across the country. Once in the grip of a major crisis, Chad could become a danger in and of itself, rather than the source of stability in the Sahel it is currently perceived to be.

Implications and Scenarios

Chad’s combination of under-appreciated vulnerabilities and importance to regional counterterrorism efforts could lead to unwelcome developments.

President Déby’s personalized diplomacy and penchant for interfering in neighbors’ affairs raises concerns, given N’Djamena’s central role in the MNJTF and Chad’s enthusiastic cross-border operations against Boko Haram in Cameroon and Nigeria. Such entanglements have limited Chad’s effectiveness in other regional forces over the years. Once peace support operations began in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013, for example, Chad’s long history of interference in the CAR’s internal affairs,[28] coupled with reports of financial and military support to the Seleka rebels, undermined N’Djamena’s role in the International Support Mission to the Central African Republic. Subsequent accusations that Chadian forces conducted politically motivated killings of unarmed civilians in March 2014 eventually forced President Déby to withdraw from the mission altogether.[29]

External reliance on Chad as a force for regional security might also exacerbate internal drivers of instability. The perception among Western partners that N’Djamena’s support is needed for success in regional counterterrorism efforts may encourage them to compromise on their values in order to protect their interests, just as it lets President Déby trade on his government’s perceived international utility as a way to compensate for a lack of domestic legitimacy. The more the international community depends on Chad as a security partner, the more important its stability becomes, even if it comes at the expense of democracy, respect for human rights, and economic development. Of course this dynamic is not unique to Chad: the tradeoff is apparent in several countries in Africa and beyond.

Yet that focus may be short-sighted even in relation to counterterrorism issues. There are no guarantees that Chad will remain stable long enough to mitigate or overcome terror threats in West and Central Africa. Chad’s many vulnerabilities mean that scenarios in which the country becomes more unstable are easy to envisage. Elite infighting, along with possible military discontent from repeated deployment, significant casualties, or unfair distribution of pay from regional missions against terrorists could precipitate a coup d’état. Factionalism could also increase tensions if rivalries based on religious, ethnic, or regional divisions harden and turn violent, something that could emerge in the event of disputes over the country’s oil revenues, for example.

Any of these developments could be the spark for significant destabilization given the underlying reality of Chadian life. There is little economic opportunity, few ways to express political dissent, and no near-term end in sight to the regime led by the 62-year-old president who has already ruled for nearly 25 years. In this context, the citizens of Chad—especially residents of the capital city, where a tenth of the population lives—could take inspiration from recent revolutions on the continent and foment a broader popular uprising.

Alternatively, these factors might provide fertile ground for the attempted radicalization of disaffected young Chadians by terror groups. Boko Haram could conceivably target Chadians for recruitment or expand operations in Chad, as it has in northern Cameroon. According to news reports, Boko Haram is already operating in Chad and has already moved some of the girls kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria, across the border into Chad.[30] Boko Haram’s first attack on Chadian soil occurred shortly after Chadian troops joined the MNJTF.[31] Also, Boko Haram’s activities are close to the border with Chad. Maiduguri, a hotbed of Boko Haram activity, is only some 250 kilometers from N’Djamena, compared to the more than 800 kilometers separating this remote town in northeastern Nigeria from the Nigerian capital Abuja.

The threat of further retaliatory attacks is real and concerning for the citizens of N’Djamena, as are the economic implications of the loss of important trade routes through northeastern Nigeria. Finally, Chad’s stability could suffer not only from this type of terrorist spillover, but also from a sub-regional conflagration, with a combination of refugees, proxy forces, and state aggression coming from bordering nations, if the country’s delicate personalized relations with neighboring heads of state were to sour.

These scenarios are not farfetched. The recent fall of Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaoré, one of the Sahel’s other enduring strongmen, is a vivid example of an authoritarian ruler toppled by a mobilized population. President Déby has also come close to losing power. In 2008, rebel forces reached the capital city and nearly overthrew the regime, but retreated from the capital after a three-day battle. Ultimately, France continued its role as President Déby’s protector, helping thwart the rebels in N’Djamena before they could oust the president.[32] President Déby survived the attack and made some reforms, but they did not go far enough to avoid another such crisis.

Chad may seem to be a strong counterterrorism partner with a capable military in a troubled region, but the country’s internal vulnerabilities warrant more attention from a wide variety of stakeholders. Regional states and international partners who invest in and depend heavily on Chad’s security and counterterrorism capabilities should remain alert. Another crisis might yet push this regional powerbroker into turmoil, with grave consequences for regional counterterrorism strategies and operations across both Central and West Africa.

[1] Thomas Fessy, “Boko Haram: Can regional force beat Nigeria’s militant Islamists?” BBC News, March 3, 2015.

[2] “UNOCA présent à la cérémonie d’installation du nouveau SG,” UNOCA, Bureau régional des Nations Unies pour l’Afrique central.

[3] African Union Peace and Security Council, 358th Meeting, Progress Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on the African-Led International Support Mission in Mali, March 7, 2013.

[4] United Nations, Troop and Police Contributors, August 31, 2014.

[5] United Nations, “United Nations Peacekeeping,” Fatalities by Nationality and Mission, (As of March 31, 2015).

[6] Agence France-Presse, “Chad army says 71 soldiers killed fighting Boko Haram,” April 10, 2015.

[7] French Defense Ministry, “Les éléments français au Tchad (EFT),” February 24, 2014.

[8] French Defense Ministry,“Opération Barkhane,” August 11, 2014.

[9] Ernesto Londoño, “U.S. deploys 80 troops to Chad to help find kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls,” The Washington Post, May 21, 2014.

[10] United States Government Accountability Office, Combating Terrorism: U.S. Efforts in Northwest Africa Would Be Strengthened by Enhanced Program Management, June 2014.

[11] Lesley Anne Warner, “The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership Building Partner Capacity to Counter Terrorism and Violent Extremism,” Center for Naval Analyses, March 2014.

[12] Celeste Hicks, “Clay Feet: Chad’s Surprising Rise and Enduring Weaknesses,” World Politics Review, November 13, 2014.

[13] Freedom House, “Chad: Freedom in the World 2014”; Freedom House “Freedom in the World: Chad 2013”; Amy McKenna, “Idriss Déby, President of Chad,” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[14] See the annual reports available at Freedom House “Chad: Freedom in the World 2014.”

[15] Gaël Grilhot, “Les forces tchadiennes au Mali : mythe et réalités,” RFI, January 21, 2013 , and “L’armée tchadienne aux avant-postes de la guerre au Mali,” Le Monde, March 4, 2013.

[16] Peter Tinti, “In Mali fight, Chad proves a powerful partner for France,” Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2013.

[17] Celeste Hicks, “Chad’s oil project 10 years on: has anything changed?” African Arguments, July 31, 2013.

[18] “Corruption Perceptions Index 2014,” Transparency International.

[19] “Human Development Index and its components,” 2014 Human Development Report, United Nations Development Programme.

[20] Celeste Hicks, “Is Chad managing to beat the ‘oil curse’?” The Guardian, April 14, 2014.

[21] See and compare Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data from Chad and its neighbors.

[22] Celeste Hicks, “Clay Feet: Chad’s Surprising Rise and Enduring Weaknesses,” World Politics Review, November 13, 2014.

[23] “2014 UNHCR country operations profile – Chad,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[24] International Crisis Group, “Africa without Qaddafi: The Case of Chad.” Africa Report No. 180, October 21, 2011.

[25] “Boko Haram Recent Attacks,” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, May 2014.

[26] Siobhán O’Grady, “Why Are Chadian Youth Rioting Over a Motorcycle Helmet Law?” Foreign Policy, March 11, 2015.

[27] “Violences policières: l’opposition tchadienne appelle à des sanctions,” RFI, March 15, 2015.

[28] Celeste Hicks, “Clay Feet: Chad’s Surprising Rise and Enduring Weaknesses,” World Politics Review, November 13, 2014.

[29] “UN Investigators: Chadian Soldiers Fired on Civilians in CAR,” Voice of America, April 4, 2014.

[30] “Chibok abductions: Nigeria girls ‘taken abroad’,” BBC News, April 29, 2014.

[31] “Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants attack Chad for first time,” BBC News, February 13, 2015.

[32] See “Chadian Army, Rebels Battle in Capital; Hundreds Killed; Civilians Flee; France, U.N. Back Government,” Facts on File World News Digest, February 7, 2008; Ketil Fred Hansen, “Chad’s Relations with Libya, Sudan, France and the US,” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, April 15, 2011.

Dr. Benjamin P. Nickels is Academic Chair for Transnational Threats and Counterterrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, where he focuses primarily on the Sahel, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. He holds a doctorate and master’s degree from the University of Chicago. Margot Shorey works in academic affairs at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, where she focuses primarily on West Africa and the Sahel. She holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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