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Darfur forces President Deby onto political tightrope

[Chad] Chad President Idriss Deby.
President Idriss Deby pushed through constitutional changes that prompted criticism from the press (BBC)

It is not just the flood of refugees from Darfur that is causing problems in Chad. Tensions are also spilling across the border, reigniting old hostilities and landing President Idriss Deby in a political minefield.

"The general turmoil and instability at the border is ringing alarm bells here," one Western diplomat in the Chadian capital, N'djamena, told IRIN. "At every meeting with government officials, you seem to be hearing increasing concern about the situation in the east."

"There's a worry that the dynamics of the same conflict in Darfur... between nomadic herders and farmers... will spread into the rest of the region: Chad, Niger, perhaps northern Cameroon," the diplomat added.

Deby, a former warlord who seized power in the impoverished and landlocked country in 1990, has already taken one body blow since the Darfur conflict erupted in neighbouring Sudan 20 months ago.

In May, disgruntled soldiers staged a mutiny, which the authorities said was a warm-up for assassinating the president. Heavy gunfire rattled around N'djamena and mobile phone networks were shut down for several days.

Diplomats say the would-be-putchistes came from Deby's own Zagawa ethnic group and were venting their anger at the president's soft line towards Khartoum. They said the insurgents were angry at Deby's lack of support for his Zagawa kinsmen being slaughtered across the border in Sudan by the pro-government Janjawid militia.

"The Darfur crisis is a serious threat to Deby," the International Crisis Group declared in a recent report.

Just two weeks ago, Chad's security forces ransacked several barracks and the homes of some military officers to search for hidden weapons in what they described as a mopping-up operation against people still bent on wreaking havoc in the country.

"The Darfur crisis has generated severe tensions in the army, as many officers would like the government to support the rebels in Darfur," the World Bank's latest briefing note on Chad said.

[Chad] Refugees Camp, Tiné, 24 Sept 03. The MSF health unit in the refugee camp of Tiné Chad has opened. Dozens of refugees push/urge to be registered. Some of them try to enter the tents uncontrolled. But who can blame them? Many are sick and need urg

Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad
Dieter Telemans
[Chad] Refugees Camp, Tiné, 24 Sept 03. The MSF health unit in the refugee camp of Tiné Chad has opened. Dozens of refugees push/urge to be registered. Some of them try to enter the tents uncontrolled. But who can blame them? Many are sick and need urg...
Wednesday, October 8, 2003
Mounting unrest in east threatens aid effort, WFP says
[Chad] Refugees Camp, Tiné, 24 Sept 03. The MSF health unit in the refugee camp of Tiné Chad has opened. Dozens of refugees push/urge to be registered. Some of them try to enter the tents uncontrolled. But who can blame them? Many are sick and need urg...
The influx of refugees is just the most visible aspect of Deby's problems

Before the coup attempt, Deby had played the model of neutrality in the Darfur conflict.

He hosted peace talks between the Sudanese government and the two Darfur rebel groups in December 2003 and again in April, when the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement - since widely ignored by combatants on the ground.

But many commentators have noticed a hardening in Deby's stance towards Khartoum over the summer. And the latest round of Darfur peace talks, in August and September, shifted from N'djamena to Abuja in neighbouring Nigeria.

"I think he feels like he got stiffed," a Western diplomat told IRIN. "He's had something of a change of heart himself in the last few months and I think he is losing patience... He's come to the conclusion that in fact, the Sudanese regime has stirred up the conflict and he is less reticent about his unhappiness."

Offending Khartoum not an option

But Deby cannot afford to come down too hard on Khartoum.

Firstly, analysts say, there would be no point starting a dispute that he could not win and that would lack popular support in Chad outside his own Zagawa community which lives on both sides of the border.

Secondly, the analysts explain, Deby feels a debt of gratitude to Khartoum because Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al Bashir helped him to gain power in 1990. He allowed Deby to launch an invasion of Chad from Sudanese soil that led to the ousting of former president Hissene Habre.

"Deby's in a tricky situation," explained Roland Marchal, an Africa specialist at the Sciences Po university in Paris. "Now his dilemma is how to improve both relations with the Zagawa and with the Arabs at the same time."

When Deby made his push for power 14 years ago, his first key success was the capture of the strategic eastern town of Abeche, currently the hub for the international effort to assist some 200,000 refugees from Darfur that have poured across the border.

Now, as the president's hold on the rest of the country appears threatened, residents and aid workers in this sand-filled town, say he is spending more and more time there and less in N'djamena, 700 km to the west.

Deby, they told IRIN, appeared to be increasingly edgy about possible coups and assassination attempts.

Presidential decoys - Deby look-alikes surrounded by bodyguards - have been spotted taking off on government planes in an apparent attempt to sow confusion over the real president's whereabouts, they said.

Map of Chad

The WFP service flies from N'djamena to Abeche...
Map of Chad ...
Friday, January 24, 2003
Lack of funds threatens air link to refugees
Map of Chad ...
Deby has been spending more and more time in Abeche and less and less in N'djamena

Key to understanding Deby's woes is the ethnic crossover between eastern Chad and western Sudan. The Zagawa in Darfur speak the same language and in some cases are actually direct relations of the Zagawa living in Chad. Similarly there are strong Arab contingents on both sides of the border.

And long-running feuds over land between the African farmers and the Arabic-speaking nomadic herdsmen do not stop for passport controls before surging across the frontier.

Revenge and retaliation

There have already been reports of Chadian Zagawa exacting personal revenge across the border for attacks on their Sudanese brothers, while Arabs in Chad have been on the receiving end of retaliation by Sudanese refugees.

On a more co-ordinated level, the ICG noted that cross-border incursions by Sudanese Janjawid militiamen and Chadian gunmen allied to them grew more frequent and more deadly in the first half of 2004.

"These attacks appear designed in part to warn N'djamena that any support -- even unofficial -- to the rebels could have serious consequences," the Brussels-based think tank said.

Analysts say armed groups of all persuasions and on both sides of the border are recruiting both Sudanese and Chadians into their ranks.

Last June, Ahmad Allami, a personal advisor to President Deby, accused the Janjawid of reviving a former Chadian rebel movement, the National Front for the Renewal of Chad, which only stopped fighting the government in 2002.

And he sketched out a gloomy scenario.

"This situation risks degenerating into an inter-ethnic war between a coalition of Arabs and other ethnic groups in the region," warned the man who served as Chad's chief mediator in the Darfur peace talks.

Another headache for Deby is the increasingly dire economic situation which many people in eastern Chad now find themselves in as a result of the refugee influx.

Eighty percent of Chad's eight million people live on less than a dollar a day so few have any surplus to spare.


Un déficit céréalier qui provoque une grave crise alimentaire au Niger
Dieter Telemans
[Chad] Refugees Camp, Tiné, 24 Sept 03. The refugees in Tiné camp have hardly anything. Most of them live exclusively on millet. People cook the flower into boule (French), asida (Arabic) or go (Zaghawa dialect). It is a common dish of the area, usuall...
Wednesday, October 8, 2003
L’ONU demande 16 millions de dollars pour contenir la crise alimentaire au Niger
[Chad] Refugees Camp, Tiné, 24 Sept 03. The refugees in Tiné camp have hardly anything. Most of them live exclusively on millet. People cook the flower into boule (French), asida (Arabic) or go (Zaghawa dialect). It is a common dish of the area, usuall...
Getting by on very little

Nevertheless, the local population in eastern Chad welcomed the refugees with open arms at the start of the crisis, sharing what little food they had and even offering jobs to the new arrivals.

But now, having seen the international humanitarian machine swing into action and worrying about a meagre harvest after a woefully poor rainy season, the locals are growing resentful.

In an illustration of how events have the potential to spiral out of control, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said three refugees were killed last week in and around the eastern town of Iriba as tensions with the local community ran high.

What now?

Although many diplomats express doubts about Deby's capacity to survive in power for much longer, the 52-year-old president shows no sign of quitting.

After winning presidential elections in 1996 and again in 2001, Deby has already convinced parliament to change the constitution so he can seek a third term in polls scheduled for 2006.

He is now waiting for the amendment to be rubber-stamped by a referendum, but foreign and local commentators say that should not be a problem.

The opposition is in disarray, they point out, and the key foreign powers in the region, France and the United States, are likely to turn a blind eye to any vote rigging because Deby has presided over one of the most stable periods in the country's 44 years of independence.

France, the former colonial power, still keeps a military garrison in Chad, as in many of its other former African colonies. And earlier this year, the United States, worried about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sahara, sent military advisors and equipment to Chad to help the army form a new anti-terrorist unit.

"The political opposition is losing on all fronts, because they have lost their footing, because the government is cheating in the elections and because the international community is not complaining as they are all in the Deby camp," said Marchal at Sciences-Po in Paris.

He predicted that Deby would continue with his new firmer, but still moderate, line against Sudan.

"There's everything to gain in terms of humanitarian assistance and it makes sense politically for Deby to stick to the international line," Marchal said. "If he can cast himself as the good neighbour, he can then say: 'Look I'm a reasonable man and it would be good if I had a third term in power'."

But others say that Darfur crisis might sap Deby's authority, whatever strategy he adopts, and leave him exposed to domestic threats.

"He's a survivor but he does seem beleaguered," one Western diplomat remarked. "Another coup? I wouldn't rule it out at all."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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