Chad’s president Deby survives crisis thanks to Western support

When rebel groups centred in Sudan’s Darfur region attacked Chad’s capital, Ndajamena, on February 2 it looked as if the long, corrupt and oppressive rule of president Idriss Deby might be ending, but Chad was not so lucky. As a report in the Economist put it, “Chad is one of Africa’s poorest and least stable countries and Mr Deby one of the continent’s worst presidents.” Since his seizure of power from Hussene Habre in 1990 by means of a coup, Deby has failed to end, or even significantly reduce, the political instability that gripped the country soon after its independence from France on August 11, 1960. He has even stolen Chad’s new-found oil-wealth, using its weak parliament to divert funds to the military and enrich his small tribe, despite his agreement with the World Bank to spend them on education and health.

Ironically, Deby described the unsuccessful attempt by the three Chadian rebel groups to remove him as a foreign conspiracy conceived in Sudan and carried out by Chadian mercenaries paid by Sudan. The irony is that the coup that placed him in office eighteen years ago was hatched in Darfur and carried out, as claimed then too, with the support of Khartoum.

Another is that the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who said during his presidential election campaign that he would put an end to his country’s military interventions in Africa, is now firmly committed to using military power to maintain Deby in office. When the rebel groups first began their advance into Ndajamena, Sarkozy contented himself with providing diplomatic and logistical support. But as soon as the rebels were forced to withdraw, he vowed to maintain Deby in office by military means if the rebels attacked again. He was exploiting a statement by the UN security council issued two days after the rebel attack, which called on members of the UN to provide assistance to the “legal government” in Chad. France was one of the leading Western powers, as were the US and Britain, that had pushed the statement by the security council. “The French army is not there [in Chad] to fight anyone but there is a legal decision by the Security Council,” he said. “If France has to do its duty, it will. No one should doubt that.”

The French policy of propping up African dictators by force is clearly alive and well, and Sarkozy is no different from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who in 2006 used military methods to thwart a previous attempt to remove Deby from power. Chirac ordered fighter jets to swoop over a rebel column that was about to enter the capital, and saved the dictator. Sarkozy will no doubt be similarly prepared to use the 1,800 troops whom France has deployed in Chad to protect Deby’s rule. In fact, Sarkozy –” far from limiting French foreign intervention abroad –” has now extended France’s presence in the Middle East, apparently to prevent any “Iranian attacks against Gulf states”. He announced in January that France had established a small permanent base in the UAE, adding later that French armed forces would take part in large-scale war-games in the Gulf at the end of February. Paris will deploy 1,500 personnel, two frigates and eight Mirage fighter-jets for the war games, which are to be held in conjunction with the UAE and Qatar. Despite the small size of the base, Sarkozy described it as a strategic departure because, for the first time, France is establishing a permanent base outside its former colonies.

Sarkozy’s aggressive military strategy reassures Deby that he will be protected against any further attempts by rebel groups to depose him. The reassurance is certainly the reason for his relentless drive against opposition politicians, many of whom have been thrown in jail and tortured in the short period since the attempted coup. He even refuses to answer questions put to him by journalists about the arrests, and dismisses political opposition as “irrelevant”. At one recent press conference, for instance, he said that the arrests of opposition leaders “were petty details not worth his time.” For one example of political arrests, Ngarlegy Yorongar, the leader of the Federation Action for the Republic Party, was arrested soon after the coup attempt on February 2.

Not surprisingly, Blaise Mouga, a member of the FAR party, reacted strongly and publicly to the arrest, saying that the country “needed change by any means necessary”. Mouga was quoted in the international press as saying: “Despite our oil, our cotton, our rich farmland in the south, look at how poor this country is. We want some kind of change. We are not for the rebellion, but we are not for Deby either. The international community might say Deby is the lesser of two evils, but they are not living with him.”

Mouga was not the only political opponent of Deby to be quoted in the international press. Like Mouga, another opposition party member quoted in the International Herald Tribune on February 13 strongly condemned the international community –” particularly the West –” for backing Deby despite his repression of his people. Unnamed and hiding in Cameroon, he told the IHT: “It is like we don’t exist, the world has forgotten us. It is the same old story. The West needs Deby, and civil society and political opposition is sacrificed.”

Both statements are accurate and far from being exaggerated. Not only has Deby stolen his country’s economic resources, reducing it to the level of one of the poorest countries in Africa, but he has grossly violated his people’s basic human rights, and continues to do so. The international community has closed its eyes to these abuses, while widely condemning the rebel attacks against the regime. The reason is simple: the West needs Deby, as the unnamed opponent quoted in the IHT stresses. The West has certainly been using him to support its drive to wrench Darfur from Sudan. However, Chad is even more vulnerable than Sudan and, if Deby continues to misrule, it too might well soon be a “failed state”.

In these circumstances, Deby and his UN and Western supporters are a bigger enemy to Chad than are Sudan or the Chadian rebel groups that are trying to replace him with someone else who might do better, they hope.