In early February 2008, Déby’s regime’s days seemed numbered: rebels from three different groups joined forces and reached N’Djamena. Their heavily armed men on pickups battled with government troops at a short distance from the presidential palace, and it was only thanks to the support of the French mission Epérvier that the attack was eventually repressed. Almost eight years later, the same army that was about to lose that crucial battle is deployed successfully on several African battlefronts, mirroring the president’s political ambition to play a key role in the region.
Many factors have led to this impressive change. First of all, by changing the management system of oil revenues, the government found resources to bolster the strength of the military and to eventually defeat the rebel groups. In the following years, the death of former Lybian leader Muammar Gaddafi (and the collapse of the north African country) and the ouster of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré, opened the way for N’Djamena to take a leading role in the Sahel. This, however, could not have been possible if Déby hadn’t weaved carefully his net during the years. One key move was maintaining and consolidating the relationship with Paris. Despite president François Hollande’s assurances that “the days of Françafrique are over”, the former colonial power has never stopped exerting an influence and even acting directly in its old dominions.
The clearest example was the 2012 intervention in northern Mali. Chad contributed to the Serval mission sent against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its splinter groups with 2.000 soldiers, which played a key part in the killing of a top Qaedist commander, Abou Zeid. The fact that Déby proved to be such a valuable ally is probably one of the reasons why, when in 2014 Serval was replaced by Operation Barkhane, with a wider range and scope, N’Djamena was chosen as the main base for it. Chad’s fidelity to France, however, might have been also rewarded in other ways: when president François Bozizé of the central African Republic was overthrown by the Seleka rebel coalitions in March 2013, many analysts noticed the presence, among the anti-government fighters, of several Chadian nationals, alternatively defined by the press as either fundamentalists or mercenaries. In both cases, however, the fact was interpreted as if Chad had acted on behalf of France, removing Bozizé from power at a moment when French mining interests in the country were threatened. But the truth might be more complex than that.
France certainly did little, if at all, to prevent the coup against Bozizé, but Chad also had some reasons of its own to set foot in CAR. The most important one is, once again, oil. The basins from which Chad has made a great part of its fortune straddle the border, so a friendly government in Bangui could further the interest of the N’Djamena authorities in many ways. The attempt to extend its influence on the neighbouring country explains virtually all the moves made by Déby during the crisis: the initial support given to the Seleka leader Michel Djotodia, the decision to contribute – once again – with troops to the peacekeeping mission Misca and, now that the soldiers have been withdrawn after having been held responsible for the death of civilians, the push to have the elections organized by December.
The ups and downs of the involvement in CAR, however, might have to be regarded as an alarming sign when coming to the main display of Déby’s strategical ambitions: particularly the participation in the multinational force tasked with fighting Boko Haram, now perceived as a threat not only to northeastern Nigeria but also to the whole region.
When he announced Chad’s intervention in northern Cameroon, the president sounded confident: “We will destroy Boko Haram – he said – and [its leader Abubakar] Shekau should surrender, as we know where he stays”. Déby claimed his soldiers could accomplish in a few weeks what the Nigerians didn’t do in years: defeating the armed movement which reportedly made 17.000 victims during its six-year long insurgency. In sending its troops against the Nigerian group, N’Djamena‘s strongman hoped for some rewards, which, again, were both economic and political. Landlocked Chad, in fact, is forced to export oil (and to import most other goods) through Cameroon, and in the face of Boko Haram’s expansion, the government, also fearing further attacks on its territory, thought the best option was to act pre-emptively. In addition, such a decision, Déby hoped, would have helped to mend ties with Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who didn’t approve Bozizé’s removal in 2013.
Whether the latter aim has been reached, time will tell. As for the others, Chad’s initiative backfired in a few months. First of all, the country, which up to that point had only experienced a brief skirmish with Boko Haram’s militiamen in Ngouboua in February, become a target for the group’s attacks, not only in the Lake Chad area. The capital itself was hit by three bombings in two months, respectively on 15 and 29 June and 11 July, claiming the life of 60 people and injuring dozens more. Moreover, despite the army claiming initial victories, the entire operation suffered the same fate of the crackdown launched by Nigeria in the past. What someone in the high commands expected to be a blitzkrieg turned into a war of attrition, which was made even more costly – just like the army deployment in Mali – by the fall in the price of the one good which made Chad’s fortune: oil. (D.M.)