The people of Chad may at last be given a respite of sorts in their 20 -year-long history of civil war -- courtesy of Muammar Qaddafi.
The Libyan leader is determined to establish a conciliatory, statesmanlike image of himself as he prepares to assume the presidency of the Organization of African Unity.
This appears to be why he refrained this week from thwarting the seizure of power in Chad by the anti-Libyan (and intermittently US-backed) Hissein Habre.
Colonel Qaddafi actually turned down an appeal for help late last month from Goukhouni Woddei, titular president of Chad. The Libyan leader reportedly indicated to visiting French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson March 31 that there would be no Libyan intervention to prevent the fall of N'Djamena to Mr. Habre's forces -- which seemed imminent then.
Mr. Habre entered N'Djamena June 7. President Woddei had reportedly already fled to neighboring Cameroon.
Colonel Qaddafi's holding aloof is all the more remarkable in that it was a Libyan expeditionary force that came to Mr. Woddei's help back in 1980, enabling him to defeat Mr. Habre and drive his guerrilla remnants eastward to the border of the Sudan.
Libyan troops stayed in Chad for 11 months, giving the country an interlude of relative stability. But both Mr. Woddei and the Chadians as a whole turned sour on the Libyans. Woddei rejected a bid by Colonel Qaddafi for political union of the two countries, and then turned to the OAU and the French (the former colonial power in Chad) to help get the Libyans to leave.
The response from both was positive - if qualified. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) came up with a not-very-effective peacekeeping force, made up of Nigerians, Zairians, and Senegalese, to hold the ring if the Libyans could be persuaded to withdraw.
The French gave logistical support and gave initial financing for the Senegalese detachment. The United States also contributed logistical support. By November, things were in place for a request to be made to Colonel Qaddafi to take his troops home. When Mr. Woddei formally presented it, the Libyan leader promptly complied -- to the surprise of some outsiders.
Since then Mr. Woddei, as provisional president, was supposed to hold roundtable talks with all factions -- including Mr. Habre's -- to produce a government of national reconciliation. The OAU peacekeepers had in effect a meagerly financed six-month mandate to hold the fort while this happened.
But things went otherwise. Mr. Woddei refused to have anything to do with Mr. Habre. He repeatedly tried to get the OAU peacekeepers to help him deal militarily with the latent threat from the Habre forces away to the east. When the OAU force insisted that that was not its mandate, Mr. Woddei accused the force of behaving like tourists.
Mr. Habre's response was to consolidate his base in the east, where he was getting arms and supplies (reportedly of US origin) from across the Sudan border. Then he began to move toward the capital, N'Djamena, which he finally entered this week.
Mr. Habre's record with his fellow-Chadians is equivocal. He has a record of ruthlessness. Many of his countrymen initially held him responsible for the very destructive fighting in N'Djamena in early 1980 when -- instead of serving loyally as Mr. Woddei's defense minister, which he nominally was -- he resorted to arms to try to wrest the No. 1 job from the provisional president. It remains to be seen whether Chadians will now accept him, whatever their reservations, as the best hope to restore law and order.
What now of the OAU peacekeeping force? It had already told Mr. Woddei that unless he started talking with Mr. Habre by June 10, the three national contingents would be dispersed to their own countries. That presumably is what will now happen.
For the OAU as an international organization, this has hardly been a triumphant experience. But it could emerge from Chad less discredited than at one time seemed possible.
The OAU's immediate problems -- and those of Mr. Qaddafi, its incoming president -- are nevertheless far from over. There hangs over both the very divisive question of the Western Sahara. This has already split the OAU down the middle -- between those who back admission to OAU membership of the Polisario guerrilla movement and those who side with Morocco in trying to block it.