Douala, Cameroon — After 17 years of debilitating civil war, Chad may at last be on the brink of peace.
Last week the last major rival of northern leader Hissein Habre reportedly fled into exile. This leaves Habre - de facto president of the country since June, when he seized control of the capital - with an open path to shape an alliance under his leadership with Chad's disparate tribal and religious groups.
A major winner in this turn of events is the United States, which generally has backed Habre and is believed to have supplied weapons to the northern leader. In turn, a major loser is Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, whose forces helped repel Habre's move on the capital, N'Djamena, in 1980.
Habre's opportunity stems from the apparent departure of Chad's southern-region strong man, Wadal Abdelkader Kamougue, for Cameroon after a revolt by dissident troops. Habre had effectively taken control of every region except Kamougue's south, considered in economic terms the only really viable section of the country.
The northern leader had already ousted his chief rival, former President Goukhouni Woddei, when he swept into N'Djamena in June. Another rival, former Foreign Minister Ahmat Acyl, was removed from the scene in July when he was killed in a freak accident.
Observers say Habre has yet to make his move to consolidate power, but that he clearly intends to do so. It is by no means certain he could forge a strong coalition - for the Moslem north, Christian and animist south, and other tribal and religious groupings have in the past forged only short-lived alliances - but diplomats say this is the best chance for peace in the country's history. They add that there is as yet no southern opposition organizing to thwart a coalition government.
Kamougue and Habre had met secretly in July to begin negotiations toward reconciliation. But the two apparently could not agree on what form of unification to pursue.
Observers say Kamougue tried to circumvent a proposal for a fully unified government - a proposal whose adoption would undoubtedly have curbed his powers - by suggesting a federation of north and south.
Habre, claiming that a federation would be a prelude to division of Chad, rejected the proposal. In recent weeks, he began to warn the southern leader that his patience was limited.
Most observers had been expecting trouble in the south following defections to Habre over the last several weeks by southern garrisons in the important southern towns of Sarh and Bongor. Shar residents resented Kamougue's links with assassins who killed a key figure in the town. And southern soldiers who had not been paid for months resented him. Kamougue himself had a Paris apartment and a plane, which some believe he paid for with funds held back from soldiers and stolen from French industries in the area.
The exact structure of a Habre-led government remains unclear, though most longtime Chad analysts expect Habre to head up a coalition of as many as 11 major factions.
Habre has expressed a willingness to normalize relations with Libya, but his accession of will almost certainly put a damper on Qaddafi's plans for a Libyan-led union of Saharan shates. Habre vehemently opposes any Libyan intervention in Chad and has criticized Libya's annexation in 1973 of the Aozou Strip on the border between the two countries.