Tribalism and Transition

The desert republic of Chad is a strategic crossroads between the Islamic states of North Africa and former colonies of France. Foreign influences complicate an already troubled move toward democracy.

EIGHTEEN months after Col. Idriss Deby toppled Chadian dictator Hissein Habre and promised democratic reforms in this West African desert state, the transition process remains bogged down in tribal disputes.

An attempted coup June 18 has now unleashed rebel military action in two areas, with government and rebel forces both taking casualties in armed clashes around Lake Chad and in the far north.

Although the coup, led by the minister of public works and transport, Abbas Koty, failed, it was the latest and clearest sign of the depths of tribal and clan divisions within the government of President Deby, diplomatic and Chadian sources in N'Djamena say.

"If the weakness of the government continues, it will lead to fiefdoms being established," says Gala Gata N'Gothe, leader of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces-Republican Party. "This will lead to new leaders emerging in the districts. If the government doesn't improve this situation, then the regions will begin to administer themselves under regional warlords."

Deby seized power from President Habre in November 1990 after advancing from Sudan. He promised multiparty reforms and presidential and legislative elections. To address Chad's ethnic diversity, the ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement also established a Council of Ministers that includes representatives of different tribes.

In May 1991, in response to calls by opposition parties, Deby promised to convene a national conference in May 1992 to draft a new constitution and implement a multiparty system.

However, that conference has not opened, and opposition leaders express doubt that it will. Despite the appointment of Joseph Yodoyman, a former Cabinet member of the Habre administration, as prime minister, ethnic divisions, particularly in the military, continue to hamper the government.

In his rise to power, Deby drew support from elements of the Zaghawa tribe, which straddles the Sudan-Chad border. But that support was and remains tenuous. As Army chief and defense minister, Deby was forced to flee from Habre after the soldiers he commanded clashed with Chadian-Zaghawa nomads in 1986.

The clashes stemmed from a dispute with the nomads over who should appropriate weapons captured from Libyan soldiers during Chad's war with Libya in the mid-1980s. A second conflict developed between Deby and the nomads when soldiers under Deby's command allegedly stole camels from Zaghawa, Anakaza, and Deby's own Bidiyat tribe.

Both conflicts angered Habre, pushing Deby into exile. While amassing his invading force in Sudan Deby relied on Sudanese Zaghawa due to the strained relations he had developed with Chad's nomadic northern tribes before he fled.

This situation has intensified since he took power, as now even those Zaghawa supporting Deby are aware that if he introduces the democratic reforms he has promised, the soldiers will be the first to lose out. Planned cuts in the unaffordably large Army will mean depriving Zaghawa fighters of their prestige.

In March, Zaghawa fighters surrounded the presidential palace and staged a temporary putsch to protest the cuts. The protest was led by last week's coup leader, Colonel Koty.

Meanwhile, in the past six months, due to the dominance of the powerful Zaghawa, potential fighters from Chad main ethnic groups - the Hadjerai, Oudday, and Sara - have become isolated from the democratic process.

"Ethnic rivalries will undermine the reform process. The demilitarization is a total failure," Mr. N'gothe says.

So far five political parties have been legalized in Chad with another 17 awaiting registration. While religious or ethnically based parties are illegal, most draw their support from the regional ethnic base of the party leader.

Opposition leaders also generally agree that the foreign presence in Chad - from French colonialism to Libyan intervention - has heightened internal ethnic differences and complicated the democratic process.

"The French and Libyans are for a large part responsible for the trouble which Chad has known, for two reasons," says Lol Mahamat Choua, mayor of N'Djamena and leader of the Assembly for Democracy for Chad.

"First, Libya encourages the north against the south. And second, France more or less supports the south. Southerners were most exposed to French influence under imperialism," Mr. Mahamat says. "Now it's necessary to create a national army, and to prevent warlords creating their own armies. Even if the government is weak, it should begin."

Chad's instability has made foreign donors wary. But to create the stability that would lead to donor confidence, one Western diplomat says, Deby must implement promised political and military reforms.

"Deby needs the donors. The donors won't give money without the reforms," says the diplomat. "But Deby is too weak in introduce the reforms.... He doesn't have complete control."

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