A race against time is under way in Chad to get the inter-African peacekeeping force in place before the country erupts once again in civil war. That is the danger following the unexpectedly speedy withdrawal of Libyan troops from Chad on the request of Chadian President Goukhouni Woddei. There is a widespread suspicion that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi ordered his troops home precipitately with the express intent of proving that peace could not be maintained in Chad without them.
Beyond the immediate problem of preventing a resumption of civil strife, there is the question of who is going to assume responsibility for rebuilding war-torn Chad, rescuing it from bankruptcy, and feeding its starvation-threatened population.
Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, does not have the means to get back on its feet on its own. Other African countries are looking outside the continent for benefactors to help foot the bill - particularly to France (the colonial power in Chad before independence) and to the United States. But neither of them is in a hurry to start pouring funds into a country whose viability has yet to be proven.
For the moment, President Woddei is counting on the inter-African peacekeeping force to keep him in power and his country on a relatively even keel. He needs the force. There are, in fact, four separate or private armies in Chad. His own is the weakest.
The other three armies are those of: his nominal vice-president, Lt. Col. Wadel Abdul Kader Kamougue, whose troops are from the non-Muslim south; his nominal foreign minister, Ahmat Acyl, the most pro-Libyan of Chad's leading politicians; and Hissein Habre, his former defense minister.
The inter-African peacekeeping force will have the job of preventing fighting among the four Chadian armies. Operating under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), it is expected to total some 5,000 men from six countries: Nigeria, Benin, Guinea, Senegal, Togo, and Zaire. Nigeria is contributing 2,000 men, the others some 600 each.
An advance party of 250 Zairian paratroopers flew into N'Djamena, the Chad capital, Nov. 15. The Nigerian overall commander of the force, with members of his immediate staff, was expected to arrive in Chad Nov. 16.
France has promised logistical support to get the entire force into Chad as quickly as possible. But there are reports that English-speaking Nigeria is beginning to have misgivings about being involved in a predominantly French and French-speaking operation. The other African countries contributing contingents are French-speaking. To put it bluntly, Nigerians do not want to be used to restore or enhance French influence in Africa.
Nigeria has backed an OAU force for Chad from the outset. It wanted the Libyans out of the country. It recognizes an unstable Chad as an undesirable element on its own northern border. And it wants to show that the OAU is capable of constructive action in dealing with the continent's trouble spots.
For these reasons, Nigeria can hardly back out of the peacekeeping force at this stage. It also is opposed to the other hypothetical extreme - going it alone in Chad. But as the biggest contributor to the force, it has insisted that Nigeria have overall command. It can be expected at every stage to insist that the force is an OAU operation, not French or French-speaking. Nigeria can also be expected to urge the US to involve itself as much as possible in putting Chad back on its feet - as a counterweight to French influence.
Even if the OAU force moves in quickly, it remains to be see how effective it will be in the more remote parts of the country. It is still not known whether Colonel Qaddafi has pulled back all his troops into Libya proper. And there are those other armies, particularly that of pro-Libyan Ahmat Acyl in central Chad, and that of Hissein Habre in the east, supported by Sudan and Egypt.