Comeback by Chad's 'Che Guevara' derails peacemakers

A year ago, shortly after Libyan troops had helped him rout forces loyal to rebel leader Hissein Habre, Chad President Goukhouni Woddei, a serious, almost ascetic man, allowed himself a moment of glee.

''Hissein,'' he laughed in response to a question about the fate of his former ally, and now sworn enemy, ''I really got him this time.''

But Woddei who had reason to know better -- he once wrested control of a guerrilla group from Habre and drove him into exile, only to see him return with an army of his own -- spoke too soon.

Barely two months after the departure of the Libyans, who had given Woddei the edge in the 1980 battle for Ndjamena, the Chad capital, Habre's disciplined army controls most of northern and eastern Chad, having easily defeated elements of the regular Chadian army.

Were it not for a 3,000 man Organization of African Unity (OAU) force standing in his way, Habre's 4,000 guerrillas would have rolled into the capital , most observers feel.

The French, who have supported Woddei, for example, have slowed reconstruction work on the badly damaged embassy in Ndjamena, because, as one diplomat put it, ''We don't want to present our credentials to Woddei, then three days later have to present them to Habre.''

This is more than a remarkable comeback for the man former US Ambassador to Chad William Bradford recently called ''the greatest guerrilla leader since Che Guevara.''

Habre's undisputed control of one-third of the vast desert country, as well as the leadership of what is unquestionably the strongest faction in Chad, is certain to complicate efforts to find a political solution to the factionalism that has plagued the country almost since independence in 1960.

Diplomatic sources here now think the financially pressed OAU, which has consistently backed the Woddei government in its fight with Habre, will push hard for negotiations between the two sides.

''That's really the reason for the meeting in Nairobi,'' acknowledged a French political analyst in the region, referring to the African group's plans for its ad hoc Chad committee to meet Feb. 10 in the Kenyan capital.

It is unclear now whether the proud Woddei -- or the other factional leaders allied with him -- will agree to the talks. Nor is it clear what the OAU will do in the event of a refusal.

But it is also uncertain that even if Woddei agrees to meet with his bitter rival the negotiations will produce anything approaching lasting peace in Chad.

In 1979, four such sessions between Habre and Woddei, as well as other factional leaders, were held. But no steps necessary for peace -- a demilitarization of the capital, and formation of an integrated police force - emerged. On each occasion, fighting broke out shortly after the agreement was signed.

And with an estimated 20,000 dead in the latest round of civil war, and the capital virtually in rubble, Chadians face the grim prospect of another futile cease-fire agreement.

''I'm not optimistic,'' said a Western diplomat just back from a month in Chad. ''I think that what will happen will be that the south secedes, and Habre and Woddei will fight it out for control of the north.''

Whether that dire scenario is correct or not, other long-time observers of Chad agree that prospects for national reconciliation appear no further advanced now than they did before fighting broke out in March 1980.

This is because while southern troops under Vice-President Wadel Abdul Kader Kamougue, Chad's Arab minority under Foreign Minister Ahmat Acyl, and Woddei's northern Toubous all banded together to fight what they viewed as the greater evil of Habre, mistrust among the ''allies'' remains a fact of Chadian life.

Thus while Habre's guerrillas were badly mauling elements of Acyl's faction in the east in November, southern soldiers, many high-ranking officers in the ''integrated national army'' refused to go east as reinforcements.

And in fact, Woddei's aides made little secret of their relief at the pro-Libyan Acyl's difficulties.

Days before the Libyan departure, fear was rabid in the president's camp that the Libyans intended to depose Woddei in favor of Acyl.

Similarly, the south, virtually untouched by the latest round of fighting, remains more a state within a state, than an administrative area of Chad. The army and police force is composed entirely of southerners.

''They (northerners) don't dare set one foot there,'' explained a southern government worker with obvious pride.

Despite the lack of unity, however, proponents of the current coalition government argue that given time, the tensions could be reduced.

They point to the relative peace enjoyed by Ndjamena since Habre was crushed. And though by no means a cohesive force, the ''integrated'' army and a reconciliation trip to the south by Woddei last year point up a willingness to address the problem.

Habre, they argue, has never shown a willingness to share power with anyone. His brief stints as first prime minister and then defense minister in coalition governments broke down in short order, with Habre's troops generally inflicting heavy casualties on one or more of the competing factions.

Nevertheless, Habre's involvement in any final Chad solution seems inevitable. ''He's been completely crushed twice, and both times he's been back in the field with an army within thirty days,'' said Bradford, the former US ambassador.

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