Oil wealth and corruption at play in Chad's rebellion

After its military pushed back rebels last week, the threat of instability still looms large in oil-rich Chad.

Amid reports of advancing then vanishing rebels, of bloody streets that have now apparently returned to normal, and of support for antigovernment rebels from neighboring Sudan, the future of this fragile oil-producing nation in north-central Africa remains uncertain.

"It's something that's with us every day" - whether rebels "are going to come or not," says Maat Parannee, a young woman washing vegetables in the river running through this dusty capital. "We just don't know."

Yet what is clear are the basic factors behind the instability - elements that are central to many conflicts across Africa: growing oil wealth, complex ethnic ties that transcend borders (in this case, with Sudan), and ambitious presidents aiming to stay in power longer than their constitutions originally allowed. Indeed, experts say, Chad is a kind of microcosm of the reasons for conflict on the continent.

"Chad signifies the worst of Africa," says Peter Kagwanja of the International Crisis Group in Pretoria, South Africa. Despite some significant economic and peace-making progress in Africa in recent years, Chad is "the best example," he says, "of how long the road is to peace" for Africa.

The country has had many bouts of instability since independence in 1960. The latest conflict came when the government repelled an April 13 rebel attack on the capital. Now the government claims to have crushed the rebellion.

But diplomats figure the insurgents are probably refueling. And no one admits to knowing exactly where the rebels are - not even the 1,200-strong French military contingent that has six Mirage jets flying surveillance missions over the arid, landlocked nation of 10 million people.

"The latest information we have is from the Chadian Army - small groups of rebels in the region, but nothing of any significance," says Col. Vincent Dollard, head of French forces in the eastern town of Abeche, admitting he had no visual information of his own. French military officials announced Thursday that the 150 reinforcements sent to Chad last week will be sent back to their permanent bases in Gabon. The situation in Chad, a Defense Ministry official said, has returned to normal.

Yet the uncertainty remains, and many experts believe neighboring Sudan is backing some of the rebels. "I have no doubt that Sudan has a finger in the pie," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. A major reason: Chad's President Idriss Deby is from the same ethnic group as some Darfur rebels, who have been battling Sudan's government since 2003 - and who are the reason for Sudan's crackdown on Darfur villagers, which the US calls genocide.

At the start, Mr. Deby stayed officially neutral in the Darfur conflict, but experts say he's increasingly been supporting his Darfur-rebel kinsmen. In a tit-for-tat payback, Sudan is now supporting Chad's rebels. It's an all-too-common phenomenon across Africa. Sudan also supports rebels in Uganda, for instance. And Uganda supported rebels in southern Sudan for years.

Meanwhile, Deby dismisses talk of internal problems in the world's fifth-poorest nation - a country with no public school system or electricity outside the capital. "There's no Chadian rebellion. It's the Sudanese government that has a program to destabilize Chad," Deby told reporters after inspecting rebel prisoners captured in the fighting - and holding aloft what he said were their Sudanese identity papers.

Yet even with backing from Sudan - one of the region's most-powerful governments - the rebels may not be all that competent. During last week's assault, diplomats say, rebels had to ask residents for directions - and ended up at the Palais du Peuple (the National Assembly) instead of their intended destination, the Palais du President.

One reason for increased jockeying to control Chad: its newfound oil wealth. Chad now pumps about 160,000 barrels a day through a 650-mile pipeline to Cameroon's coast. The pipeline was partly funded by the World Bank as part of a deal that aimed to create a model for ensuring that oil revenues help Africa's poorest. In December 2005, when Deby altered the agreed-upon poverty reduction laws that had been central to the deal's negotiations,the World Bank froze $124 million in loans already earmarked for Chad.

Chad's current oil output is relatively small, but "there's massive exploration going on, and they think there's a lot more oil," explains Mr. Cornwell. Furthermore, with oil prices surpassing $71 a barrel this week, Deby stoked widespread worry when he threatened to suspend oil exports. The US State Department quickly announced this week that it was sending a senior official to act as an "honest broker" to try to resolve the oil and rebel issues.

There's also the possibility, Cornwell says, that the pipeline will be extended into oil-rich Darfur. In all, Africa's oil exports are growing rapidly - and could provide 25 percent of US oil imports by 2015. Until then, says Julie Dargis, country director for the International Rescue Committee, "We have the calm before the [next] storm."

Wire-service reports were used in this story.

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