If Chad coup succeeds, Darfur crisis could deepen

Rebels stormed Chad's capital, delaying arrival of EU troops to help refugees.

French Ministry of Defense/AP
Time to flee: The French Army helped evacuate foreigners Sunday as fighting gripped N'Djamena, Chad.
Rich Clabaugh

With rebels in the heart of Chad's capital, N'Djamena, surrounding the presidential palace, the complex Darfur conflict is set to take a dramatic and unexpected turn.

If President Idriss Déby's government falls by military coup, humanitarian aid operations feeding nearly 400,000 Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians will be thrown into disarray, and half a dozen Darfur rebel movements taking refuge in Chad may be forced to move their bases back into the troubled Sudanese region.

Coming just days before the expected arrival of a European Union (EU) humanitarian protection force in eastern Chad, called EUFOR, the coup attempt is almost certain to delay that deployment until it is clear which government is in charge – the rebels or Déby – and whether EUFOR's presence will still be welcome.

"If the coup succeeds, it will have a tremendous impact on Darfur, because the rally of Darfur rebel movements apparently received logistical support from Déby," says Paul Simon Handy, head of African security analysis at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa. With Déby out of the picture, Sudan's government will be able to turn its attention to negotiating with the Darfur rebels on its own terms, he adds. "The misfortunes of Déby are the fortunes of Khartoum."

Supporting one another's rebels

A coup in Chad would mark the culmination of years in which both Sudan and Chad have used each other's largely uncontrolled border areas, common tribal populations, and dissident rebel groups against each other. Déby's links to Darfur rebel groups have allowed these groups to use Chad as a base for launching attacks into Darfur, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has responded in kind, giving Chadian rebels haven to launch attacks on Déby's regime.

Political analysts say that the fall of President Déby would have serious consequences, since Déby's regime provided substantial pressure on Khartoum to abandon its military policies in Darfur and to negotiate with rebel groups.

"The implications of a change in government would be dire," says John Prendergast, a longtime Sudan watcher and co-chair of the Enough Project, a Darfur pressure group in the US. "The Khartoum regime would assume a dominant position in the region. The new government in Chad would join the Khartoum regime in a witch hunt for Darfurian rebels in Chad, thus removing any semblance of stalemate and inspiring Khartoum to ignore peace talks and pursue a military solution."

Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at Harvard University, says the big losers, if the coup succeeds, will be two of Darfur's most powerful rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Army (Unity Faction).

"It looks like Khartoum has probably won its battle, and JEM and SLA-Unity will be cut off from their supplies," says Mr. de Waal, responding by e-mail to questions from the Monitor. "They will be forced to either submit or fight on, but with reduced strength."

Caught in the middle are nearly 400,000 refugees from both Chad and Darfur, and the humanitarian aid groups struggling to provide the basic amenities of food, shelter, water, and protection.

"Obviously it is very worrying, but as far as food is concerned, for February and March, we have food in stock," says Stephanie Savariaud, spokeswoman for the UN's World Food Programme office in Dakar, Senegal, which covers Chad. But a number of aid workers say their greatest fear now is the possibility of looting, both of vehicles and humanitarian supplies.

The rebel offensive on N'Djamena comes just weeks after a heavy aerial bombing campaign by Chad's Air Force on rebel positions near the Darfur town of El Geneina on Dec. 30. Chad at the time claimed that its ground and air forces had not crossed the Sudanese border, but humanitarian workers on the ground reported heavy bombing around El Geneina. Khartoum called the attacks "unprecedented."

Chadian rebels attempted a coup against Déby in the summer of 2006, complaining of government corruption and inability to provide services to the citizens of eastern Chad, Déby's own region. French troops intervened in that conflict, halting the rebel column outside of N'Djamena with warning shots by Mirage jet fighters. This time, the French response has been more muted, reporters in N'Djamena say, with only a few French snipers taking position in the city center, notably at the Meridien Hotel, just blocks from the presidential palace.

Even before rebels reached N'Djamena late Friday night, the signs of government collapse were already apparent in eastern Chad. Last week, two men in government uniforms jumped a wall at a UN office and attempted to steal two vehicles. Over the weekend, the UN began to evacuate all international staff from eastern Chad, and as the capital itself came under attack, from N'Djamena as well.

Aid workers in Sudan say that a change of government in Chad may have both positive and negative consequences.

"It potentially could be good if the Chadian rebels move back into Chad, because their presence has had an impact on the security situation in western Darfur," says one Western aid worker based in Khartoum, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But there is a downside. If there is a pro-Khartoum government in N'Djamena, then the bases of the Darfur rebels in eastern Chad will be more difficult to sustain, and their return to Darfur could destabilize the area."

No more EU force?

A regime change in Chad would likely complicate, if not cancel, the deployment of a French-led EU force in Chad, designed to protect the "humanitarian corridor" for food aid trucked in to the 12 refugee camps housing some 235,000 Darfur refugees, and the separate camps for 137,000 Chadian displaced people who've fled rebel fighting and ethnic clashes. The EUFOR was supposed to begin deployment this week.

Khartoum may see the new regime in Chad as a way to bolster its case against the deployment of an expanded peacekeeping force of 26,000 African Union and UN troops within Darfur itself.

"This will complicate the deployment of the AU-UN hybrid force in Darfur (UNAMID), because Khartoum will see a new partner regime in N'Djamena," says Mr. Handy at ISS. "Khartoum is always arguing there is no war in Darfur, [saying] there are some clashes from time to time, but they have the capacity to deal with it. With a friendly government in N'Djamena, Khartoum will have a stronger argument."

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