When asked why Chad has taken such an assertive role in its neighborhood, Moussa Dago gets up from his office chair and walks over to an enormous map of Africa, his elegant white jalabiya swishing as he moves.
“First, you should look at Chad on the map,” says the secretary-general of Chad’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His finger circles the countries that border this landlocked Central African nation. “All the countries close to Chad have problems.”
He ticks through them: To the north is Libya, where militias control much of the country. To the east is Sudan’s Darfur region, where a rebellion and violent government crackdown have created a persistent low-level crisis. To the south is the Central African Republic, embroiled in civil war since 2012. And finally, to the west, past a tiny sliver of Cameroonian territory, is northern Nigeria, from which Boko Haram launched its first attack on Chad’s capital, on June 15, killing 34 people. And on Monday, two suicide bombings in N'djamena killed at 11 people, five of which were police officers.
Indeed, in the past seven years, Chad has become what its military chief has characterized as “an island of stability surrounded by erupting volcanoes.”
But it was not always so. Since its independence from France in 1960, Chad has confronted repeated incursions by Libya, and fought civil wars as well as numerous rebel movements often supported by hostile neighbors. Leadership transitions have happened largely through rebellions: President Idriss Déby took power through a military coup in 1990 and quashed multiple revolts.
That has yielded a military capability that is one of the only things about which the country can boast. It is a well-funded effort: While Chad is one of the poorest countries on the continent, in 2009 its military expenditures reached $739 million – 33 percent of government spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
But it was only when Chad was forced to enter the fight against Boko Haram earlier this year that it roared into international headlines that acknowledged the country’s efficient, effective march into northeast Nigeria. Chad’s forces uprooted Boko Haram from key towns in weeks – a task Nigeria had failed at for years.
Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, acknowledged Chad’s efforts in a trip in early June.
At the helm of Chad’s transformation is Mr. Déby, described as more commander in chief than president by France and the United States, Chad’s key security partners.
“Today they have the capacity to fight Boko Haram because they have the experience of the rebellions,” says Gen. Isaak Al Bashar Togou, a former division general close to the president who now acts as a military adviser. “In Central Africa there is no one else with this skill.” (Current military officials refused to speak to this reporter.)
Yet support for such a robust military profile may be weakening in Chad. The country has experienced an unprecedented stretch of domestic peace since Déby quashed the last revolt in 2008. Now that Chadians are actually experiencing stability, coupled with raised expectations from oil discoveries in 2003, they are beginning to clamor for the opportunities they believe peace should bring – better schools, good health care, and job opportunities for the country’s few graduates.
But Déby is at his best in times of war, and is enjoying this new international respect. It’s unclear how he’ll balance pressure to develop the country with the instinct to prioritize its military capacity.
“The population is fed up with war. They’ve been living with war for 50 years, and there is a strong feeling in the population that they should all contribute to the peace,” says Goukouni Oueddei, who served as president from 1979 to 1982 after seizing power in a rebellion. “They noticed they are late on development. Chad is emerging finally, and no one wants to go back.”
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Most of N’Djamena is still made up of squat one- or two-story dun-colored buildings that blend into the sand courtyards around them. But along the bank of the Chari River, one will find the white dome of a new Moor-style hall gleaming in the punishing desert sun. The gold archways of the neighboring Radisson hotel wink in the light reflected off the river.
They are part of the building spree of hotels and conference centers that commenced when Chad, in a move befitting its rising profile, proposed hosting the African Union summit in 2014.
But a budget crunch caused by the plummeting oil prices forced Chad to back out, embarrassing Chadians and reminding them how precarious their rise is.
They have new schools – but not enough qualified teachers. They can go to new hospitals – but the facilities lack adequate supplies, with the one serving the revered military partially housed in canvas tents.
Soon they will begin asking, “how can we have oil and still be so poor?” says Delphine Djiraibe, a human rights activist and chief attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “Visibly you can tell N’Djamena is growing,” she says, but many of those projects are “white elephants” – easy to see, but “nothing to do with the people.”
Expectations for government services rose with the prospect of new oil revenues, partially because of an agreement with the World Bank to funnel some oil revenue to a so-called future generations fund devoted to human development work. But by 2006, Déby had reworded that agreement to include national security, and millions were siphoned off to the military.
“With oil, we got a lot of money, but where is this money now?” asks Michael Didama, director of Le Temps, a leading Chadian newspaper, and head of the Chadian Association of Newspapers.
The suspicion is that most of that oil money stays within the elite, drawn largely from Déby’s family and tribe. A French military official says that if anything will cause this government’s downfall, it will be corruption. Criticism has grown, with a leading opposition paper calling out members of the Déby family earlier this year.
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For the Americans and French, whose main concern is the rising militant threat in the Sahel, Chad has been a welcome partner, and the country is enjoying the benefits of being a critical leader and team player.
“Honestly, if there is no Chad military in these countries, the problems would be worse,” Mr. Dago says. “Boko Haram would still be killing people right now.”
“We became the heroes,” he says.
But what happens if its interests cease to align with those of world powers is unclear – as is what happens if Chad tires of draining its own coffers and losing its own soldiers to other countries’ wars.
As of mid-April, 71 Chadian soldiers had been killed in Nigeria, while 80 had been killed in Mali, according to Dago. The effort in Nigeria cost Chad $7 million for February alone, according to a US estimate.
But so far the operation has substantial public support, even among critics of the military. The initial vote to go into Cameroon and Nigeria was unanimous, and in May the parliament voted to prolong Chad’s involvement indefinitely, albeit with about a dozen “nay” votes.
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The pieces fit neatly together for now: the strongman seeking security on his country’s borders, the dashing warrior soldiers who will race toward any fight, the world powers who see the Sahel as the next counterterrorism battleground.
Expectations of Déby’s government are rising, and elections loom in 2016 – although rights activists scoff at the term “election” for what they say is a heavily rigged contest.
But even Chad’s most vocal antigovernment voices don’t think Central Africa or the international community are in danger of seeing Déby lose in the next vote. The opposition is weak, and chaos on Chad’s borders makes Chadians reluctant to invite domestic upheaval, too.
“If the strongest army in the region is for protecting democracy, it is beneficial for us, but if it is for protecting the dictatorship, it is not good for us,” says Mr. Didama, the journalist.
It is unclear what role the attack in N’Djamena in early June means for Chad. It has carried out a series of airstrikes against Boko Haram bases in Niger, and started rounding up foreigners in N’Djamena.
But there may come a point when Chadians accustomed to peace find that spending such a large percentage of the national budget on the military is no longer acceptable.
Even Togou, the former general who joined the military at age 15 and hopes his son will follow in his footsteps, wants more. “[Enough.] The time is over for fighting,” he says.
The Ford Foundation supported Ariel Zirulnick's reporting from N'Djamena, Chad.