Chad: Notes on Ben Taub’s Recent New Yorker Piece

I like the journalist Ben Taub’s work a lot, and there is much to like in his latest, on rebellions in Chad, for the New Yorker. Taub gets into the politics of the recent rebel advance – and the French airstrikes that followed – in northern Chad, developments I have covered a bit here.

The central argument of Taub’s piece is one that I agree with, and that I rarely see stated so bluntly in the American media: propping up dictators is bad.

After decades of supporting Sahelian strongmen, and turning a blind eye to their abuses, Western countries have been unable to devise any regional strategy except one that conflates the strength of a regime with the stability of a country, and which brings about neither stability nor strength.

Taub falls into the occasional cliché – “jihadi groups thrive in the margins of broken states” – but he also sees through the current rhetoric about “terrorism” coming from both Chad and France. What follows that line about “broken states,” for example, is very good:

and, where there are no terrorists, [Chadian President Idriss] Déby has seen it as politically advantageous to fabricate them. In the aftermath of the French air strikes, his forces arrested some two hundred and fifty rebels and announced that they would be tried as “terrorists,” without the veneer of judicial protections typically afforded to criminals, traitors, or whatever category would normally apply to political opponents and army defectors who have attempted a coup. The designation is convenient for France, too; the legal mandate for Operation Barkhane is counterterrorism, not killing men who have had enough of Déby’s rule. But the facts are being obscured amid staged cries of victory.

Taub goes on to make some very grim predictions:

Absent radical changes in local Sahelian governance and priorities, no humanitarian crisis in Africa’s recent history will compare to the hell to come. What is likely doesn’t have to be inevitable. The question for Western governments is whether they will be complicit in its acceleration.

There are huge questions to ponder here. Is demography destiny in the Sahel? Is the most likely future one of brittle (or collapsing) regimes, with popular desires for change channeled largely or solely into violence? Will the Sahel of 2050 be the frontline of climate apocalypse? There is definitely good reason to think so. But in addition to highlighting the agency of Western governments, one should also keep in mind the agency of Sahelians themselves. Multiple futures are possible for the region, and who knows – maybe increasing crisis and fragility will elicit not just chaos but also creativity.

Recent Media Quotes/Review

I’ve been quoted in a few media reports recently, and a new review of my book on Boko Haram came out.

Media:

  • Voice of America, “French Airstrikes in N. Chad Affirm Support for President Déby”
  • BBC, “Nigerian Elections: Has Boko Haram Been Defeated?”
  • The Economist, “Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Jihadist Group, Is Regaining Strength.”

The review appeared in International Affairs, by Caroline Varin, whose own book on Boko Haram can be found here. Varin highlights things that I see as the book’s strengths, and she also makes some solid critiques of the book – writing conclusions, in particular, has never been my strength!

Chad: Rebel Advances and French Airstrikes in the North

Reuters:

French warplanes struck a rebel convoy in northern Chad on Sunday, helping local troops repel an incursion across the border from Libya…

Mirage jets struck a column of 40 pickups carrying armed groups from Libya deep into Chadian territory, the French army said in a statement…

The Union of Forces of Resistance (UFR), a rebel Chadian coalition created in 2009 after almost toppling Deby, said it was behind the offensive. [The Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic or] CCMSR is a splinter group of the UFR.

Let’s add a bit more context. The French military’s statement is brief and vague, saying merely that some Mirage 2000 fighter jets took off from Chad’s capital N’Djamena at the request of the Chadian government. One fighter jet patrol made a “show of force” to warn the rebel convoy; the rebels did not halt, so a second patrol conducted two strikes on the convoy. In terms of the rebel groups, it’s worth noting that the CCMSR was often in the news (and on this blog) in the second half of 2018, but they have been relatively quiet of late, including in the media sphere.

RFI gives a few more details on the French airstrikes, namely (a) the convoy had been frustrating Chadian forces’ attempts to destroy it for two days before the strikes, (b) the strikes occurred at least 400km from the Chadian border with Libya,* and (c) the French forces were part of Operation Barkhane. That operation is widely understood as a Sahelian counterterrorism force, but last August’s transfer of a Barkhane base from N’Djamena to Wour (map) was, perhaps, a signal that Barkhane was making itself available to Chad as an anti-rebel force. There is a much longer history of French support to Chadian President Idriss Deby, including amid rebellions that have threatened his power in the past, so these dynamics extend well beyond just Barkhane.

For a bit of the UPR’s perspective, here is an interview with a UPR spokesman on TV5.

As several colleagues have pointed out, there are more questions than answers here:

*Le Figaro adds, imprecisely, that the strikes fell “between Tibesti and Ennedi,” which doesn’t quite make sense to me.

A Libyan Arrest Warrant for Chadian and Sudanese Rebels

In early January, the Libyan Attorney General’s office issued arrest warrants for twenty-one Chadian rebels, eight Sudanese rebels, and six Libyan nationals in connection with attacks in eastern and southern Libya. The full list of Chadian and Sudanese names is available here (Arabic) while the Libyan names are available here (also Arabic). The warrants have widely been depicted as an anti-Qatar move, and in fact it’s challenging to find straightforward reporting on the list. This is a decent English-language explainer, though.

In terms of the Libyan names, they include some very prominent figures, such as Abdelhakim Belhadj and Ibrahim al-Jadran. One figure I was unfamiliar with before this is Abu ‘Ubayda al-Zawi/Shaaban Hadia, whom you can read about here and here. The others are Ali al-Huni, Mukhtar Rakhis, and Hamdan Ahmad (my transliterations). Belhadj has already denounced the warrant against him as a political stunt.

On the Chadian side, figures such as Mahamat Mahdi Ali, leader of the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (Front for Regime Change and Harmony in Chad, FACT)*, have also protested the warrants. Ali said that his organization is uninvolved in Libya’s problems and does not act as mercenaries.

Here are the names of the Chadians, although my transliterations may not completely line up with how these names are rendered in the Anglophone and Francophone media:

  • Ali Ahmad Abd Allah
  • Hamid Juru Mariqi
  • Muhammad Musa Adam
  • Muhammad Ahmad Nasr
  • Adam Husayn
  • Muhammad Abd Allah Ahmad
  • Umar Abkar Tijani
  • Bashara Hajar Ayibu
  • Muhammad al-Mahdi Ali (Mahamat Mahdi Ali)
  • Abu Bakr Tuli
  • Al-Ashi Warduqu
  • Barki Yusuf
  • Timani Erdimi
  • Hammad Hasan Abd al-Rahim (name appears twice)
  • Musa al-Hajj Azraq (name appears twice)
  • Muhammad Nuri
  • Muhammad Hasan Balmay
  • Mas’ud Jiddi
  • Kanqabi Tabul
  • Muhammad Hakimi
  • Musa Muhammad Zayn

And the Sudanese:

  • Hasan Musa Kali
  • Jabir Abu Bakr
  • Arkumi Minawi
  • Abd al-Karim Shuli
  • Abd Allah Janah
  • Uthman al-Quni
  • Musa Hilal
  • Ali Umar Takadim

Chad: In the Wake of November 10 Clashes, A Media War Between the Government and the CCMSR

Here at the blog I’ve followed the conflict in northern Chad between the government and the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (French acronym CCMSR). The last time I wrote about it was in late October; since then there was another round of clashes in or around Miski during the days before November 18, when the government announced it had reasserted full control. A good overview of the conflict can also be found here.

One core problem in making sense of the violence is that it is frequently unclear who is fighting whom. The Chadian government sometimes refers vaguely to “the enemy,” rather than to a specific entity like the CCMSR, and news reports speak variously of the CCMSR, local community self-defense groups, and gold miners. The CCMSR has even accused the Chadian military of disguising themselves as gold miners to attack the CCMSR. The miners are relevant in part because the government has tried to expel them from the far north, and so their presence there is quasi-legal at best. Meanwhile, something called the Miski Self-Defense Committee has flatly contradicted the CCMSR’s accounts, asserting that “the CCMSR has never participated, from near or far, in the conflict in Miski and has no base in the Tibesti. Moreover, the Self-Defense Committee has no contact, official or unofficial, with the CCMSR.”

All of this difficulty in getting clear information adds to a media war between the government and the CCMSR. In fact, the CCMSR appears to me to be the more active side when it comes to internet communications, with a fairly active Facebook page and a brand-new Arabic-language website that aims to “spread the facts that the dictatorial institutions are intent on hiding.”

To give a sense of the CCMSR’s rhetoric, I thought it would be useful to translate an excerpt from one of their recent statements:

Chad, our country, is deeply divided today and the cleavages there are more pronounced than in the past and in the majority of other African countries, notably those of the sub-region. This is because, in twenty-eight years of rule, Idriss Deby has transformed our beautiful basin into a vast shooting range, graciously put at the disposal of the world powers who come to test the new inventions among their armaments.

In internal policy, the fragile embryo of national unity that we inherited from colonization has been completely wrecked. No political culture has been imagined for developing and forging the Chadian national identity and giving, so to speak, to the Chadian male and female citizens the feeling of belonging to a community of destiny.

[…]

We are also aware, if not more aware today than ever, that the departure of Idriss Deby from power, by himself, will not suffice, even if it is an absolute necessity for Chad…The return to calm, the political settlement of our conflict and the installation of a definitive peace founded on justice in our country – all that demands more than a change of regime. That demands of male and female Chadians a national awakening, to outdo themselves and pose some fundamental questions.

Now, I’m honestly in no position to really evaluate how widely this rhetoric resonates and whether opponents of Deby in other parts of the country are at all sympathetic to the CCMSR (perhaps not) or whether they see it as a sectional affair – or as a paper tiger that claims credit for others’ actions. But I will say that the CCMSR is making a fairly ambitious effort to own the media narrative and to offer a far-reaching critique of Deby and of Chadian political culture. I can envision a few scenarios going forward, including (a) a cycle of conflict in and around Miski, as we’ve seen since approximately August, (b) success by the Chadian military in extinguishing the rebellion, (c) expansion of support for the CCMSR, and (d) a multi-sided conflict in the Tibesti. But, once again, the problem of low-quality and contradictory information makes all this very hard to assess and even harder to predict.

Chad: Recent Military Clashes with the CCMSR in Miski

I’m a week late to this,* but it’s worth flagging a recent clash in northern Chad between the military and the rebel group the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (French acronym CCMSR), which I’ve been blogging about from time to time.

On 24 October, a clash occurred in Miski, in the Tibesti Borkou (see below) region of far northern Chad. As RFI relates, the Chadian military and the CCMSR each say that the other side was the aggressor. RFI adds that according to the Chadian government, all civilians have left Miski.

The government is experimenting with different ways to characterize the violence. RFI cites the government labeling the rebels “drug traffickers and human traffickers.” A military communiqué (via Jeune Afrique) makes no mention of the CCMSR, but rather says:

The Chadian defense and security forces deployed on an inspection and security operation in the new department of Miski were attacked Wednesday by a small group of terrorists. The armed forces assure [the public] that the assailants were neutralized and that the situation is currently under control.

In short, the government seems keen to characterize this as the work of malefactors rather than as a politically-motivated rebellion.

The reference to the “new department of Miski” takes us back to the Jeune Afrique article linked above, which gives a bit of context. In March, Miski was detached, administratively, from the Tibesti region and attached to the Borkou region. The move has been criticized by some northern Chadians as an affront to “historical and cultural norms.” There is a long and multi-layered history surrounding these issues, notably the intersection of (a) government authority in Miski, (b) gold mining, and (c) rebellion. For deeper background, see this report from Small Arms Survey, which discusses past conflicts in Miski starting on p. 96.

For their part, the CCMSR also seeks to delegitimize the other side, namely the Chadian government. The CCMSR’s statement on the Miski incident portrays it as a genocidal campaign aimed at northern populations and undertaken by the “mercenaries and clan militia of Idriss Deby.” Note that the CCMSR characterizes the Chadian government forces as President Deby’s personal militia and to characterize Deby’s government as “mafia criminals.”

Put differently, alongside the violence there is also a war of words going on between the government and the rebels, and simultaneously there is a campaign to control and shape the flow of information. This is particularly crucial in an ultra-remote zone such as Miski where even basic facts – are there civilians there or not? – can be disputed by the two sides. Each side seems keen to argue, for an international audience as much as for a domestic Chadian one, that they are fighting illegitimate predators.

*My new motto is “Sahel Blog: Bringing You Last Week’s News”

Chad: An Example of How the State/Military Describes the Anti-Boko Haram Campaign

Following up on my post earlier this week about a Nigerian colonel’s analysis of Boko Haram, I want to highlight an official Chadian readout of the military’s efforts to secure the Lake Chad region, and specifically Chad’s Lac Province.

The readout, from earlier this month, describes President Idriss Deby’s 17 October visit to Kaïga-Kindji (or Kinjiria), the site of a Boko Haram attack on 9 or 10 October (the official readout says 9 October, but most news reports give the date as 10 October). The official readout also gives the figure of six soldiers killed, in contrast with news reports saying eight dead. The attack followed one in late September on Moussarom and Ngueleya, as well as one on 22 July near Daboua.

Not unusually for official military/security press releases, it strikes a triumphalist note and emphasizes ‘s role not must as head of state, but also as commander-in-chief. The readout notes that Deby came to “review the troops and shake the hands of all the general officers deployed on the ground.” The readout repeatedly uses words connected to valor and glory to describe and hail Chadian soldiers, and emphasizes the theme of vigilance in the midst of an asymmetric conflict. Deby’s visit seems to have been calculated to boost morale and to showcase his own willingness to travel to the frontlines. The visit also showcased the wider political and national security team. One aim seems to have been to project an image of integration and coordination at the national and sub-national levels – Deby was met at Kaïga-Kindji by the governor of Lac Province, Mahamat Abali Salah, and the president was accompanied by a host of officials and commanders including Defense Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah and Deputy Chief of Army Staff Hamada Youssouf Mahamat Itno (who, as you might deduce from the name, is a relative of the president – a nephew, from the sources I’ve seen).

I would not say that Deby is worried, either about Boko Haram or about the prospect of mutiny, but I do find it significant that he would make and publicize such a trip. The authorities seem keen to make the soldiers feel seen and supported.