Dennis Sammut, the Director of LINKS Europe based in The Hague and the managing editor of the web portal commonspace.eu, he writes regularly on European security issues and European Union’s relations with its eastern and southern neighbours.
The death on the battle front of the president of an impoverished African country has put the spotlight on the radicalized insurgency spreading across the entire Sahara region of Africa. European and African leaders congregated on Ndjamena for the funeral of Chad’s long-time president, Idris Deby, reminding us that Chad matters, despite its isolation and poverty. Yet international engagement with Chad, as with its neighbours in the Sahel region, has been largely focused on short-term objectives, whilst core issues have until recently been avoided. Even as signs emerge of an attempt for a holistic approach that takes into account the region’s deep-rooted economic and social problems, the solutions being offered appear not to match the enormity of the challenges.
Chad: Tragic and Strategic
A glance at the map of Africa quickly tells you why Chad is so important. Bang in the middle, between West Africa on one side, and East Africa on the other, with Libya to the North and the Central African states to the south, Chad is huge and ethnically diverse country, made up of 200 ethnic groups. Despite some oil revenues, it remains very poor, often listed as among the twenty poorest countries in the world, where 80% of the population lives in poverty.
Before his recent death whilst fighting insurgents, Deby had ruled Chad for over thirty years, and had endeared himself as a friend to Western countries who were concerned about the instability in the region and particularly the spread of radicalization among many of the region’s tribes. The problem was further accentuated in 2011 after the collapse of the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime in Libya. The tribes of northern Chad and southern Libya are closely connected and the border is porous. Chadian mercenaries, who had been working for Qaddafi, returned disgruntled to their homeland, carrying sophisticated weapons, adding to an already combustible situation.
In his thirty-year rule, Deby did little to build Chad’s economy, focusing instead on building his army, with French and European help. In recent years, Chad got some revenues from oil exports, but rather than development this money went on strengthening the army and patronage to tribes in exchange for loyalty. In this way, Deby was able to fend off waves of insurrections that often reached the gates of the capital, Ndjamena. The French, who maintain a military presence in Chad, had to intervene on numerous occasions to sustain him in power, especially through air support. Deby’s relationship with France became privileged, as could be seen by the presence of Emmanuel Macron, the French President, at his funeral.
Idris Deby: A Useful Stopgap, Not a Solution
Critics say that Idris Deby was never the solution for Chad’s problems, simply a temporary stopgap that somehow lingered on for thirty years. His survival instincts pushed him to build enough alliances within Chad’s diverse and complex tribal society to maintain power. That job appears now to be with his son, Mahamat Idriss Deby, who has taken over at the head of a military council, ostensibly for eighteen months until new elections.
If Deby Jr. is to survive that long, he will need to see off a number of enemies, including political rivals within Ndjamena, who generally operate within the pseudo-constitutional order, and those outside the city, most immediately the insurgents of FACT (Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad), which is spearheaded by disgruntled army officers who during the time of Idris Deby decided that Chadian democracy was a charade and Deby could only be challenged through force of arms.
The new-old government in Chad will also have to contend with the Islamist movements, including both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), which operate in that country as in other Sahelian countries like Mali.
Root Causes of Radicalization
Any assessment of the problems, including radicalization, in Chad, in the Sahel, and in the wider Saharan belt of Africa, cannot avoid the issue of the widespread, abject poverty. The Islamist groups in Africa are deeply rooted, feeding on the disgruntlement of tribes that feel that they have not been given enough share of the national cake, and on the sense of utter desperation among their youth.
In Chad, the post-independence order left by the French empowered the non-Muslim tribes of the south of Chad at the expense of the Muslim northern tribes. This has created a divide, on the one hand adding to the grievances of the Muslim populations and on the other hand creating space for the radicalization with a religious connotation of whole sections of society.
Earlier Western strategies of ignoring these local grievances, and focusing on the global struggle against Al-Qaeda, and later ISIS, was a serious mistake. It enabled Deby to endear himself as the shield of the West against Islamist militancy — a role that he excelled in as he took the struggle to nearby countries. However, this in turn also resulted in groups in northern Chad being lumped in with international Islamist forces. Simplistic Western analysis of the situation initially resulted in some heavy-handed operations, some of which may have made the matter worse. It is widely recognised that lessons have been learned and there is a much bigger effort to take a holistic approach to the problem, including addressing issues such as poverty and lack of basic services.
Strategy Towards the Sahel: Improving, Needs Improvement
For better or for worse the Sahel has now become part of Europe’s security agenda — identified in Brussels and beyond as Europe’s soft underbelly, from where all sorts of problems can emanate. The initial response was sloppy — with the emphasis on security, and little attention paid to the wider context that nurtured these problems. This has been slowly shifting. By sheer co-incidence, only days before Deby’s death, on 16 April, the European Union, with a lot of encouragement from France, adopted, after much discussion, a document entitled, “The European Union’s integrated Strategy in the Sahel”.
The strategy document recognises that, “in recent years, the Sahel has faced complex situations involving mutually exacerbating vulnerabilities, fragilities and insecurity”. It also recognises that “long-term trends such as climate change, demographic pressure in a context of insufficient economic growth, the increasing scarcity of natural resources, epidemic risks — including the COVID-19 health crisis and its effects — have exacerbated existing tensions and even raised new challenges, such as the issue of access to water and sanitation, and land, the issue of access to education, healthcare and employment, and the scale of migration flows.”
The strategy promises a long-term EU commitment to resolve these structural challenges. The details of how this will be done are less clear. Europe does not want to get entangled in messy desert wars, so the strategy of choice is to prop up local governments with development aid, military supplies, and limited military support, and hope for the best. It is this approach that made Deby such a crucial ally, for he not only was willing to use his army within his own country, but was also ready to support neighbouring countries in their difficulties with insurgents. In the short term this will not change. But Europe has the potential to improve the life of the people of the Sahel if it does what it promises, and engages with the region over a long enough time-span, with enough resources.
Whilst on paper, the EU commitment to a long-term integrated strategy for the Sahel is there, European public opinion is notoriously fickle. There is very little awareness in Europe, beyond the diplomatic and security community, of the Sahel’s problems and their relevance for Europe’s own prosperity and security. It is necessary to build this awareness so that there will always be pressure for the politicians to keep their eye on the ball.
Ironically, Deby’s death may have helped that process. It has been followed by increasing demands that European governments and institutions should engage more with the people of the Sahel, with their nascent but surprisingly dynamic civil society, and to address the long-term structural problems, not simply the immediate challenges that they provoke. This momentum needs to be sustained.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.