Chad’s North West:
The Next High-risk Area?
Africa Briefing N°78
17 Feb 2011
The full report is available in French.
For more than five years, public attention relative to Chad has been focused on the armed rebellion in the east and the crisis in the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan, while totally neglecting the country’s North West. However, there are serious risks that the rise of trans-Sahara drug trafficking and terrorism, emergence of radical Muslim movements in neighbouring countries, development of inter-communal violence, decline of local traditional justice systems and lack of state governance will destabilise that ignored region. The authorities in N’Djamena need to move to change the governance system there and defuse the multiple roots of potential conflict before a crisis explodes.
Historically, the North West has played an ambivalent but pivotal role between the Arab-Islamic culture of North Africa and the sub-Saharan African cultures. Presently, its strategic position makes it increasingly the target of infiltration attempts by armed groups and criminal networks that take advantage of the no-man’s-land areas of the Sahara Desert to expand their activities. Islamic terrorist groups from Northern Nigeria (the Boko Haram sect) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahel region are making their diffuse but real influence felt. Up to now, this dangerous neighbourhood has not produced instability, but greater vigilance is definitely needed.
Since the end of the 1990s, the government has not been able to reconcile the communities, despite the improved regional security context following the progressive dismantling of the two main rebel groups operating in the region: the Movement for Democratisation and Development (Mouvement pour la démocratie et le développement, MDD), and the Movement for Democratisation and Justice in Chad (Mouvement pour la démocratie et la justice au Tchad, MDJT). The continuous decline of the local traditional justice systems and environmental degradation contribute to the precarious quality of the region’s stability.
In such a context, inter-communal political manipulation is likely to awaken old resentments and aggravate local grievances. Moreover, N’Djamena neglects the North West, as shown by its reactions to the very predictable food crisis that began in 2009 and the flood that destroyed the city of Faya Largeau in July 2010. Instead of implementing a sustainable development policy, the authorities make empty promises and prolong the old colonial mode of governance, based on tight regional control via traditional leaders and security forces.
Although major trouble is still unlikely in the short term, there is already a high level of tension between pastoralists and farmers. The North West, which provided many fighters during Chad’s earlier civil wars, thus has the potential to become the country’s new hot spot. To prevent this, the government needs to promptly improve the way it runs the region, focus on the attempts by international criminal and terrorist networks to expand their influence and tackle inter-communal tensions by:
setting up a regional development plan to improve governance in the North West and build social infrastructure and roads. This plan should be based on the demands of the local communities and include financial incentives for civil servants to work there, rational administrative coverage of the territory and appropriate rules for integrating traditional leaders into the new local governance system. N’Djamena must treat development and security as inter-linked issues, given that significant development programs could contribute to calming the situation in the region;
updating and implementing local and national justice systems with respect to the role of traditional leaders and the relationship of natural resource issues to conflicts, especially those between pastoralists and farmers, which require reform of the land tenure system, a disarmament program and dispute resolution mechanisms run by neutral authorities;
creating a regional police unit with adequate legal powers and logistical resources (communication equipment, cars, and helicopters) to monitor and secure the North West border. External partners of Chad like France and the U.S. should offer training and operational mentoring to the unit that will be under the authority of the interior ministry; and
pursuing involvement in pan-Sahel and Sahara initiatives that seek to improve international cooperation and exchange of information on countering terrorism and drug trafficking and promoting joint operations with the neighbouring countries, especially Niger, Nigeria and Libya.
Nairobi/Brussels, 17 February 2011