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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > Central Africa > Chad > The Libyan crisis as seen from N’Djamena

The Libyan crisis as seen from N’Djamena

Thierry Vircoulon, On the African Peacebuilding Agenda  |   8 Jun 2011

Of the three political upheavals that have hit the Maghreb since the beginning of 2011, the Libyan crisis seems to be the most dangerous. First of all for Libya, because the popular uprising has taken the form of an armed rebellion that has cut the country in two; second, for the West, now that NATO, under the cover of United Nations Resolution 1973 (2011) and in order to protect the civilian population, has entered the conflict on the side of the rebels, rashly gambling on a speedy war; and finally, for the region as a whole, because the conflict recently "overflowed" into Tunisia, and neighbouring countries are beginning to feel its humanitarian consequences.

It is precisely the regionalisation of the Libyan crisis that concerns N’Djamena, the pivotal capital of the Sahel and the geopolitical link between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. This regionalisation is manifested in the flight of thousands of migrants across the immensely hostile Sahara and by the "discovery" that fighters from Sub-Saharan Africa were helping Gaddafi's army at the beginning of the conflict. The speed at which the crisis has spilled over into the region indicates the scope for other unexpected and more long-term collateral effects. The probable fall of the Libyan leader will certainly have an impact on the countries of the Sahel, where Libya has for a long time had both political influence and an economic presence. In the first rank of these countries is Chad, which, during recent decades, has been used by Libya to test changes in its Africa policy[i] and where the Libyan crisis has left the bitter taste of uncertainty.

The cost of the crisis for Chad: reversal of the migration economy

The most evident aspect for the moment is that the Libyan crisis has a cost for Chad, which has developed an economy based on the migration of its nationals to Libya. The deterioration in the situation in Libya has had immediate consequences for the Sub-Saharan migrants attracted by the oil industry over a period of many years. Despite the pervading racism they face, these migrants have access to jobs that provide them with living conditions better than in their country of origin and allow them to top up the income of their families at home.[ii] Although a recent wave of migrants from such distant countries as Côte d'Ivoire, Congo and Liberia saw Libya simply as a staging post on the way to Europe, the migrants from Chad, Nigeria, Mali and Sudan who went to Libya after the oil boom of the 1970s settled down for a long stay. Until the start of the crisis, Chadians and Nigerians formed the largest Sub-Saharan communities in Libya, with estimates putting the number of Chadian migrants in Libya at between 300,000 and 500,000.[iii]

According to humanitarian organisations, 64,000 Chadians and others have left Libya since the crisis began and find themselves in a disastrous situation.[iv] However, this figure seems to be an underestimate because it does not take into account the migrants who have received humanitarian assistance or who have passed through northern Chad. Other migrants have crossed to Egypt, Sudan and Niger after having suffered many atrocities and thefts on a scale that is as yet unknown. Although these are rough figures, the humanitarian impact in the field is very real. The Chadian authorities have had to urgently create a national committee to manage this surge in migration and have established transit camps at Faya Largeau, the main town in the north of the country. In the short term, the Chadian authorities are expecting the number of Chadian nationals arriving to double, an increase in the number of other African migrants and also Libyan refugees. To add to the confusion and the sombre atmosphere that overshadows the events currently unfolding in Libya, Chadian and Libyan opposition groups have affirmed, without presenting any evidence, that the lorries dispatched to transport migrants back to Chad also took soldiers to fight alongside pro-Gaddafi forces.[v] The Chadian authorities have refuted this statement several times and proposed the deployment of an international humanitarian presence in the region.[vi]

The economy of much of northern Chad, which depends exclusively on Libya, will certainly be harmed if there is lasting instability in Libya. But the other economic dimension of the Libyan crisis is the question of the Jamahiriya's investments in Chad. During the last decade, Libya has not been content with strengthening its political influence by playing the role of mediator, it has also developed a diversified portfolio of investments of importance for those concerned.

Libya has made a wide-ranging but not very coherent set of investments in Chad: in property, with the construction of a hotel complex in N’Djamena; in industry, where it has financed a mineral water plant; in agriculture and energy, in the expectation that an increase in Chad capacity in these fields will benefit future investments. Libya also has interests in the banking sector, through the Banque Commerciale du Chari and the Sahel Sahara Bank for Investment and Trade, which is an agency of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD). In 2008 and 2009, President Déby officially opened the construction work for a Libyan trading complex. In 2010, the Libyan telecommunications operator, Réseau Vert, paid $90 million for almost all the capital of the Société de communication du Tchad and was planning to invest $100 million in development of this company.[vii]

How can these projects go ahead when everyone knows that they are above all the product of the personal relationship between Mouammar Gaddafi and Idriss Déby, the latter having based part of his economic policy (apart from the energy alliance with China) on the Libyan presence? Until now, the Chadian authorities have not made an official announcement on this delicate question, but it cannot be excluded that business operators close to the government will take control of these investments in an opaque way or that the Chadian state will follow Rwanda,[viii] and seize them with all the consequences this would imply for relations with the future Libyan authorities.

The political risks of the Libyan crisis for Chad: a period of uncertainty

Not only does the Libyan crisis have a growing social and economic cost, it also presents a series of political and security uncertainties that N’Djamena cannot ignore. The first threat to the Chadian authorities is, of course, that the crisis spreads across the border and destabilises the historically sensitive north and east regions of the country.

The paradox of the regional geopolitical situation is that, after initially being a destabilising force, Libya contributed to the relative pacification of Tibesti, a region located on the border between the two countries. Tripoli has directly sponsored or been closely associated with a series of peace agreements between the Chadian government and the armed Toubou groups operating in Tibesti. In addition to these official agreements, Libya has facilitated many more or less secret contacts between President Déby and his opponents in this region. For example, Libyan good offices were used to rally opponents and conclude peace agreements with the main factions of the Mouvement pour la démocratie et la justice au Tchad - MDJT (Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad), the last armed group to be active in the region.[ix] While strengthening its influence with Chad, Tripoli's interventions also had the goal of preventing instability in Tibesti overflowing into the south of Libya where many Toubou tribes live.

The Chadian government now fears that the Libyan crisis will lead to an influx of Libyan Toubou communities into Tibesti. Many Toubous are militarised because of their enlistment in the Libyan civil guard.  One of N’Djamena's major fears is that these Toubous will link up with former rebels in Tibesti, where peace remains precarious. As in the 1980s, the "Northern problem" could return and threaten the stability of the Chad regime. Population displacements in this region have as much potential for destabilisation as the crisis in Darfur. In fact, the socio-political fall-out of the migratory flows caused by these two crises is similar to the population displacements that have taken place in an area where the scarcity of resources has always promoted conflict and where the idea of state borders has a secondary significance compared to ethnic, tribal and clan loyalties. In the same way as eastern Chad and western Sudan have identical populations governed by many different systems of alliances and counter-alliances, northern Chad and southern Libya have an ethnic group in common, the Toubous, which is subdivided into many potentially rival tribes.

To the east,  Chad's former enemy Sudan has taken a different position to Chad on the Libyan crisis. While President Déby has highlighted the danger of the Islamist peril if Gaddafi falls, Omar Al Bashir, Sudanese head of state, has expressed support for the National Council of Transition (CNT). Will this difference of opinion interfere with the process of reconciliation between the two countries? It would be imprudent to reply in the affirmative, because constant Sudanese hostility (if not distrust) towards Gaddafi has not prevented a rapprochement with Tchad during the last two years. Khartoum and N’Djamena recently reached an agreement on security along the shared borders of the Central Africa Republic, Sudan and Chad.[x]

Meanwhile, Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the rebel Mouvement pour la justice et l’égalité - MJE (Movement for Justice and Equality) may want to play a disruptive role. The MJE is the main rebel group in Darfur to reject a definitive peace agreement with the Sudanese government. After having benefited from Chad's protection for a long time, Khalil Ibrahim was expelled from the country in April 2011 because he was a barrier to the rapprochement between N’Djamena and Khartoum. At President Déby's request, Libya granted him exile.[xi] Ibrahim's possible return to Darfur with arms obtained in Libya cannot be excluded. According to the CNT and the Chad opposition press, MJE combatants are among the "mercenaries" fighting at the side of pro-Gaddafi forces. Khalil Ibrahim's current whereabouts is not known, but the Chadian security services believe he is still in Libya. Chad and Sudan are closely following his movements because the two countries think that he and his troops could endanger the region's stability if they are not "recovered" in time.[xii] 

Finally, and this is surely the most worrying problem for the Chadian government, relations between N’Djamena and Tripoli risk never being the same again. President Déby's accusations about the presence, real or fictitious, of Al-Qaeda among the insurgents in Benghazi are a response to accusations about the existence of Chadian "networks" allegedly coordinating supportive military action to Gaddafi in the north of the country.[xiii] By evoking the presence of the Maghreb branch of Al-Qaeda (already accused of wanting to destabilise Chad and other Sahel countries) at the side of the Libyan insurgents, President Déby has tried to ward off the criticism sparked by his initial loyalty to Gaddafi. If France has been Idriss Déby's main external source of support during his twenty-year reign, Libya is ally number two, financially and politically. The increasingly inevitable fall of the Libyan leader means the loss of a crucial ally who combined imperial behaviour and manipulation but has nevertheless facilitated the co-opting of many opponents.

We will never know the truth about these "networks", which have become increasingly embarrassing since NATO's intervention. The hypothesis that they are coordinated by the Chad head of state has not been clearly established, even though Daoussa Déby, the head of state's brother and ambassador in Tripoli has connived with the Libyan government for a long time.[xiv] This "hypothesis" has nonetheless promoted hostility between Chad and the anti-Gaddafi coalition united under the CNT, which foreshadows a change in the relationship between Chad and its powerful northern neighbour.

On several occasions, the CNT has used the rather unpleasant term of mercenary when addressing Chad, to which Chad has replied by raising doubts about the CNT's capacity (or willingness) to be a genuine rampart against the Islamist terrorism that threatens the Sahel - unlike Gaddafi.[xv] These exchanges will have repercussions if a government hostile to N’Djamena is installed in Tripoli and will force Idriss Déby to rethink his regional alliances.

The Libyan crisis is not the first regional storm that Idriss Déby's regime has faced. For the last twenty years, the Chad head of state has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to the changes and troubles affecting the regional environment. Nevertheless, N’Djamena is apprehensively observing the unfolding of events that will decide the future of its most important neighbour and partner, aware that lasting instability in Libya and/or a hostile regime in Tripoli could prove dangerous for both domestic policy and regional geopolitics.


[i] For more on this policy, especially on the role played by Chad in Libya's African policy, see Crisis Group Africa Briefing n°71, Libya/Chad: Beyond Political Influence, 23 March 2010.

[ii] There are no official figures on these transfers, but interviews with Tuareg migrants from Niger showed that each member of this community was sending between $108 and $216 dollars per month to their family before the crisis. See: In Libya we face bombs but in Niger we face death, IRIN, 19 May 2011.

[iii] See International Organisation for Migration (IOM), "World Migration Report 2010. The Future of Migration: Building Capacities for Change" at http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=37&products_id=653&zenid=72b81c6bb49946dc90cd654eedd27564.

[iv] Information Note on the Libyan Crisis n°10, OCHA, 25 May 2011.

[v] See www.tchadactuel.com

[vi] See press briefing by the Chad Minister of Foreign Affairs, N’Djamena, April 2011.

[vii] See Crisis Group Africa Briefing n°71, Libya/Chad: Beyond Political Influence, 23 March 2010.

[viii] See interview with Paul Kagamé: "Quand le pouvoir tue son propre peuple, cela nous concerne tous", Jeune Afrique, 11 May 2011. The Rwandan president explained that the seizure of Libyan assets was necessary because Libya was no longer honouring its contractual obligations and had stopped investing in Rwandan companies such as Rwandatel, threatening them with bankruptcy.

[ix] See Crisis Group Briefing n°78, Chad's North West: the next high-risk area?, 17 February 2011.

[x] "Sommet tripartite Tchad-RCA-Soudan", Centrafrique-presse, 31 May 2011.

[xi] See Crisis Group Africa Report n°162, Chad: Beyond superficial stability, 17 August 2010.

[xii] Crisis Group telephone interviews, May 2011.

[xiii] In an interview with the weekly Jeune Afrique, President Déby said he had "proof" not only of the presence of Islamists among the Benghazi insurgents, but also of looting of Libyan army arsenals by members of the Maghreb branch of Al-Qaeda, where they allegedly stole sophisticated arms, including missiles. See "Le Tchadien Déby affirme qu’AQMI s’est emparée des missiles de l’armée libyenne", Jeune Afrique, 25 March 2011; "Intelligence on Libya rebels shows flickers of Qaeda", Reuters, 29 March 2011 and "Are Libyan rebels an Al-Qaeda stalking horse?", BBC, 31 March 2011.

[xiv] See Crisis Group Africa Report n°162, Chad: Beyond superficial stability, 17 August 2010.

[xv] See interview with Chad Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moussa Faki Mahamat on Radio France Internationale, 18 April 2011.