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In Backing Chad, the West Faces Moral Hazards
In Backing Chad, the West Faces Moral Hazards
Chadian President Idriss Déby acknowledges soldiers and military officers in the Chadian capital N'djamena, on 11 December, 2015 Brahim Adji/AFP
Commentary / Africa

In Backing Chad, the West Faces Moral Hazards

The West sees Chad as a reliable ally in the fight against extremists in the African Sahel. But it needs to take more care. Chad is breaking prior agreements by spending much of its oil revenue on the military, while social services and good governance have suffered.

Chad is facing a severe fiscal and social crisis. On 7-8 September, President Idriss Déby is in Paris for an International Donor Conference to seek much-needed funding for the country’s National Development Program. The government likes to portray the country’s problems as due to external shocks like the drop in oil prices and the cost of military intervention against Boko Haram and other extremists. Donors, under pressure from France, largely accept this narrative and support has recently been forthcoming from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But a closer look at the country’s recent history tells another story.

According to the Chadian economy minister, the conference aims to mobilise support “for the transformation of Chadian economy”. This is not the first time Chadians have been promised such a transformation. When Chad joined the club of oil-producing countries in 2003, the World Bank supported the building of the critical pipeline to get the oil to the coast on condition that the money generated would be put to good use. The Oil Governance Law was passed in 1999, stipulating that 80 per cent of revenues were to be allocated to pre-defined priority sectors – public health, social affairs, education, infrastructure, agriculture, livestock and water. Ten per cent of oil revenue was to be channelled into a fund for future generations, while another 5 per cent was earmarked for the oil-producing region. Only the remaining 5 per cent would flow directly into the state budget.

Soon thereafter, however, Déby started to dismantle these control mechanisms. In 2006, he amended the Oil Governance Law, dismantling the future generations fund and, crucially, adding defence to the list of priority sectors. He faced down donors and gradually rolled back all the control mechanisms so painstakingly negotiated by the World Bank, eventually gaining full discretion over spending of oil revenues.

This came about against the backdrop of mounting political and military opposition. The lack of political space, and in particular the constitutional changes in June 2005 that allowed Déby to run for a third term in 2006, led to the defection of senior political and military figures including his nephews Timane and Tom Erdimi. After a failed coup attempt on 14 March 2006, they established a rebel group, one of several rebellions to challenge Déby’s power with the support of neighbouring Sudan. Major rebel offensives on N’Djamena in 2006 and 2008 nearly overthrew the regime.

Oil money gave Déby a critical lifeline. Free from any obligations of transparency, he awarded his supporters import licenses or public contracts for numerous infrastructure projects. To ease social tensions, the regime also recruited workers into the public sector. Oil revenues likewise enabled Déby to confront the armed opposition, through heavy investments in the army. Military spending skyrocketed from $67 million in 2005 to $247 million in 2006. Military expenditures reached an all-time high in 2009, accounting for $670 million – a full 8 per cent of GDP. According to SIPRI data, between 2006 and 2016, the regime acquired 34 aircraft (attack and transport planes) and 372 armoured vehicles of different varieties, turning its armed forces into one of the best equipped on the continent. After this splurge, military spending declined, but still remains way above pre-oil money levels at 2.6 per cent of GDP.

As in other African countries that have received significant Western support for their militaries, Chad’s government is itself a product of a civil war and remains military at heart.

As in other African countries that have received significant Western support for their militaries, Chad’s government is itself a product of a civil war and remains military at heart. So diverting funds to the army fits seamlessly with the government’s own desire to reward its military and keep it loyal. Military spending has helped Chad intervene in the Central African Republic, Mali, in neighbouring countries threatened by Boko Haram and as far afield as the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to fight Huthi combatants in Yemen.

This engagement has strengthened relations with Western powers and brought substantial financial and political support. The EU, France and the U.S. in particular today consider Déby as their principal partner in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. For Déby it is a win-win: tackle domestic armed opposition, pay his troops and gain significant leverage over donors.

But the rise in military spending along with mismanagement of oil revenues has come at a cost. Having failed to diversify the economy while the going was good, dependency on oil money has made the country highly vulnerable. Declining prices and production levels have led the country back to international donors. Partly as a requirement under the IMF financial and economic support program, the government has introduced drastic budget cuts, affecting allowances for civil servants, parliamentarians and police, student scholarships and the staffing size of state agencies. The government has accumulated arrears in payments of salaries, allowances and pensions.

This situation has caused waves of strikes by teachers and other public sector workers. Many feel that while they didn’t profit from the oil revenues in the first place, they are now, on top of this, paying the price for its mismanagement. Widespread corruption, high living costs, and the lack of political space and civil liberties have further fed the anger and the country’s growing number of protest movements.

The government has reacted [to strikes] with repression and a clampdown on civil liberties.

The government has reacted with repression and a clampdown on civil liberties. Reports of harassment, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and torture of journalists, civil society activists and political opponents have increased. Unsurprisingly, international partners have been reluctant to denounce such practices, let alone impose conditions for their support. So even as Chad’s economy nosedives in the context of corruption and authoritarianism, Déby’s international position appears untouchable. Europe’s increasing desire to get Sahelian countries to stop migrant flows from reaching the Mediterranean will likely give him a further opportunity to show how useful his country can be.

Chadian civil society activists and political opponents are increasingly frustrated with this unconditional international support for Déby, which they interpret as silent complicity. And understandably so: in backing Déby as he pours money into his military while the rest of the population suffers, Western powers are paying scant regard to the sustainability of their engagement, nor to what kind of state they are encouraging. The longer-term fight against extremism requires stronger and more legitimate public institutions, not “more strongmen”.

While financial support for the fight against extremists in the Sahel is certainly an immediate priority, Chad’s international partners should also extract real commitment to use part of international aid to support the country’s crumbling social sectors, as well as to build new monitoring mechanisms to guarantee greater transparency.

Eliane Giezendanner, Central Africa Project intern, assisted in the preparation of this commentary.

This text was changed on 12 September 2017 to rectify the original version that incorrectly stated, "Between 2006 and 2014, the regime purchased 139 aircraft and 153 armed vehicles". According to SIPRI data, the regime actually acquired 34 aircraft (attack and transport planes) and 372 armoured vehicles of different varieties between 2006 and 2016.

People walk on the N'Gueli bridge, marking the border between Chad and Cameroon near N'Djamena, 4 April 2015. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES
Report 233 / Africa

Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility

Ahead of Chad’s presidential election on 10 April popular discontent is rising amid a major economic crisis, growing intra-religious tensions and deadly Boko Haram attacks. The regime that portrays itself as spearheading the fight against regional jihadism could see all sorts of violent actors gain influence at home if it pursues exclusionary politics and denies its people a viable social contract.

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Executive Summary

Chad has become an important partner of the West in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel, but the regime’s stress points are quickly growing and 2016 is proving to be a challenging year. In addition to mounting tensions ahead of the 10 April presidential election and growing social discontent, the country is facing a major economic crisis, growing intra-religious tensions and deadly Boko Haram attacks, even as the movement weakens. The government’s predominantly military approach, pursued at the expense of political and social engagement in areas affected by jihadist violence, risks exacerbating tensions. Meanwhile, as an election approaches that is likely to see President Idriss Déby win a fifth term, many Chadians believe that the absence of democratic change or a viable succession plan could lead to a violent crisis. It is imperative to open political space and create sustainable state institutions capable of gaining the people’s support. This will require a shift in strategy by both national authorities and their international partners.

Until recently, Chad was considered a poor country, lacking in influence and facing the constant threat of its rebellions. But this has changed: Chad normalised relations with Sudan in 2010, began producing oil and became a critical military power in the Sahel-Saharan strip in particular, but also further south, in the Central African Republic (CAR). By deploying its soldiers on multiple fronts, including in a heavily-criticised intervention in CAR, as well as in Mali and more recently in the Lake Chad basin to fight Boko Haram, the regime is pursuing a strategy of military diplomacy, hoping to lead the fight against terrorism in the region. In so doing, Chad has consolidated its alliances with Western countries founded on fighting a common enemy, but which some Chadians view as an insurance policy for a regime that lacks legitimacy. The nature of this partnership, rooted in a long history of close relations with the West, carries significant political and democratic risks.

Chad remains domestically fragile and is facing an unprecedented security threat. The country, which has traditionally experienced ethno-regional rebellions, is today engaged in a new kind of fight: an asymmetric battle against the violent jihadist movement Boko Haram. Even though the group has not built a constituency in Chadian society, there are undeniably Chadian nationals in Boko Haram’s ranks. After suffering a first attack at the beginning of 2015, Chad’s security apparatus must both prevent terrorist attacks in the capital and tackle a guerrilla-style insurgency in the Lake Chad area. Those living in the Lake Chad region are facing deadly Boko Haram suicide attacks and frequent raids, resulting in deaths and massive population displacements. Though military operations by the countries of the region have weakened the group, it remains a serious threat. Meanwhile, instability in Libya continues to be of great concern in N’Djamena. 

The government, fearing further attacks on Chadian soil including in N’Djamena, has adopted a series of measures to strengthen security, adapt the laws at its disposal to address the new threats and further police religious space. While many Chadians, especially in the capital, support these counter-terrorism policies, voices denouncing abuses by security forces during routine checks, as well as arbitrary arrests and summons, are growing louder. 

The country is also facing a major economic crisis due to both the regional spread of Boko Haram attacks, which have hindered trade with Nigeria and Cameroon, and the drop in oil price, particularly damaging given the economy’s strong dependence on oil revenue. As a result, the government has been forced to make budget cuts. Social discontent is growing as the election nears, and many issues have the potential to mobilise the population, including the cost of living, budgetary austerity, corruption and impunity. Protests have taken a more political hue with protesters denouncing President Déby’s candidacy for a fifth term. The political and social climate remains very tense and the state’s repression of demonstrations and harassment of civil society could aggravate it further. 

Finally, the government’s desire to police and control religious space, including banning the burqa and promoting a “Chadian” Sufi Islam, is widely supported but has also met some resistance. This resistance has revealed the strong antagonism between mainstream Sufi currents and fundamentalist minorities against a backdrop of a significant Wahhabi expansion, especially among the youth. While these intra-Muslim tensions are not an immediate threat, in the medium-term they could weaken the country’s social fabric. 

In the face of these accumulating challenges, Chadian authorities must avoid the politics of religious or geographic exclusion. The greatest threat to stability in Chad in the long-term is not Boko Haram – though the determined fight against the group must continue – but a national political crisis, which would create fertile ground for all sorts of violent actors, including jihadists. To avoid this, the Chadian state must open political space and build legitimate and sustainable institutions, capable of outlasting the current regime.

Nairobi/Brussels, 30 March 2016