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The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action
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

Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Promoting Political alongside Military Action

Rural insurgencies across the Sahel are destabilising the region and undermining local security and governance. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue support for the Alliance for the Sahel and promote local dialogue to buttress law and order.

This commentary on promoting political and military action in the Sahel region is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

The Sahel region faces particularly acute challenges. Rural insurgencies across parts of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are expanding. Jihadi groups exploit local conflicts to secure safe havens and win new recruits. Other militias are being formed, whether to defend communities, conduct criminal activities or both. Sahelian states, supported by Western powers, rely ever more heavily on force. The new G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), encompassing army units from five Sahelian states, must avoid angering local communities and stoking local conflicts. It should be accompanied by local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives, outreach to communities and, where possible, efforts to engage militant leaders.

Mali’s stalemated peace process

In Mali, the epicentre of the Sahel crisis, implementation of the June 2015 Bamako peace agreement that aimed to turn the page on the country’s 2012-2013 crisis, has stalled. Having acted as chief broker of the agreement, Algiers appears to have lost interest in leading the process. No African or other actor has stepped in.

Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas.

Malian leaders’ attention has shifted to the July 2018 presidential election. In parts of the country, particularly central and northern Mali, a credible vote appears a remote prospect, due to insecurity and state weakness. But any attempt to postpone the vote would likely spark street protests: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has struggled both to restore security and stimulate development, and is increasingly unpopular even in his core constituencies of Bamako and other southern cities.

Nor have state authorities, ousted from much of the north during the 2012-2013 crisis, returned. Security continues to deteriorate in central Mali (Mopti region) and further south (Segou region), fuelling tension among communities. Jihadist groups capitalise on local disputes in rural areas, recruiting new fighters and launching attacks against national and international forces. Their reach is extending into neighbouring countries.

An expanding crisis

Northern Burkina Faso is suffering its own insurgency: notwithstanding spillover from Mali, violence there largely obeys its own logic and feeds off local dynamics. The emergence of Ansarul Islam, a Burkinabe jihadist group that has perpetrated a string of attacks against security forces and state institutions, reflects widespread discontent with the prevailing social order in the country’s north. Ouagadougou and most of its foreign partners recognise that a military campaign alone will not end the conflict, but their response needs to better factor in the deep social roots of the crisis, which means greater efforts to stimulate or facilitate communal dialogue. Ultimately, as militants operate between Mali and Burkina Faso, the crisis also requires that Mali secure its borders and both states deepen their police and judicial cooperation.

In Niger, the October 2017 killing of U.S. Special Forces and Nigerien soldiers near the border between Mali and Niger brought international attention to a long-neglected region that has become the Sahel’s latest jihadist front line. An armed group claiming links to the Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Nigerien security forces. In response, Nigerien authorities briefly backed Malian armed groups as proxy counter-terror forces along the border. Such action can prove counterproductive, adding to the already vast quantities of weaponry in the region and fuelling intercommunal conflict. The large number of armed young men in the border area between Mali and Niger – frequently now with combat experience, including fighting both against and alongside jihadist groups – are a key source of instability. Their demobilisation and reintegration into society is a critical component of any effort to end violence.

Chad is vulnerable to instability in southern Libya, where Chadian rebels have found refuge, and in the Lake Chad basin, where the Boko Haram crisis has spread. President Idriss Deby has positioned his military as a bastion against jihadism. This stance has brought financial and political support from Western powers and largely spared him their criticism, notwithstanding the country’s fragility, growing political and social discontent, and deep economic recession. Many businesses have gone bankrupt. Unemployment, especially among youth, is high. The International Monetary Fund suspended budget support in November 2017 after Chad failed to reach an agreement to restructure loans granted by a mining and oil company. Mounting political and socio-economic challenges pose a grave long-term threat to Chad; left to fester, these problems would till fertile ground for violent actors of all stripes, including jihadists.

Going beyond military solutions

After considerable delays, the G5 Sahel joint force has started to deploy at the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso border. But it is struggling with funding shortfalls and to define its role, particularly in relation to other forces in the Sahel, from UN peacekeepers to French and U.S. counter-terrorism forces. To secure the support of local populations, the joint force should respect the rights of those living in its operations zones. Efforts to de-escalate local conflicts and, where possible, open or exploit existing lines of communication with militant leaders should accompany military action.

Sahelian states remain worryingly dependent on security assistance. Indeed, foreign donor priorities, to some degree, drive the Sahelian states’ security policies: the focus on curbing human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region in good part reflects European worries about migration and terrorism. Yet overly strict security measures can upset fragile local economies and balances of power between central state and nomadic communities or between local authorities and ethnic or religious groups.

In this light, the Alliance for the Sahel, launched in July 2017 by France, Germany and the EU, and designed to address both security and development challenges in the Sahel region, could be a step in the right direction, if European short-term concerns over migration and terrorism do not trump efforts to reform local governance, especially in neglected rural areas. The EU and its member states should also support government initiatives to strengthen local law and order – again critical in rural areas – through its EU Capacity Building Missions (EUCAP) Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger.

In particular, the EU, including its special representative for the Sahel, should warn governments against relying on militias as proxy counter-terrorism forces. It should instead encourage regional leaders to promote bottom-up reconciliation through local dialogues, especially in Mali. In Chad, the EU and its member states should not only pursue short-term security objectives but also seek to check, as best possible, the government’s authoritarian impulses so that political space does not shrink further.