Defending Hell on Earth: EU troops deploy in Chad

, by Daniel Fiott

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Defending Hell on Earth: EU troops deploy in Chad

Thousands of refugees and humanitarian aid workers will look forward to the long overdue deployment of a European Union (EU) force to the harsh grasslands of Chad and Central African Republic (CAR) where they are currently housed.

The eastern Chadian town of Abeché recently saw the arrival of the first installation of the EUFOR TCHAD/RCA force [1]. The United Nations (UN) mandated force is comprised of 3,700 troops from fourteen EU Member States including France, Spain and Belgium. The force forms part of the multidimensional UN mission MINURCAT mandated to protect refugees and humanitarian staff for a period of twelve months.

Rebels, Power and Ethnicity

The force deploys in a region of great unrest. Chad’s capital N’Djamena was recently under siege by rebels - a coalition consisting of the United Force for Democracy and Development (UFDD), the Rally of Forces for Change and the UFDD-Fundamental - sparking not only the mass exodus of foreigners or the displacement of 90,000 Chadians [2], but a declaration by the UN Security Council supporting Idriss Deby’s government [3].

The battle-hardened rebel soldiers marched unimpeded from Eastern Chad into N’Djamena to encircle the President’s palace on Saturday 2 February, 2008 and claim that they had seized power and broken the morale of government troops. While the government seems to have repelled the onslaught N’Djamena is now a city characterised by burnt tanks and the intermittent sounds of gunfire.

The conflict follows the traditional recipe for disaster in Africa – wealth, power and ethnicity. The rebels have grown weary of Deby’s oil wealth and constitutional amendments he made in 2005. They are also seeking revenge for the coup that ousted Hissène Habré in 1990 and saw Deby’s minority Zaghawa cohort gain control – Habré was from the Daza tribe and so are rebel leaders Nouri and Aboud.

Chad’s current crisis also echoes greater regional conflict involving the Sudan and the CAR. Sudan’s President al-Bashir is accused of supporting the Chadian rebels in a bid to overthrow Deby whilst Deby is accused of aiding anti-government rebels in Sudan. The CAR’s government is also repelling attacks from rebel fighters and bandits in the north of the country.

Each of these countries is also joined by porous borders presently home to 470,000 refugees [4]. None of these refugees or the humanitarian aid workers looking after them would be safe without the EU force. A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Guereda, Eastern Chad recently came under attack from rebels, which has severely impeded much needed assistance to two nearby refugee camps [5].

Vulnerability, Refugees and Regional War

This recent intervention will likely prove to be one of the most perilous missions ever undertaken by the EU. The fact that French troops comprise a large majority of the force has already led to calls lambasting the EU’s impartiality in Chad, and a declaration of war from the rebel militias on all foreign forces in Chad [6]. General Patrick Nash, the EUFOR Commander, has stated that forces are authorised to use self-defence against attacks.

Indeed, if the existing mandate needs to be extended beyond the allotted twelve months due to increased attacks, then EU Member States will be required to increase troop numbers and military resources. General Nash has already suggested that resources such as extra troops and military equipment will be essential over the course of the mission if it is to be successful [7].

The problem of land-space and capacities also means that Chad has already started to reject more refugees on its territory. Prime Minister Nouradin Koumakoye has recently stated that Chad will expel refugees if the international community does not remove them [8]. This could mean that neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Libya and Niger be forced to accept more refugees in the coming months.

However, the onus should not just be on the EU to secure the protection of refugees and humanitarian workers. In this sense, while the recent signing of an agreement to get UN-AU forces on-the-ground in Sudan has been signed [9] the sooner they deploy around camps in Darfur the better. This force presence should also accompany mediation efforts between the UN, the Sudan and Chad to avert a much larger war in central Africa.

Over the next year or so, therefore, EU forces will undergo their most arduous mission to date. It could see the EUFOR TCHAD/RCA force evolve into a more concentrated political and economic effort to avert further strife in the region. It could also see EU troops eventually protecting President Deby’s government. Above all else, however, one hopes that the mission destroys the morale of militias that openly attack refugee camps and thousands of innocent people.


 EUFOR coat of arms; source: Wikimedia
 Map of the conflict zones in the area between Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan’s Darfur region; source: Google Images

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