Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 16 February 2004

Peace prospects in Sudan (II)


Chad and the Darfur conflict

NAIROBI, Feb 16, 2004 (IRIN) — A year-old conflict pitting rebels against government forces and militia groups in the Darfur states of western Sudan has created a humanitarian crisis that has spilled over into neighbouring Chad, as well as concerns among some observers about the region’s stability.

These concerns are rooted in the fact that cross-border ethnic solidarity in the region is a more powerful force than nationality. Since July, more than 110,000 Sudanese refugees have crossed the largely unguarded 1,350-km border separating the two countries.

Also see - Darfur’s invisible refugees living rough in eastern Chad

But Chad is much more than a passive host to the fleeing victims of one of Africa’s newest wars, which began in February 2003 when two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), rose up to push their political and economic agendas.

Also see - The escalating crisis in Darfur

At the same time as playing mediator between Khartoum and the rebels, Chad has openly supplied troops to the Sudanese army in Darfur. But, covertly, it also serves as a conduit for arms that are fuelling the war, as an arena for Sudanese militias pursuing the refugees across the border, and as a refuge or assembly point for rebels and their families, say observers.

Different ethnic groups in Chad may also be supplying both the SLA and JEM, as well as the militias aligned to the Sudanese government, with manpower.

These murky and often conflicting roles threaten not only to destabilise the current relative peace in Chad but may also lead to a regional war fought along ethnic lines, say observers.
"It’s a tribal war that has become a problem between the two countries," commented a former army officer and Zaghawah business man in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.


Chad mediated talks between the government of Sudan and the SLA, resulting in a nominal ceasefire from September to December.

Chadian President Idriss Deby, himself a Zaghawah, was thought to be a good choice as mediator because of his shared ethnicity with many of the rebels, his deep-rooted connections with and knowledge of Darfur, and his support base there which allowed him - with Khartoum’s knowledge - to launch a coup from the region in 1990. (His predecessor, Hissene Habre, also launched his takeover from Darfur in 1982).

But a chorus of voices has long questioned his impartiality.

After the SLA and JEM emerged in February 2003 demanding political and economic rights, Deby committed himself to cooperating militarily with Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir to crush them. He officially sent 500 troops to take part in joint army operations in Sudan, but commentators later suggested that the real figure was close to 2,000, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank.

Sudanese Interior Minister Gen Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Husayn announced to parliament in May that Chad had also contributed three helicopters and 17 vehicles to the same campaign.

When the time came to extend the 45-day September ceasefire agreement with the SLA, the Chadian government deported 35 Darfurian intellectuals who had arrived in N’Djamena, to advise the politically inexperienced rebels, ICG reported.

Deby then signed an agreement with Khartoum in November to establish a joint task force to curb cross-border attacks and smuggling, a deal which also allowed for the extradition of armed groups from Chad.

In fact, the remoteness of the 1,350-km border with Sudan allows not only the militias to regularly attack refugees on Chadian territory but also the rebels to freely cross between the two countries. JEM rebels, whose wives and families are among the refugees, reportedly often cross the border into the Chadian half of the border town of Tine (Tine Chad) to assemble.
One local humanitarian source told IRIN he saw a convoy of them leave the town for Sudan in about 20 lorries at the end of January.

But Deby’s perceived bias has led both rebel groups to demand the presence of "international" observers as a precondition to any peace negotiations.

"They [Chadians] don’t have the authority to compel the Sudanese government to act," JEM spokesman Abu Bakr Hamid al-Nur, told IRIN in Tine Chad, adding that observers from the UK, US, France or neighbouring African countries should be involved in future talks.

"Even the Sudanese don’t believe in the Chadian mediating role," said Dobian Assingar, the vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights in Chad and president of the Chadian League for Human Rights. "Sudan doesn’t believe in the mediation efforts started by Chad. Chad knows that Sudan doesn’t believe in it, but is trying to continue to give itself a good image."


According to the last Chadian census in 1993, of the 16 ethnic groups that straddle the border, 78,000 Zaghawah, 50,000 Masalit and over 760,000 members of nomadic Arab tribes live in Chad. The Sudanese counterparts of all these groups are prime movers in the Darfur conflict.

The groups share common resources, history, culture, family ties, and remain close, with a great degree of toing and froing across the dividing line. In Tine, just a dry river bed separates the Chadian and Sudanese Zaghawah, allowing them to share both water points and marriage ties.

"Even we can’t distinguish between them. A man can have two wives, one in Chad, one in Sudan," a local official with the Chadian Red Cross, Abu Bakr Muhammad Sha’ib, told IRIN.

The ethnic nature of the devastating attacks in Darfur, in which mainly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawah - from which the rebels emerged - are systematically being attacked, killed, forced off their land, abducted and raped by Arab militias and the Sudanese army, means that emotions are running high among their Chadian neighbours.

In both Darfur and Chad, numerous people told IRIN that kin on the Chadian side of the border were helping their "brothers" in Sudan, with Chadian Arabs - travelling from as far away as Biltine and Ati - helping the militias, and the Zaghawah helping the rebels.

(Many of the Zaghawah refugees who have fled from Darfur are actually Chadians who fled to Sudan to escape Chad’s incessant civil wars and insurrections since independence in 1960.)

The vice-chairman of the exiled political and military movement, the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance, Dr Sharif Harir, who is from Darfur, told IRIN that social systems in the region were built on "kinship and blood" and that there was an obligation to help one other.

"The Arabs come from Chad and join their brothers in Sudan. Their goal is to form Arab unity," said Abd al-Karim Abbakar Anaw, a Sudanese chief, now a refugee in Kourbileke on the Chadian side of the border. "When the rebels catch the Arabs, they tell them they’re from Chad."

A local aid worker in Tine Chad told IRIN there was no doubt that some Zaghawah from Chad were also helping their neighbours. "The locals are more than angry, because they are relatives. They have relatives in Sudan - fathers, brothers, uncles and they are all coming back wounded."

"It’s a tribal problem. Black with black, Arab with Arab. We are neighbours, one brother is here, one brother is there. Without doubt if the brother is a victim of aggression, the other will come to help," said a Sudanese teacher in Kourbileke, Muhammad Husayn Ali. He said up to 2,000 Zaghawah from Chad were currently helping the rebels in Darfur.

A local source from the Chadian town of Guereda told IRIN that of 180 Zaghawah from the area had gone to Darfur to fight last December, only 15 had returned alive.

Proof is hard to come by, rumours are rife, and the various groups involved in the fighting are quick to accuse their enemies of receiving outside help. "It’s an open question to what degree the Chadian Zaghawah are helping. Also whether the Arabs are doing the same. The Arabs in Chad don’t necessarily want to be used by Khartoum," commented a regional analyst. He warned that significant involvement of Chadian counterparts in Darfur would "lead to a parallel face-off and more cross-border attacks".

Whether or not they are supplying manpower, at the very least the influential Zaghawah business community in Sudan, Chad and elsewhere is supporting the rebels financially, say observers.

"There were contributions here [N’Djamena] to help our brothers in Darfur," a Zaghawah businessman who was formerly an army officer told IRIN. "Some of them [the rebels] came here to N’Djamena to procure arms. I don’t know how much we collected, but it’s true that Chad is supporting Darfur."

There are also suggestions that the Darfur rebels may enjoy significant support from the Zaghawah - many of them Sudanese - who dominate Chad’s top army brass and upper ranks of the presidential guard.

"Certain elements of the presidential guard of President Deby may be participating in the conflict, because the rebels are their cousins," said a senior army officer. "You have to understand that the Zaghawah officers are the biggest group in the army with arms and men under them," he added.


According to observers, Deby is caught between his ethic affinity with his minority Zaghawah support base in Sudan and Chad - which put him into power - and his relationship with militarily powerful Khartoum.

In recent months, his position has become increasingly precarious, not least following the judicial executions in November of four men convicted of the murder in Chad of a Sudanese member of parliament and head of the Chad Petroleum Company, who was also reportedly close to Bashir.

The man found guilty of masterminding the killing, a prominent Zaghawah, had expected impunity and appealed for a presidential pardon. But Deby, who was involved in mediating in Darfur at the time, decided his interests lay more with Sudan, a regional analyst told IRIN. So the execution was carried out within weeks of the verdict, and for the first time since 1991.

In a country rife with cronyism among the Zaghawah elite, "it is very rare for a Zaghawah to be prosecuted and punished for anything", said the analyst. "The Zaghawah have come to expect impunity."

The ruling against his kin alienated many of Deby’s supporters, who believe their backing of
his 1990 coup obliges him to help them in their struggle against Khartoum.

But maintaining good relations with Sudan, at least on the surface, has taken precedence, say observers.

When Sudanese bombs were dropped on the border town of Tine Chad, killing three and injuring 15 Chadian civilians on 29 January, the Chadian government was at pains to play down the "incident". Chad’s foreign minister, Nagoum Yamassoum, reportedly said it was "in no way a deliberate act". "We do not want to speak of a deliberate act of provocation to bring the war towards Chad."

Speaking about Darfur a day later on national radio, Deby placed the blame for Darfur’s woes on the rebels. "The rebels have to accept the rule of law in order for Darfur to become peaceful," he said.

"He [Deby] can’t afford a falling-out with Sudan," said a regional analyst. "If he supports
his clansmen openly, Sudan will come down on him like a tonne of bricks. If he does it covertly, he risks taking the war home with him."

If a regional war broke out, it is not clear whether Deby - whose health is increasingly bad - would survive politically, he continued.

Deby is also mindful, according to some analysts, that if he upsets Khartoum, Chadian rebels based in Sudan might enjoy increased support from their hosts. According to Africa Confidential, Sudan is already backing several hundred Chadian fighters based in the Darfur region.

So the "balancing act" continues.

"Both countries deal hypocritically with each other. They refuse to say it officially, but each is using rebels [the Darfur rebels and the militias] to attack the other," said Assingar, the Chadian human rights activist.

"I am scared that the conflict will destabilise the relative peace we have in Chad now, and I call on both countries to stop their hypocrisy and to avoid a war that will cause thousands of deaths for nothing."

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