By David Bruckmeier:
Chad has emerged as a key player in the war against Islamist group Boko Haram. The liberation of the Nigerian town of Gamboru by Chadian troops on February 3 is the latest example of the Central African country’s increasing assertiveness in regional security matters. Beyond fears of a spillover of the violence to his own country, President Idriss Déby is seeking to establish Chad as a regional force and bolster his own power by making himself an indispensable partner in the fight against terrorism.
The ground offensive in Gamboru, in which over 200 Boko Haram fighters were reportedly killed, followed several days of air raids against the militants and is the latest in a string of successful strikes by Chad against the Islamist group. As Boko Haram has stepped up its attacks in recent weeks, so Chad has stepped up its military presence in neighbouring countries: Chadian troops now operate in Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria. On 29 January, Chadian forces drove the Islamists out of the Nigerian town of Malum Fatori after attacking their positions from across the border in Niger. In mid-January, Chad deployed its military to Cameroon to assist its neighbour in fending off Boko Haram’s incursion into its territory and recapture Baga, the Nigerian border town ravaged in a massacre earlier that month.
It is unclear whether Nigeria had been consulted before Chad’s advances into its territory. Statements by Nigeria’s defence spokesman following reports of Chad’s recapture of Baga suggest that the Nigerian government was caught off guard. The very fact that Nigerian officials had to point out that Chad’s interventions did not constitute a violation of Nigeria’s sovereignty speaks of the unease many in the country feel with Chad’s growing influence. Although Nigeria was quick to emphasise the two countries’ close cooperation in the fight against the Islamist group, Chad’s unilateralism puts Nigeria in an awkward position, as it lays bare the weakness of the African behemoth’s own response to Boko Haram and its partners’ lack of confidence in its ability to solve the conflict.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has been accused of underestimating the threat posed by Boko Haram, allowing a localised rebellion to develop into an insurgency that threatens to destabilise the entire Lake Chad region. When nearly 300 girls were abducted from a school in Nigeria’s Borno State in April 2014, it took the government nearly three weeks to acknowledge that the kidnapping was not a conspiracy fabricated by political rivals. In early January, Chad temporarily pulled its forces from the regional military coalition against Boko Haram, in part over frustrations with its partners’ lack of action. It has since pledged troops to a new multinational joint task force (MJTF) backed by the African Union, but has not wasted any time waiting for it to become operational.
Chad’s President Idriss Déby is increasingly nervous that the conflict, which has claimed over 13,000 lives in north-eastern Nigeria and recently spread into northern Cameroon, may spill over into Chad. Its capital N’Djamena sits right at the border with both countries. Chad is already feeling the heat from the developments in its neighbourhood: thousands of Nigerian and Cameroonian refugees have fled to Chad in the wake of the recent attacks, and in a video message released on 20 January, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau explicitly threatened attacks on Nigeria’s neighbours. Many of Boko Haram’s fighters are ethnic Kanuri from Chad. With the greatest threats to Déby’s power traditionally having come from foreign-backed Chadian rebels, he is keen to keep them at a distance. It is understood that he supported the Séléka rebels that ousted François Bozizé, then president of the Central African Republic (CAR), in 2013. Many of the Séléka rebels were former Chadian and Sudanese fighters involved in the failed 2006 and 2008 rebellions, and Déby may have been supporting them in CAR in an attempt to move them away from the Chad-CAR border region where they had fled after the rebellions.
Moreover, the Lake Chad Basin holds significant, largely untapped oil reserves. Chad’s oil production has surged in recent years, and the country hopes to double output by 2016. If Boko Haram makes inroads in Chad, these ambitions, and Déby’s presidency, could be put in danger. Oil revenues have helped build one of Africa’s most potent militaries, crucial to the staying in power of one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers whom some regard as a dictator.
Déby himself rose to the presidency with French assistance in a coup in 1990 and has survived several Sudanese-backed attempts to overthrow him. By promoting his country as an anchor of stability in a region mired in conflict and taking the lead in the war on Islamist terror, he hopes to secure regional and international support and legitimise his ambitions of staying in office beyond the end of his term in 2016. As so often, then, the issue comes down to a trade-off between stability and democracy.
His strategy seems to be bearing fruit: in an earlier display of its military muscle, Chad’s army contributed substantially to France’s 2013 Operation Serval against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, earning it much praise for its efficiency and professionalism. In return, France provides Chad with military assistance and has chosen N’Djamena as the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, its permanent counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region. France has come to Déby’s aid before. With the Sahel shifting back into the focus of French Africa policy and Chad’s resolute engagement in the war against Islamist terrorism, France has a strong interest in keeping its closest ally in the region in power. Likewise, Chad’s neighbours may grind their teeth at its unilateralist leanings, but its military strength makes them dependent on it for their security.
Chad’s recent interventions against Boko Haram mark a breakthrough in the fight against Boko Haram. Although arguably motivated more by President Déby’s survival instinct than solidarity with its neighbours, Chad’s determined military action has substantially weakened the militants. However, it is clear that a long-term solution to the conflict is only possible if its underlying causes are addressed – the disenfranchisement of the Nigerian electorate from the country’s elites, particularly in the underdeveloped northeast, massive regional inequalities, as well as religious and ethnic divisions. These are all issues that only Nigeria itself can tackle.
Crucially, though, Chad’s action is putting pressure on neighbouring countries to follow suit and may serve as a wake-up call to Nigerian voters and politicians ahead of the presidential elections on February 14. For Chad itself, its new role will likely have the opposite effect. As Déby’s power grows, so shrink the prospects for a peaceful transition of his country to democracy and a fairer distribution of oil revenues in the near future.
David Bruckmeier is an MA Student in International Relations at King’s College London. He is particularly interested in African affairs.