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France in Chad: A return to the old haunt

Photo: washingtonpost.com

· Africa

Some say France is stuck in a forever war in the Sahel. But it seems more like the countries in the Sahel are stuck with France’s post-neo-imperialist designs in a “war on terror”. This “war” is not of Africans’ own making but it certainly has positioned France as the lead regional power broker, military occupier and Godfather. First it was Mali. Now Chad. Who will it be next in France’s logic of domination? Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso? 

Godfathering Chad 

During the former Chadian president’s state funeral on April 23, 2021 in N’Djamena, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, sat prominently and symbolically in the front row, immediately to the right of Gen. Mahamat Kaka, the unconstitutionally appointed new interim leader of Chad. In the backdrop was a roughly 5,000-strong French force that is permanently headquartered in the capital. 

 It’s no coincidence that Macron sat on the general’s right. The seat to the right of someone is viewed as more powerful and a place of privilege. It clearly says: France is his right (and guiding) hand. Macron wants to be seen as committed to democracy in Africa and called upon the military government to foster, “stability, inclusion, dialogue and democratic transition”. But his wanna-be-master demeanor at Déby’s funeral belies those commitments. It also purposefully ignores the opposition’s condemnation of Mahamat’s takeover as a coup, as well as the many Chadian officers opposed to the military transition plan. 

 The long time, 68-year old strongman, Idriss Déby, had been in power for 31 years and often “toured” the frontlines of the battlegrounds against rebels. Regardless of the actual chances of a country’s leader being killed on the battlefield, Déby apparently was. He was killed the day after his “reelection” for a sixth term in unclear circumstances: on the front lines defending the country from Fighters of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). The rebel group, operating from Libya, crossed over into northern Chad on April 11, the day Déby sought a sixth term in a vote boycotted by main opposition parties.

Déby was infamous for his repressive rule and his Human Rights record. Many even say he did the West’s dirty work in Africa in exchange for millions in humanitarian aid and security assistance. Regardless, in traditional French style when it comes to its reliable strongman allies, Macron hailed Déby as a “great friend” and a “courageous soldier”. Meanwhile France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, expressed France’s unequivocal support for the military’s unconstitutional takeover, claiming it was necessary for security amid “exceptional circumstances”.

Rebellion, of course, is no exception in Chad’s history. It could even be said that rebellion is part of Chad’s DNA since independence from France in 1960. The country has been marred by both small scale wars with bordering countries and internal conflict. 

Most analyses of conflict in Chad and elsewhere in the region, for example Sudan, explain it as the violent confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims. The religion-based separation is then closely linked to ethnic divisions, which have always been purposefully tied to national identity by the colonizers as a part of the divide-conquer-and-rule strategy. But faith-based, ethnic conflict is a Western structural division introduced and imposed during colonization and borne of ignorance about African history. 

In Chad it’s explained as conflict between the predominantly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian/animist south. But history says otherwise. Chad, which is the fifth largest country in Africa, was a central part of some of Africa’s greatest Empires, such as Kanem-Borno, which originated in the south western part of Chad. Its lands both north and south of Lake Chad were particularly lush and fertile and home to several ancient Kingdoms. 

 It was during the process of unification of the various Kingdoms and political entities led by Rabah Fadlallah that the French made their incursion for conquest of land, labor and resources. Considered a hero by many because of his staunch opposition to the French conquest, Fadlallah was finally defeated, only to have Chad become one of the most abandoned French colonies. Almost no investment was made in infrastructure or economic development during the French occupation, and whatever investments were made favored the South while ignoring the North.

France’s bad habit 

The political instability and historical conflicts constructed by French colonialism are at the heart of the ensuing protracted civil violence in Chad, which has been exacerbated by foreign interventions and interference. It all began after independence and with the election in 1962 of the first president, Francois Tombalbaye. His regime was marked by authoritarianism, extreme corruption and favoritism. But it was backed by and received military assistance from the French government.

Immediately following Tombalbaye’s power grab, two guerrilla movements emerged: the Front for the National Liberation of Chad (Frolinat) in the north and which operated primarily from its headquarters in southern Lybia, and the smaller Chad National Front (FNT) in the east-central region. Both groups aimed to overthrow the existing government, reduce French influence, and have closer association with the Arab states of North Africa. 

 Since the initial rebellion in 1965, Chad has been in a continuous state of rebellion, but France’s support has never wavered. Paraphrasing the legendary Mexican-American guitarist Carlos Santana, like most of those with bad habits, no French leader has had the willingness to break its bad habit. They always have a lot of excuses and talk like victims. That explains why, as Ben Taub writes in The New Yorker, “no Chadian President has survived on his own. Since Chad gained independence, the French have traditionally supported whoever is in power until the moment that rebels overrun the capital and the President flees or is killed. There has never been a change to the Presidency by free or fair election, only succession by capture the flag; N’Djamena falls and the victor holds the Presidency for as long as he can.” 

Idriss Déby himself headed a rebel group, the Patriotic Salvation Movement, and seized power in 1990  by capturing the Presidential palace in a rebellion of his own, just like his predecessors. Then in 2018, as he approached the end of his final constitutionally permissible term, Chad’s parliament revised the constitution to allow him to retain the office until 2033 while using the training and equipment Western militaries to quash political opponents, under the guise of counterterrorism. France gave its tacit consent. 

Having faced several rebellions during his hold on power, Déby was supposedly killed by the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, FACT, a political-military group mainly based in northern part of the country and founded by dissident army officers in 2016. His son was swiftly named transitional leader, with full support from France. Although, according to a FACT spokesman, "FACT is ready to observe a ceasefire for a political settlement that respects the independence and sovereignty of Chad and does not endorse a coup d'etat". However, despite this willingness to discuss a political settlement, the new ruling military government backed by France has refused to negotiate. 

 French cynicism 

  Cynically but not surprisingly, President Emmanuel Macron has said: "France will never let anyone, either today or tomorrow, challenge Chad's stability and integrity" and called on the military to foster "stability, inclusion, dialogue, democratic transition." This is nothing more or less than a tacit admission of how unwilling France is to actually bring about stability to the region or, even less, promote democracy. 

   After decades of supporting Sahelian strongmen and turning a blind eye to their abuses, instead of seizing on an opportunity to reflect on the past, reckon with continued failure and seek more accountable approaches to earnestly pursuing democracy and peace, France is eagerly backing a younger, more pliantly groomed strongman who can play to France’s need to maintain its empire, even if that empire is an illusion of its own making. 

  Chad is, in fact, an instrumental part of France’s geopolitical strategy in the region and a key ally for the French security apparatus. It is the headquarters of France’s Operation Barkhane, which is infamous for civilian deaths. This military operation began with the 2014 intervention in Mali and later expanded to fight armed groups across the Sahel as part of the multinational G5 Sahel force that is based in Mauritania. But Chad is also located in a strategic area: at the intersection of Sudan - Darfur and Central African ore and oil resources. 

  France is also Chad’s main bilateral donor (excluding humanitarian and food assistance), one of its main economic partners and the third biggest foreign direct investor in the country, after the United States and China. In 2019 the assistance provided by the French Development Agency totaled $106 million; exports totaled $95.3 million - mainly covering pharmaceuticals, agrifood products and mechanical, electrical and IT equipment, cars, and public works and civil engineering - and imports totaled $73.5M, of which $63.6 million were in crude petroleum; foreign direct investment totaled $134 million, mainly in the construction, oil extraction and renewable energy sectors.

At the same time, Chad receives a wide range of international security assistance – training, arms, ammunition, non-lethal equipment and direct budgetary support – from a diverse set of countries, including France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, the European Union, and more recently China, and it has a number of military, security and intelligence cooperation agreements. 

The French humbug 

After basically ignoring Chad as a colony, France took a growing interest in the country after oil was discovered there in the late 1960s. Today, Chad has vast oil wealth. It “ranks as the tenth-largest oil reserve holder among African countries, with 1.5 billion barrels of proven reserves as of 2018 and production of over 140,000 barrels per day in 2020". It has also received billions of dollars in foreign assistance over more than six decades. Yet it is one of the poorest countries in the world: it is ranked 187 of 189 in the 2020 Human Development Index. This is the clearest indication of the extent to which France and its Western allies have failed to make Chadians – or the region — safe. 

 The influx of international security assistance to Chad has led to incoherence, confusion and waste as donor “partners” compete for influence. This, in turn, has facilitated diplomatic cover for government corruption, impunity, and the consolidation of power.

Veiled in the concept of “collective security” of the Sahel and the wider world and requiring a public show of allegiance from “its” African leaders, the French have proven to be no cuddly democrats. They bomb the opponents of the tyrants they help stay in power while disguising themselves as promoters of “entrepreneurial investments”, which serve to support and even reinforce the inequality across the international divisions of labor that France and other Western states and companies help produce. 

 Regardless of French humbug, Chadians, like other Africans, want good political and economic governance. But instead of taking constructive steps to address the array of challenges facing the Sahel and instead of focusing on strengthening the social, economic and cultural capabilities of African communities and protecting their civil liberties, France has unremittingly militarized its push to access resources in a renewed race to accumulate private wealth. Its focus on geostrategic competition and a willingness to equate authoritarianism with stability has perpetuated the fragility of state institutions, expanded political violence and exacerbated insecurity by planting the seeds of discontent that flames rebellion, fosters extremism and worsens insecurity.

Monsieur Afrique 

It’s no surprise that Macron has no qualms in conveying a logic of domination. He clearly thinks Chad is still part of the “French empire”.  France has a long “Sahel history”. In the lead-up to independence the Elysée managed its relationships with its colonies by choosing the leaders it preferred to be heads of state. Then came the “CFA franc history”, which is nothing more than “colonialism repackaged”. More recently, the growing military presence of French troops to “fight terrorism” is also a way to maintain control over the Sahel countries. 

What is happening today is that past colonial structures are being reframed using the threat of military force to play proxy politics: Macron is acting as an “almost vice-president”, in this case of Chad, so as to be able to send African troops to the battlefield in the name of French security. France carries out most of its military operations with the help of the United States, but it  does not have the kind of financial means to play gendarme in Africa. So the best solution is to abdicate from its responsibility in creating security issues, encourage the call to “solve African problems the African way” and then "in-source" security responsibilities to Africans themselves. 

 The problem is that Chad’s political future hangs in the balance. France has a responsibility to address the crisis of security and governance that it has been complicit in creating. French leadership should not, if it has even an iota of good conscience, continue coddling authoritarianism in pursuit of stability and myopically pursue its own narrow geostrategic goals on the back of African lives. 

But, alas, good conscience is hard to come by among great powers vying for access and control of Africa’s resources. Indeed, the kind of show put on in Chad by the President of France at the funeral of a tyrant while sitting next to an unconstitutionally appointed military leader smacks of what Cameroonian novelist Mongo Beti has called a “shameful avatar of colonialism”. In American parlance, French President Macron is simply paying lip service to his hypothetical duties in terms of defending democracy, human rights and civil liberties while behaving like the Godfather figure in the Corleone family: a friend to those under his “protection”. 

The wanna-be emperor 

It’s time France reckoned with its colonial past. It’s time to dissolve France’s “Union of African Presidents. It’s time to mature out of the paternalistic Françafrique and the self-serving France-à-fric (a pejorative connotation given to the term Françafrique  in the 1990s by François-Xavier Verschave, president of the association Survie; it’s a play on words that indicates that France is in it for the money). 

It’s time for Macron to stop playing wanna-be emperor. Africans do not bend their necks before emperors, real or wanna-be. Nor is Chad a monarchy. By supporting Mahamat Déby with no questions asked, France has missed the opportunity to support a more inclusive, civilian-led transition. 

 Macron would do well to remember that, to paraphrase the Italian philosopher Julius Evola, the supreme nobility of an democratic leader does not consist in being a master of sycophants, but in being a leader of free men, one who loves freedom even in those who defer to him. At the same time, and paraphrasing the Chinese philosopher Zuangzhi, African leaders would do well to heed the warning that only those who have no use for empire are fit to be entrusted with a country’s care or protection.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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