Paris/Dakar - Chad's President Idriss Deby, a survivor of
countless rebellions, has stepped into a void left by Africa's traditional heavyweights
and turned his desert nation into a powerbroker as France disengages from its
The success of Chad's 2 000 battle-hardened troops in a
French-led mission to hunt down al-Qaeda fighters in the deserts of northern
Mali has marked it out as the only African nation to quickly deploy an
effective fighting force.
In March, Chadian peacekeepers then played a decisive role
in allowing rebels to seize power in Central African Republic, cementing
60-year-old Deby, who seized power in a 1990 coup, as a regional kingmaker.
Some trouble now appears to have arrived closer to home:
last week Deby headed off what Chadian officials described as a coup plot. Two
senior generals were arrested and four people were killed, although the details
remain murky, with opponents calling it a government move to crush dissent.
Whatever the circumstances of last week's incident,
expressions of alarm from Paris showed Deby's importance to the former colonial
power as France seeks to row back from its role as "Africa's
"France wants stability in Chad," said a senior
French diplomat. "Chad is an important partner for France in Africa. It is
participating in the fight against terrorism in Mali and plays a stabilising
role in the region."
Chad's military success has handed Deby status among his
West African counterparts, who thanked him at a February summit for his
decisive intervention in Mali. He seems set to win Chad's first seat on the UN
Security Council in 2014.
It is a remarkable turnaround for Deby, a taciturn
French-trained ex-fighter pilot who only survived a rebel attack on his
presidential palace in 2008 thanks to support from Paris.
Long one of the poorest countries in the world, Chad has
started earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year since ExxonMobil began
pumping oil in 2003.
That has allowed Deby to rearm and slowly position himself
as a central African strongman, filling a gap left by traditional regional
To the north, the 2011 civil war in neighbouring Libya
removed an influential if mercurial player, Muammar Gaddafi, while flooding the
Sahara with weapons. In a bid to fill Gaddafi's shoes, Deby revived the
overthrown Libyan leader's Community of Sahel Saharan African Countries in
To the West, Nigeria, West Africa's richest and most
populous country, has pulled back from the region as its sparsely-equipped
military has been stretched combating the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency at
home, which has killed thousands since it flared again in 2009.
Nigeria sent 1 200 troops to Mali, but unlike the Chadians
they played no part in frontline battles against the Islamists. The Nigerians
form the core of an African force playing a policing role well behind the
French and Chadian offensive.
Chad, by contrast, burnished its reputation in March by
announcing the death of the elusive and feared al-Qaeda commander, Abdelhamid
Abou Zeid. Its claim to have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, mastermind of January's
mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, has not been
"Who would have thought six months ago that we would be
paying so much attention to Chad?" said John Campbell, senior fellow for
Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US
Ambassador to Nigeria. "Chad has found space because of Nigeria's
Chad the king maker
In Central African Republic, Chad's decisive role in the
change of government exposed South Africa's pretension of acting as a
continental superpower. Pretoria had sent a contingent of at least 400 troops
to prop up President Francois Bozize.
Deby, who had helped Bozize seize power in a 2003 coup, had
tired of Bozize's refusal to share power with the opposition which was stirring
up a revolt along Chad's southern border.
The final straw came when Bozize disbanded his Chadian
bodyguard and turned to South Africa for military aid. Deby ordered Chad's
peacekeepers to step aside and Seleka rebel forces stormed the capital, as
France made good on its promise not to intervene militarily.
South Africa's involvement ended with 13 of its soldiers
killed, showing Pretoria lacked the regional knowledge and military resources
to play a decisive role in Deby's backyard.
"Deby wanted more recognition for what he had done for
Bozize," said one close aide to the ousted president. "But Bozize
turned to others for help and Deby did not like that."
Chad appears set to play a key role in the transition. Two
summits in the Chadian capital N'Djamena, attended by a stony-faced South
African President Jacob Zuma, confirmed rebel leader Michel Djotodia as CAR's
Djotodia, who spoke with Deby before the coup, is backed by
rebel generals with close ties to Chad: his head of military operations is a
former member of Deby's presidential guard.
"That the French did not help Bozize contributed to his
downfall, but the kingmaker was clearly Chad," said Alex Vines, head of
the Africa programme at Britain's Chatham House international affairs think
No French proxy
In Paris, Deby is regarded as a useful ally as a
cash-strapped France reassesses its priorities. Paris is shifting attention
towards Asia and ending the post-colonial system of 'francafrique' under which
it intervened more than 40 times to prop up African leaders who backed its
President Francois Hollande sent French troops to Mali
saying al-Qaeda-linked rebels could use a northern enclave to threaten global
security. But he has vowed to promote democracy in Africa and end French
meddling in purely domestic politics.
Deby remains an unpredictable ally. With tax from 120 000
barrels a day of oil production supplying state coffers and investment interest
from China, he does not need France for cash. Economic growth hit 7 percent
last year, though Chad still ranks near the bottom on indexes of economic
Vines said Chad cooperated with France in Mali because their
goals were aligned but Deby is no "proxy" for French interests:
"In Central African Republic, I can't imagine France would want the Seleka
rebels in power ... It's highly destabilising."
Since seizing power in a 1990 coup, Deby has won a series of
elections disputed by international observers and faces allegations of graft
and rights abuses. He has weathered at least seven rebellions, mostly from the
Officials in Paris insist that were Deby to be in trouble
again, France would not get involved this time. But they acknowledged that
Deby's usefulness is forcing Hollande's government to turn a blind eye to his
"When Deby came to Paris before Mali, we raised the
difficult internal questions, but now we have to find the right balance,"
said one French diplomatic source.
Threat from within
The circumstances of what Chadian officials described last
week as a bid to "destabilise the Republic" in N'Djamena remain
unclear, with opponents accusing Deby of preemptively crushing dissent.
With many of his best fighting troops 1 500 miles away, Deby
is more exposed that he has been for years. Timan Erdimi, Deby's nephew, vowed
last month to revive the UFR rebel movement in eastern Chad, which almost
toppled Deby in 2008.
Opposition leaders have publicly questioned the wisdom of
lavishing money on the mission in Mali - estimated at some €100m
- given shortages at home.
Despite its oil, landlocked Chad has been rocked by
humanitarian crises over the last decade including conflicts in the east and
south, drought in the arid Sahel, and flooding. Two journalists who have
criticised the government have been jailed in recent weeks.
Opposition leaders say many in the military are demoralised
by the failure to pay bonuses and the loss of some 36 soldiers - the heaviest
of any foreign army - battling Islamists in Mali.
"If we tried to destabilise him, we would be
categorised as trouble makers, Islamists even," said opposition leader
Acheikh ibn Oumar, exiled in Paris. "An attempt to destabilise him is more
likely to come from within his own circles in the capital."