On May 2nd a force of over 1,000 Chadian rebels mounted on a bevy of Toyota battle wagons and left western Darfur to try to overthrow Chad’s government. This was the third time an overthrow attempt was made, the previous occasions being April 2007 and February 2008. Both previous attacks had been close, but ended in defeat. Similar to the previous two episodes, the recent invasion had the support of the Sudanese government, but since President Omar Hassan el-Bashir now stands accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague and needs the critical support of the African Union, one can wonder what would cause him to launch into such a dangerous adventure.
The answer is simple: counter-insurgency. This takes us back to the early days of the Darfur quasi-genocide. President Idriss Déby Itno of Chad is a member of the Bidayat, a tribe closely related to the Zaghawa. The Zaghawa live on both sides of the Chad-Sudan border and the Sudanese Zaghawa are one of main tribes fighting the Khartoum regime. President Déby who gained power in December 1990 with the help of that very same Khartoum regime, refused at first to help his fellow tribesmen on the other side of the border. On the contrary, he even tried to help the Khartoum government. This did not sit very well with “his” Zaghawa who made up the core group of the Chadian armed forces. In May 2005 he was faced by a military revolt of his men. Déby was given the choice of either switching sides or being overthrown. This offer was not one to be easily refused and within months the mostly Zaghawa based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim had Déby’s support.
This, of course, angered Omar el-Bashir and the Khartoum government started to recruit some disaffected elements from Chad to train and arm. Eighteen months later, they launched the first attack on N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. In reprisal President Déby armed the JEM and asked for its help against the rebels. In February 2008 JEM fighters joined the Chadian army to push back the rebels who had attacked N’Djamena, turning the whole conflict into an intra-Zaghawa war since members of the same tribe (but from different clans) were on both sides of the firing line. Three months later it was payback time and Khalil Ibrahim crossed the vast semi-desertic expanse of the Kordofan province to attack Khartoum itself. This attack too failed. Since the ICC indictment, the Sudanese regime feels embattled and fears that Déby, possibly with French and/or US support, might rearm Khalil Ibrahim and launch him again on the assault.
Given this very real danger, el-Bashir and his entourage have decided that the JEM guns are more dangerous than the possible disapproval of the African Union. In any case, the Union is so supine in the Sudanese case that it is likely to look the other way and accept Khartoum’s unconvincing denial of any complicity in the Chadian invasion.
The question remains, will the men in Khartoum manage to defeat Idriss Déby? This is not certain at all. Since last February, Déby, who is an unpopular but formidable warlord in his own right, has fortified his capital, bought heavy tanks and three Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers. He has also recruited foreign mercenaries from as far as Mexico and the Ukraine. The Sudanese intelligence is aware of his military preparedness and they are at present trying to trigger a palace coup, which would have a greater chance of success than a frontal military assault. After all, there are still Zaghawa on both sides…
Gérard Prunier is a widely acclaimed journalist as well as the Director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. He has published over 120 articles and five books, including The Rwanda Crisis and Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. His most recent book, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe focuses on Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and events that led to the death of some four million people. Living in Ethiopia allows Prunier a unique view of the politics and current events of Central and Eastern Africa. Be sure to check back on Tuesdays to read more Notes From Africa.