Africa’s Thirty Years’ War–In Need of a New Edition?
A Sudan-Chad proxy war with Idriss Deby and Mahamat Nour as protagonists, French special forces protecting airbases and chasing rebels, Libyan planes flying arms to N’djamena—it is all very familiar to the historian of Africa’s covert Cold War conflicts. Published in 1999 under the title Africa’s Thirty Years’ War, J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins revised and updated their account of the three-corned conflict that involved Chad, Sudan and Libya and republished it in 2006 under the title, Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster. Both editions are now out of print–an astonishing oversight by the publishers.
Burr and Collins concluded their first edition ten years ago with the hopeful prognosis that Deby’s consolidation of power and Libya’s renunciation of territorial claims on the Chadian Sahara had ended three decades of conflict. In retrospect, the relative quiet between Deby’s suppression of opposition in 1993 and the outbreak of the Darfur war ten years later was a brief interlude of calm.
The new title isn’t just publisher’s hype—the long war in Chad involved Darfur from the very beginning. Chad’s rebellion began in Darfur in 1965, and Darfur’s war started as a spillover from Chad in 1987.
Recounting the twists and turns of Chad’s bloody history from the first rebellion until Deby’s 1990 coup, Burr and Collins recount many episodes that have a contemporary ring. There are battles with clear winners but rarely a truly decisive encounter, as each victory merely leads to a reshuffling of the political-military deck. There are vendettas, betrayals, and the opportunistic alliances of enemies—a violent tradition of politics which shows no sign of abating. It is a compelling illustration of the thesis that countries—and political leaders—don’t have friends, only interests. Nineteen years ago. Sudan was backing Deby who was fighting against Mahamat Nouri, who as Habré’s chief of staff, was backed by France (and had been supported by the CIA earlier). Libya and France were backing opposite sides. Today, Sudan is backing Mahamat Nouri while French troops are fighting in support of Deby—this time with Libya on the same side.
The history is complicated but worth knowing. Chad is a country divided, like Sudan, between a Muslim north and what the French had called "Chad Utile" in the south, where the inhabitants were Christians and followers of traditional religions. Its independent political history began as a mirror image of Sudan’s when France bequeathed rule to the southerners. With Sudanese backing, a Muslim rebel group, FROLINAT (Front de Libération Nationale du Tchad) was formed in the Darfurian town of Nyala in 1965. Five years later, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi laid claim to a strip of territory along the two countries’ common border in the heart of the Sahara desert and then proclaimed "unity" between Libya and Chad. He backed factions of FROLINAT which he provided with bases, arms and training.
In 1979-80, the war reached N’djamena, when a short-lived government of national unity broke apart and its different political-military components fought bloody battles on the streets of the city. Chad was the first African country to win the dubious distinction of having its capital city destroyed in a civil war. It was also the site of the first venture into peacekeeping by the Organisation of African Unity—a brave effort that ended in failure when the force had to withdraw under fire. And it was in Chad that political scientists first used the term "warlord" in an African context.
In response to the Libyan threat to Chad and its neighbors, the U.S. and the French supported Libyan dissidents and other Chadian factions, especially Habré, who had at that point withdrawn to safe havens to Sudan. Habré followed FROLINAT’s tradition of using Darfur as a rear base and stormed to power in 1982. President Reagan, who harboured a personal animus against Gaddafi, upgraded this to become the largest CIA operation in Africa and, like the contemporaneous and much larger U.S. support to the Afghan mujahideen, won a military victory by proxy. For a few years the country was divided between the south and centre, controlled by Habré and his allies, and the desert, controlled by the Libyans and its proxies. Then in 1987, the Libyan army was routed by nimble jeep-mounted Chadian fighters in the desert oasis of Ouadi Doum. And, like the Afghan conflict, the Chadian confrontation left a legacy of armaments, militarized factional politics, and extremism.
In the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s humbling, one of the factions he backed—the Conseil Democratique Revolutionairre headed by a Chadian Arab warlord called Acheikh Ibn Oumer—fled with his militia to Darfur. There they were pursued by a joint French-Chadian expeditionary force and, with his vehicles burned and his troops scattered, and his Libyan support cut off, Ibn Oumer threw in the towel. He submitted to President Habré at the end of 1988—but not before he had distributed weaponry to his Darfurian Arab host, Sheikh Musa Hilal of the Mahamid. This was when Darfurians first heard the name "Janjawiid."
Paris and Washington didn’t treat their client well. A group of Zaghawa army commanders, among them Deby, staged a coup in 1989. It failed and they fled to Darfur. Habré fought them across northern Darfur in 1990, but, armed by Libya and Sudan, Deby staged a counterattack and seized power in December that year. The French stood aside as his troops entered N’djamena, and then promptly recognized the new president. Habré left a terrible legacy—as his regime crumbled in the final months, he rounded up and massacred the civilian opposition. Today, Habré is in a Senegalese prison, indicted for the murder of more than a thousand political prisoners and the torture of many more. That atrocity scars the Chadian memory.
Deby’s deal with his Sudanese backers was simple—neither would back the other’s rebels. For more than ten years, that held. Oil was discovered in Chad and a pipeline constructed through Cameroon to the Atlantic Ocean. Under a pathbreaking agreement with the World Bank, much of the oil revenue was paid into a special account to be used for social and economic development. Deby held elections in 1996 and many Chadians tolerated his blatant rigging for the sake of stability. But Deby remained a warlord—relying on bribery and force to maintain his power, and when his deal with Sudan began to unravel in 2003, his rule was endangered. A new war was only a matter of time.
Let me conclude this posting with two loose ends that I will follow up in later entries. One concerns the nature of Chad’s racial antagonisms. These surface and then apparently vanish. Chad has seen the African ‘authenticity’ of FranÁ§ois Tombalbaye, the visceral anti-Arabism of HissÁ¨ne Habré and the Arab supremacism of Ahmed Acyl Aghbash and Acheikh Ibn Oumer. It is tempting to see these as deeply embedded ideologies, articulated through political and administrative systems. But it might be more appropriate to see them as the outcomes of the temperaments of individuals who happened to become leaders, promoted or used according to circumstance. Ibn Oumer, had no compunction in abandoning his cause and making peace with his arch-enemy Habré when political survival dictated it. And in the recent Sudan-backed offensive, we see leaders of three different groups—Goraan, Zaghawa/Bideyat, and Arab—fighting on the same side.
The second loose end is to note that while Chad was at the center of the Cold War "great game" in the Sahara, it has recently been on the northern flank of a similar "great game" that has pitted more than a dozen African countries against one another in an arc from Sudan through Central African Republic and Uganda to the Congos and, for a while, Angola. None of the wars in these countries are purely internal—all are stoked by external interests and meddling.