On 3-6 February 2019, at the request of N’Djamena, planes from the French Operation Barkhane proceeded with a series of strikes against a group of Chadian rebels in the north-east of the country. According to rebels’ spokesperson Youssouf Hamid Ishagh, the Union of Resistance Forces (Union des forces de la résistance – UFR), a coalition based in Libya, intended to reach the capital N’Djamena in order to overthrow President Idriss Déby and “set up a transitional government uniting all of the country’s forces”.
The Chadian political opposition has criticised the French military intervention, the first in Chad since 2008, which it views as new proof of France’s unconditional support for Idriss Déby, while expressing its opposition to any takeover of power by force. These incursions took place as other Chadian armed groups are increasingly active at the country’s borders, and as the president is under pressure from an economic crisis and several years of social unrest. By asking France’s military forces to intervene on his territory for the first time since 2008, President Déby showed that he took the risk very seriously. This is due to a domestic situation marked by growing social upheaval, but also to burgeoning dissent within his own ethnic community, which the rebels hope to exploit.
This crisis has come about in a particular geopolitical context. In Libya, Marshal Khalifa Haftar is trying to change the strategic picture by leading a major offensive on southern cities, putting pressure on Chadian rebel groups in the area. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, who forged an alliance with Déby in 2009, appears weakened by months of popular uprisings. Thus, the UFR’s incursion into Chad was likely precipitated by the offensive launched in mid-January by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, seeking to extend his hold over southern Libya.
While the UFR spokesperson insists that the incursion of fighters into northern Chad was planned for a long time and has no connection with the LNA’s operation, other members of the group recognise that the pressure exerted by Haftar’s forces pushed them to promptly cross the border. The LNA’s operation is officially aimed at combating terrorists, criminal gangs and foreign armed groups operating in the region. Although alliances in the Libyan civil war fluctuate constantly, the UFR was at one time close to the Misrata militia and the Benghazi defence brigades, Haftar’s rivals. Close to Paris, and an ally of N’Djamena in the region, Haftar often targeted the positions of Chadian rebels in southern Libya. It is possible that among other objectives, his advance aims to weaken them further.
According to several officers interviewed by Crisis Group, the army, present in several theatres of operation is overworked and some soldiers are demoralised. The situation is made worse by cuts in soldiers’ allowances implemented in recent years (up to December 2018) to cope with the financial crisis following a fall in oil prices. In this context, groups like the UFR will undoubtedly continue to encourage desertions. More generally, recent events call into question the strength of Déby’s rule, which largely relies on the army, and underline the fragility of a country led by the region’s “strongman”. Although Chad’s security situation seems to have stabilised, Déby’s call for help from France shows that the Chadian army, often portrayed as strong, also has its weaknesses.
‘Rebel Incursion Exposes Chad’s Weaknesses’ – Analysis by Richard Moncrieff and Thibaud Lesueur – International Crisis Group / ICG. (The Analysis can be downloaded here)