Why Chad isn’t Darfur and Darfur isn’t Rwanda

Jérôme Tubiana

Omar al-Bashir seized control in Sudan in 1989; Idriss Déby entered N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, the following year, with Bashir’s approval. The two men belonged to a new generation of ambitious African leaders whose fortunes prospered as the Cold War drew to a close. Déby was a secular head of state, eager for the US to befriend Chad; Bashir’s regime was Islamist. Nonetheless, they remained close allies for ten years or more, until the Darfur rebellion in western Sudan put a serious strain on their relationship.

The anti-Khartoum rebels in Darfur were drawn from different ethnic groups, but one, the Zaghawa, played a decisive role. Déby is a member of this tribe, which lives on either side of the Chad-Sudan border – and which, thanks to Déby, plays an influential role in the political, economic and military life of Chad. In 2003 rebels attacked the airport at El-Fasher, the capital of the Sudanese province of North Darfur, and war broke out across the region; the raid was led by Zaghawa commanders who had served in the Chadian army. Déby was trapped: although he wanted to remain on good terms with Bashir, he was unable to prevent his own people offering bases, men and arms to their kin in Darfur.

Bashir grew increasingly distrustful of Déby and in 2005 Sudan started to supply arms and recruits to anti-Déby rebels in Chad, some of whom had already joined the Janjawiid, the Sudanese pro-government militias fighting in Darfur. Soon afterwards, Chad began to support the Darfur rebels relatively openly. Bashir and Déby were still shaking hands and signing peace agreements in front of the cameras, but in fact they were at war. They relied not on their armies but on proxy forces: rebel groups and tribal militias, which saw a chance to acquire arms and booty, or even land and power, as well as a means to settle their own local disputes by force. This war took place mainly in Dar Sila in south-eastern Chad. In less than two years, around 180,000 Chadians were displaced – roughly half of the population of Dar Sila.

Having ignored the Darfur war when it was at its fiercest, from mid-2003 to mid-2004, the international press and the NGO community seized on the subsequent violence in south-eastern Chad, far more accessible than western Sudan, as an opportunity to speak about Darfur. The same misunderstandings, the same simplifications of the situation in Darfur – criticised by Alex de Waal and Mahmood Mamdani in this paper – have been repeated in relation to Chad.[*] They include the wayward comparisons with Rwanda which underpin the description by the campaigning NGO Save Darfur, among others, of Darfur as a ‘genocide’.

Jiddo was one of the Chadians displaced by the war; we were introduced some time ago in a Dar Sila market, where he was selling sweets to support his family. Shaking his hand, which he’d kept hidden up a large sleeve, I realised he was missing three fingers – the result of an accident when handling a rocket launcher in February 2006. He was 20, the eldest son of Hasan al-Kolle, who for a time was the most famous warrior in eastern Chad. Based at Tiero, 40 kilometres from the frontier with Darfur, al-Kolle had hundreds of militia under his command; their main duty was to defend the area against cattle-rustlers and other hostile forces, some of them crossing over from Sudan. Al-Kolle had managed to procure guns for his men, Kalashnikovs mostly, but also some heavier weapons. On 31 March 2007, he and many of his men were killed in fierce fighting that led almost all the 10,000 inhabitants of the Tiero area to abandon their villages. Their houses were ransacked and burned. ‘My father was wounded in the back,’ Jiddo told me. ‘So we put him on a horse and fled. After a few kilometres he ordered us to let him down and leave him there because he didn’t want to die too far from his village. That was the last time I saw him. My brothers and sisters have no clothes and I don’t have any work.’

The attack on Tiero and the neighbouring village of Marena was the most murderous the region had witnessed, at least on the Chadian side: in a few hours both villages and around 30 smaller ones were wiped off the map, and between 400 and 800 people were killed. ‘Apocalyptic’ was the word used by the UNHCR spokesperson – and it was repeated over and over by the media. UNHCR, who’d arrived on the scene a week later, brought back testimonies which made clear the complexity of the local situation, but the Tiero attack has been presented almost everywhere as a massacre of ‘African’ civilians by the Janjawiid, Arab militias crossing on horseback from Sudan: in other words, as a repeat of Darfur.

The conflict in Chad has been exacerbated by the wars in Sudan, but has in no sense been caused by them. Déby, who has held on to power since 1990 by means of fraudulent elections and an amended constitution, knows that it is in his interests to stick to the American line, which casts him as an ally of the West against Bashir’s ‘genocidal’ regime. Though the attack on Tiero had little or nothing to do with Darfur, the government in N’Djamena was quick to blame it on Khartoum, as it does the rising levels of violence in south-eastern Chad as a whole. In doing so, Déby downplayed his own responsibility: the Chadian army had withdrawn from the area months earlier, leaving it to local militias and Darfur rebels in a period of rising tension, caused largely by local factors such as drought and resettlement.

The Arabs of Darfur and eastern Chad belong to the same ‘tribes’, some nomadic or semi-nomadic, others sedentary; the labels ‘Sudanese’ and ‘Chadian’ mean little to either. Many Arabs from Chad have gone to Sudan to escape war and drought, while many ethnic groups, Arab and non-Arab, straddle a 600-kilometre border which for them is only a line on the map. They include the Zaghawa, a tribe which Khartoum identifies with the rebels in Darfur. A member of Déby’s family told me: ‘The Sudanese think that as long as we’re in power in Chad they’ll never be able to stop the rebellion in Darfur. What they want is regime change in N’Djamena.’ But the Déby regime has strong backing from France. In April 2006, rebels carried out a lightning raid on N’Djamena, which was repulsed with the help of French forces stationed in Chad. The raid was led by Mahamat Nour Abdelkarim, a (non-Arab) Chadian captain who had commanded Janjawiid forces in Darfur before being put at the head of the main Chadian rebel coalition by Khartoum.

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This piece was translated from French by Colin Robertson and Liz Hodgkin

[*] Alex de Waal wrote about Darfur in the issues of the LRB dated 5 August 2004 and 30 November 2006; Mahmood Mamdani in the issue dated 8 March 2007.