How Russia could capitalise on Chad's instability

How Russia could capitalise on Chad's instability
Analysis: Uncertainty in Chad following Idriss Deby's sudden death represents an opportunity for Russia to expand its interests in West and Central Africa.
8 min read
06 May, 2021
Army officers carry the coffin of late Chadian president Idriss Deby on 23 April. [Getty]
When Idriss Deby visited his troops on the front line with rebels from Libya on 19 April, he had just received election results guaranteeing him another term in power after ruling Chad for 30 years.

The subsequent events are shrouded in mystery. When news reports broke that the president had been assassinated in a rebel attack, many were surprised. Deby, who died from his wounds on 20 April, had been a key ally of Western powers in the fight against jihadist organisations in the Sahel. 

Since his death, subsequent events have been accompanied by conspiracy theories about the nature of his assassination, and whether there was a coup attempt fuelled by the ambitions of regional powers. The truth may be a mix of all these things.

Idriss Deby was anything but a democratic leader. While he had strong ties with Western countries – especially France - his rule was marked by controversies and human rights abuses, as well as continuous clashes with numerous rebel groups.

Although rarely in the news, the country is of strategic importance. Paris needs stability in its former colony and N'Djamena houses thousands of French soldiers engaged in anti-terrorist special operations. 

Located between Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Sudan, Niger and Nigeria, Chad is at the epicentre of geopolitical and economic interests of both regional and global powers. France is there, as is the United States. Russia also has a heightened appetite for the region, and at the time of Deby's assassination the Kremlin already had forces stationed in Libya, Sudan, and the CAR, and a mission to Nigeria. From whichever angle one looks, Chad has no easy geopolitical choices. However, the northern border with Libya had been the most worrying for Deby.

Chad is at the epicentre of geopolitical and economic interests of both regional and global powers

Many myths surround the group accused of carrying out the attack on the president - the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT. But the group's involvement has sparked speculation about whether any of the countries with interests in the region were involved in the subsequent political crisis in Chad.

From the very first moment, France was accused of meddling in the internal affairs of the country. While there is no clear evidence for foreign interference in Deby's murder, it is clear that there are parties who would like to take advantage of the situation. Deby's rule led to the creation of several rebel groups which have sought to overthrow him since the 1990s. 

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base in Sudan

Many of these organisations are ethnically aligned, with some based in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where they received arms and funding from the former Sudanese autocrat, Omar al-Bashir. After al-Bashir and Deby signed a peace deal in 2010 and agreed to stop supporting rebel groups against each other, Chadian rebels were forced to leave Sudan and found a new base a year later - in Libya.

The FACT rebel faction was formed by former Chadian army officers and has been based in Libya for four years, at various times participating in the civil war under General Khalifa Haftar's command, despite the general's good relations with Idriss Deby.

After the fighting in Misrata in 2017, Haftar gave carte blanche to FACT to remain in the territories controlled by his forces, the Libyan National Army (LNA). Although in southern Libya FACT protects oil installations for the LNA, the group's fighters were neutral during Haftar's offensive against Tripoli in 2019. 

Relations between Haftar and FACT have always been controversial, with the general sometimes conducting strikes on the rebel forces when their actions looked like jeopardising ties with Chad. Meanwhile, the Libyan commander gave FACT weapons provided by the UAE for his own forces, protection, and most importantly, combat experience, which tipped the scales in the rebel attack in northern Chad in mid-April.

Russia's interests in Africa have come to the fore in the last few years and especially after the intervention in Syria in 2015

Although there is no evidence that Haftar personally ordered or incited FACT to enter Chad to kill Deby, regional governments are likely to question Haftar's ability to control the various mercenaries fighting under the LNA's umbrella, and the French are particularly sensitive about this. Recent developments are a genuine problem for France's long-term plans and call into question President Emmanuel Macron's policies.

France supports both Khalifa Haftar in Libya and Idriss Deby and the military echelon in Chad. While Haftar relied on his good relations with the former Chadian president, he also provided training and weapons to the Chadian rebels and even used them as mercenaries in his battle against Tripoli's government. France was aware of this development and Paris monitored the rebels' movement from Libya.

Although France has no plans to withdraw from the Sahel any time soon, there are proposals for a military reduction, with public opposition to interventions growing. Paris wants to delegate part of the security responsibilities to African partners. However, it is debatable to what extent they can be considered reliable. The France-backed G5-Sahel initiative is modelled on another project in the region, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a military alliance between Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad that has been fighting the Boko Haram group

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However, compared to its equivalent, the G5 has some serious weaknesses, namely limited military and financial capacity. While the MNJTF can rely on the experienced armed forces of Nigeria and Cameroon, the same cannot be said of those of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad. By the beginning of 2020, the Malian army is the same disintegrated force as it was before the internal crisis in 2012; Mauritania and Chad have not been involved in a serious military conflict in three decades, and Burkina Faso's army is in a period of restructuring following an internal crisis in 2014.

It is therefore surprising that France had failed to act when rebel forces entered Chad in mid-April, sparking speculation. Back in 2019, French aircrafts carried out strikes in support of the president of Chad during a near identical rebel offensive. Geopolitics could well be part of explaining such different reactions.

According to UN reports, the FACT rebels were based at Al Jufra air base. This is the same base housing Russian forces and, in particular, the private military company Wagner. The mercenaries took part in Haftar's offensive against Tripoli and built defensive lines along the Sirte-Jufra axis. It is unlikely that the Chadian rebels, who are also fighting for Haftar, have not met Russian mercenaries. Judging by the reports, they not only were in touch, but possibly even got the green light to go to Chad. 

The escalation in Chad and anti-French sentiment after Deby's death, together with the takeover of power by the army, are welcome developments for Russia and its policy in Africa

Their movement could not have happened without the knowledge of Haftar and Moscow, but the regional consequences of Idriss Deby's killing and the potential link to Russia's regional ambitions are something analysts are yet to look at. The Kremlin's silence on recent events in Chad is indicative, despite Deby having granted favours to Russian interests in the past. For example, according to Spanish EFE agency reports from June 2020, at least 1,500 Chadian troops were to be sent to Libya as temporary reinforcements for Khalifa Haftar's forces.

This is not the first time Chad had agreed to Khalifa Haftar's requests. Between October 2017 and January 2019, N'Djamena sent about 2,500 troops to support Haftar, according to information from a senior military commander cited by EFE. Authorities in Chad, and especially Deby, believed that Haftar was part of the solution to the Libyan crisis.

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Horn of Africa?

As rebel groups often invade Chad, the Chadian president wanted Haftar's support to end these insurgencies, and the end goal was to reach an agreement like the one signed with Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. These activities came against the background of reports in the Russian media in October 2019 that the Sahel countries had talked to Vladimir Putin about the deployment of advisers, following the model of other regions in Africa such as the CAR.

In this context, Chad represents a good opportunity for Russia, both to harm Western interests and to gain access to West and Central Africa. Conflict in the region only helps to further these goals. Russia's interests in Africa have come to the fore in the last few years and especially after the intervention in Syria in 2015.

The Russian African Economic Forum, held on 23-24 October 2019, in Sochi, was presented by the Russian media as an important geopolitical event. It is no coincidence that Russian diplomats often use history to their advantage in Africa - Russia has no colonial complex on the continent, unlike Portugal, France, Britain, or Italy. 

Russia also has no history of interventions in Africa like that of the United States. Paris has certainly felt the tremors as far as its interests are concerned. In the last year, including during the meeting on the situation in the Sahel in January 2020, Macron had talked several times with Deby and one of the topics was the possible partnership between N'Djamena and Russia that Paris wants to sabotage.

The escalation in Chad and anti-French sentiment after Deby's death, together with the takeover of power by the army, are welcome developments for Russia and its policy in Africa. The fact that Macron has already supported Deby's son, despite the opposition's disagreement, will be used against Paris. We have already seen something similar in the neighbouring CAR, where President Faustin-Archange Touadera was in an inconvenient situation because of the rebels and, thanks to Russian forces, managed to consolidate his power at the expense of French influence in the country.

The removal of a pro-French leader is good news for the Kremlin and an opportunity to offer support to local governments without the same commitments that Paris demands.

Ruslan Trad is the author of 'The Murder of a Revolution' and co-author of 'The Russian Invisible Armies'. His journalistic work is focused on PMCs, Syria, and conflict zones. Follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad