Implications of Shifting Geopolitical Alliances in Chad for the Horn of Africa

In June 2021, France announced its intention to withdraw French troops involved in Opération Barkhane based in Chad from the Sahel, helping prevent the spillover of armed conflict and violent extremism in Chad, the Sahel and neighbouring countries. The French support for Chad comes into question, as does the filling in of the potential geopolitical gap after the French exit. Other powers, such as the US, China, and Turkey, expressed interest in their engagement in Chad. Chad is also in the middle of a political transition following death of its former President Idriss Déby during a fight against the Front of Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebels on April 19, 2021. Throughout the past year, Chad did not complete its political transition, managed to avoid any sanctions, and lost one of its key allies. Any development within Chad affects the security and stability of neighbouring countries. Even now, the situation alongside the south-eastern border is nowhere near stable. Sudan and South Sudan are in a prevailing fragile state, given the 2019 and 2021 coup d’état in Sudan and the fragile peace agreement in the torn-out South Sudan. Any further disruption of the stability would mean further destabilization of these countries of the Greater Horn of Africa region. The implications of any weakening of Chad on one hand and the strengthening of rebel and Islamist groups on the other would be significant. Through the mutual dialogue and strengthened involvement of African countries, stability in and around Chad might be ensured even in a time of political transition.

Chadian transition and the price of stability in the region

President Idriss Déby was considered a “President for life”. He frequently supported his troops in the field in the fight against rebel groups, just like his son, General Mahamat Déby. He was also a key ally to the French in which the latter supported their Opération Barkhane in the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel region. After his sudden death, the power shifted to the army who suspended the constitution and imposed a new charter that made Mahamat the head of both, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), and the Chadian army. The date of the new presidential and parliamentary elections in Chad is still unknown.

Although the debate over these events within the Peace and Security Council of AU was rather lively, the Chadian diplomatic connections in Ethiopia and the support of other neighbouring countries, in the end, averted the threat of AU sanctions. Chad is one of the few regional players that are able to somehow manage its security and contribute to the fight against violent extremism in the Sahel and neighbouring countries of East and Central Africa. Thus, these respective countries aim to prevent any disruptions that might be caused by the imposing of sanctions.

The clock is ticking – the power play in Chad ahead of the elections

France made a huge investment in the Chadian Armed Forces, and it is a major supporter to other governments in combating VE in the region. However, the lasting explicit support after the de facto military coup d’état in the wake of Idriss Déby’s death is quite unique. At Déby’s funeral, Macron ensured Chadian representatives, that France will not let anyone threaten the integrity and stability of Chad. Two months after this speech, Macron delivered another one – announcing the planned end of the Opération Barkhane, reflecting a shift in a French foreign policy towards the Sahel region. At this point, Chad should be proactive and strengthen the ties with other partners, such as the following ones.

The United States have profound relations with Chad as well. The latest visit by the US Assistant Secretary of State to Chad in March 2022 signifies that the US wants to support Chadian political transition as soon as possible, including a Constitutional referendum. The Chairman of the Congressional Committee on Foreign Relations then problematizes the amount of security assistance, as he is concerned by the current TMC.

Another two players are also emerging. Turkey stated it will enhance the cooperation with Chad, not only through development assistance, but also through security and defence assistance. President Erdoğan also expressed his support to Mahamat’s transitional government, stating the goal to increase bilateral trade.

China has a particularly interesting position. After Chad had established diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the late 1990s, China was accused of supporting the rebel groups in Chad. In the early 2000s, Chad switched its diplomatic ties to China, reportedly in exchange for the end of Chinese support to the rebel groups. Another significant area of cooperation is oil industry, where China is granted rights to oil exploration zone and it is funding and conducting major infrastructural projects.

Bearing this in mind, the French political representation needs to carefully think through the announced reorganization of its troops. Especially in the light of political shifting within France due to the 2022 presidential elections and within the EU.

Possible outcomes and suitable tools to ensure stability

The current situation is opening a door for new partnerships, like the Turkish and Chinese ones. Nevertheless, it should be the neighbouring countries observing the security developments in Chad, as their security necessarily depends on the stability over there. The instability on the Sudan-Chadian border is continuously exacerbated by the ongoing transborder activity of the Janjaweed militia and Rapid Support Forces group in the Darfur region, neighbouring east Chad, northern South Sudan, and northeast Central African Republic. Meanwhile, the CAR is no longer fighting only its rebel groups, but also the Islamic State in Central Africa Province.

With the uncertain developments in the Chadian bilateral relations with above-mentioned countries, it should be mainly the AU’s task to enhance its presence and multilateral dialogue, given the already established Multinational Joint Task Force based in N’Djamena, which could serve as the most convenient tool. It already gathers all the actors involved in the fight against violent extremism in West Africa and could be enlarged by Chadian eastern neighbours, countries of the Greater Horn of Africa that are currently grappling with their own instability threats and can ill afford spillover effects from West Africa.

 Veronika Čáslavová is a Visiting Resident Fellow at the HORN Institute

Photo: French soldiers of the 126th Infantry Regiment and Malian soldiers, 17 March 2016 (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

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