In the increasingly turbulent Sahel region of Africa, where the recent coup in Mali is only the latest example of volatility, the relatively “stable” Chad is increasingly seen by the United States and other global powers as integral to regional counterterrorism efforts. Yet with the corresponding influx of international security assistance to Chad has come diplomatic cover for government corruption, impunity, and the consolidation of power.
Chad is the headquarters of France’s Operation Barkhane that began with the 2014 intervention in Mali and expanded to fight armed groups across the Sahel as part of the multinational G5 Sahel force that is based in Mauritania. Alongside Chad and Mauritania, the G5 Sahel force is led by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. In addition to France, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia are among the donors to the G5 Sahel, and French President Emmanuel Macron in June urged more European nations to get involved. The Chadian capital N’Djamena also hosts the Multinational Joint Task Force, which targets Boko Haram and moved from Nigeria in 2015 when its headquarters camp there was overrun by the militants.
Chad’s international position as a lynchpin for regional stability and counterterrorism efforts has come as a surprise to some. Chad has rarely been an entirely peaceful country, facing two coups, several rebellions, and a major civil war in the last half-century. The exploitation of its natural resources, especially oil, continues to trigger intermittent political and social crises.
Throughout, the country has fluctuated between semi-democratic and dictatorial regimes, with Idriss Déby Itno, the current president, ruling for the past 30 years. With Déby at the helm, basic rights such as the freedom of expression and assembly have suffered, with protests and opposition meetings regularly banned or forcefully shut down.
That is how the government of Chad has generally kept a lid on the country’s social divisions in recent years, especially when compared to its neighbors, which have experienced catastrophic violence. Rival factions wrestle for power in the Central African Republic and Libya, while the governments in Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon engage in fierce fighting with armed groups like Boko Haram. Despite having its own armed groups to contend with, Chad’s relative stability and geographic position close to so many hotspots has meant that many global powers see it as a vital partner in stabilizing the wider region.
Its international support, in turn, has turned Chad into one of the region’s military heavyweights. From its old colonial power, France, to the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the European Union, Chad’s military relies on a significant influx of arms, ammunition, training, non-lethal equipment, and direct budgetary support. France signed a military cooperation agreement with Chad in 1976 and most recently revised terms in 2019 to address current security challenges. Russia signed a counterterrorism agreement with Chad in 2017.
The United States has a long history of military ties with Chad, most recently with a focus on strengthening the country’s armed forces for regional counterterrorism efforts. Just last month, the U.S. delivered $8.5 million in vehicles and equipment to Chad’s Special Anti-Terrorism Group as part of a total $28 million support package for the troops Chad provides to the G5 Sahel regional military campaign.
While Germany ended its bilateral development cooperation in 2012 because of the Chadian government’s lack of will to reform, it continues humanitarian and multilateral stabilization assistance, including to “civilian security forces” in communities. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and the Netherlands have all begun cooperating with Chad’s growing security and intelligence sector.
Since an armed rebellion nearly toppled Déby in 2008, China also has become a preferred provider of Chad’s military muscle. This is a turnabout in China’s posture toward Chad, considering their diplomatic rupture in 1997, when Chad opted for diplomatic ties with Taiwan over China. Thereafter, China was suspected of supporting Chadian rebels during that break, and the government of Chad switched allegiance again in 2006.
Military sources tell me that, in contrast to Western countries that most often provide refurbished armaments, China supplies new weapons, whether directly or by handing over royalties from Chinese oil companies in the country to subsidize weapons purchases.
With China establishing fewer hurdles to obtain aid than other countries and fewer technical requirements for selecting candidates for training by the Chinese military, it is easier for Chad to receive substantial arms and training for its inexperienced officers — 50 of whom are trained in China every year, according to Chadian military sources.
Lack of International Coordination Opens Door to Abuses
This apparent shared interest among international backers in security for Chad and the wider region, however, is not accompanied by a corresponding willingness or means to coordinate with each other. For instance, if “terrorism” is a common enemy to all of Chad’s partners, the existence of at least six separate counterterrorism agreements (France, US, Turkey, Israeli, Russia, Saudi Arabia) and three different operations (Operation Barkhane, the G5 Sahel, and the Multinational Joint Task Force) on Chadian territory is not justified.
The result is an incoherent approach, with donor “partners” competing for influence, and little collective vision of how the assistance will make Chadians – or the region — safer. In practice, this leads to needless confusion and waste. With so many international backers providing overlapping forms of support and with little understanding of who receives training and equipment from other donors, some soldiers end up being given the same incident briefings multiple times and happily attend the same training sessions they have attended several times before, receiving a per diem for the tedium.
Able to secure the equipment and training it wants with no pressure from its backers to be held accountable, Chad’s government can easily fund its growing military and provide lucrative rewards to internal political allies without any need to reform or become more transparent. If one international supporter requires concessions that threaten the consolidation of the government’s power, Chad’s leaders can easily find what they need from another donor.
As a result, the Chadian government has been able to get away with refusing to carry out any assessment of its military and security sector. Such an assessment might highlight flaws in the government’s management of security policy, and illustrate how security assistance is exploited for personal and political gain.
Corruption within the Chadian military is well-documented. Military officers have been caught misappropriating security assistance, including drugs, vehicles, and weapons that are then sold on the black market. Military leaders also have given training and jobs to political allies. These instances rarely result in any kind of investigation, let alone penalties for those involved. Chad’s security institutions are able to operate with impunity and have little incentive to change practices that have proven to be so lucrative.
Without pressure or oversight from its international allies, the country’s security institutions commit frequent human rights abuses across Chad with impunity, including excessive use of force, extrajudicial killings, and torture. At the same time, its ineffective police forces have struggled to contain growing intercommunal conflicts, while weapons smuggling and human trafficking across Chad’s porous borders occurs unchecked.
Chad is the world’s third-most authoritarian regime, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Demonstrations against the government, for example, are prohibited in Chad in the name of the fight against terrorism, illustrating how international security assistance bars any progress toward democracy. Even protests in 2016 expressing outrage over the rape of an opposition electoral candidate’s daughter by sons of senior Chadian officials were lethally put down by security forces, with two students killed. Social media networks repeatedly (and currently) are blocked, hindering protesters and opposition movements at every turn.
In fact, many of Chad’s international backers have invested not only military but also political capital in hopes of maintaining its appearance of stability and rarely criticize the government’s corruption and rights abuses. As a result, international assistance effectively supports an integrated political, military, and financial system that has little incentive to become more inclusive, accountable, or effective at keeping Chadians or the broader region safe. A narrow focus on short-term counterterrorism goals has exacerbated insecurity and contributed to further instability.
Civil Society is Vital for Substantive Change
That approach needs to be replaced with a longer-term view of a more broad-based system to encourage substantive changes that will prevent the abuses that bring about conflict in the first place.
This starts with better coordination and a shared review of international security assistance in Chad that brings in Chadian civil society for a meaningful role in the design and implementation of such aid. Despite some weaknesses in Chadian civil society organizations, their contribution is integral to improving governance and addressing insecurity in Chad. Civil society is too often restricted to being passive pawns in donor-funded security projects and workshops encouraging ‘social cohesion’ and improved military-civilian relations. Rather than hold the military and government accountable, their presence is used to legitmize the military and lend tacit support.
But in recent years, public sector workers and students have become a powerful force on the streets, as they fought to reverse cuts to state allowances and aid. Worsening economic conditions due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to fuel further discontent and spur demands for civil liberties, accountability, and political change.
Civil society organizations could harness that energy. They could track assistance provided and investigate how it is distributed and used and how it affects conflict dynamics in Chad and the broader region. As part of such a review, the government should be required to share information and analysis with civil society. Such standards would challenge the tradition of secrecy surrounding the security sector in Chad, which has thwarted any attempt to inform the public about security policies and activities.
Informed by the findings of that review, donors would need to push the government to develop a national security strategy that integrates civil society input into and scrutiny over security policy. The strategy also must commit the government to upholding human rights and being accountable for abuses.
Civil society across Chad can shape the analysis of conflict drivers and facilitate community dialogues to understand security challenges. In fact, Chadian civil society can be a powerful force for translating the needs and aspirations of the base to the top, in the same way as it has played a major role in the accountability of oil resources. Thus, donors should also provide diplomatic support and funding to Chadian and international civil society to highlight and investigate human rights abuses and corruption by security forces, as well as armed groups in the country.
These efforts are likely to provoke opposition from much of the government and its security forces. But the alternative vision is bleak. As long as Chad’s security forces have easy access to a global armory with zero accountability to their citizens, they will have little interest in developing a sustainable security architecture that is shaped by Chadians and capable of resolving community grievances, investigating and punishing abuses, and preventing violent conflict. With a turbulent history, neighbors in turmoil, and a population tired of economic inequality and repression, the costs of staying the course could be dangerously high.
(The author would like to thank Alastair Carr, Max Slaughter and Louisa Waugh for their feedback on early drafts. The views expressed are those of the author alone.)