Chad, Once Forgotten by the UN, is Back, Front and Center

The Mali crisis has put Chad and its president Idriss Déby Itno back on the map, front and center.

Only five years ago, in February 2008, President Déby—who has ruled the country since taking power in a 1990 coup—was almost deposed in a rebel attack on its capital N’Djamena. Under pressure, Chad had just consented to the deployment of a European force (EUFOR Chad/Central African Republic) and of a parallel UN mission (MINURCAT) on the condition they would not get involved in Chadian internal politics. A year later, EUFOR would partly re-hat and be handed over to the fully fledged UN peacekeeping operation (MINURCAT II); this would be short-lived, however, as the government of Chad soon asked for the UN to withdraw its peacekeepers in 2010.

Because the UN was unsuccessful at reverting Chad’s decision, and partly because it failed to fully understand and analyze the reasons behind that decision, almost everyone in New York on both sides of the street–UN Secretariat and Security Council members–seemed at the time to want to forget about Chad. They have since proven shortsighted, and the UN will now need Chad more than it thought it would.

Key Conclusions

  • By being the first Sahel country (and only non-ECOWAS member) to respond to the Mali crisis, and sending 2,000 troops to the front and taking most casualties, Chad has asserted itself as a new regional military power, regaining Déby international legitimacy despite his heavy-handed approach to political opposition at home.
  • Only two years after having hosted a UN mission, Chad is about to become a troop contributor to the UN mission in Mali as soon as its contingents are successfully screened by the UN to ensure that no troops under 18 are among them.
  • But Chad’s new regional leadership is not only military, as illustrated by last month’s N’Djamena summit on sustainable development and revived the CEN-SAD, making it a potentially important partner for the implementation of the long-awaited UN integrated strategy for the Sahel presented to the Council this month.
  • While the fall of Qaddafi in Libya in 2011 deprived Déby of a key ally, it also opened a new political-strategic space for Chad, which also has benefited from a sustained rapprochement with Sudan. Déby’s handling of the crisis in neighboring Central African Republic has, however, been called into question, and may ultimately result in the loss of its traditional influence there.
  • In the span of a few years, Chad has become a new regional power and a credible African voice, which opened the way for its nomination by the African Union to a UN Security Council seat in 2014-2015.


When MINURCAT closed at the end of 2010, almost everyone in New York on both sides of the street preferred to forget about Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). On the one side, the UN Secretariat had never really supported the idea of deploying such a UN peacekeeping mission, arguing there was “no peace to keep” (nor a political process) there. But it could not resist France’s push to “multilateralize” its military presence and foreign policy in the region (at a time when President Deby’s regime was endangered, as illustrated by the February 2008 rebel attack on N’Djamena). And the US and the UK supported the deployment of peacekeepers in eastern Chad (and northeastern CAR) which they saw as a second-best option to a UN deployment in Darfur (as decided in resolution 1706) after the government of Sudan objected to it.

On the other side, Security Council members did not react well to Chad’s January 2010 sudden request for the withdrawal of MINURCAT (CAR had little say in it), which they saw as premature. The UN Secretariat and the government of Chad eventually reached a negotiated agreement over a phased withdrawal of the mission through May 2011, with the aim of consolidating ongoing projects such as the Détachement Integré de Sécurité (DIS, whose support/funding is progressively being taken over by the government of Chad); avoiding a potentially difficult extraction of the mission (as had been the case with UNMEE in Eritrea); and, most importantly, avoiding a “rupture” with Chad. But Security Council members instead decided that the withdrawal period would only last until December 31, 2010 (resolution 1923) and reduced the number of projects agreed to in previous mandates. This was perceived as a punishment by Chad for having withdrawn its consent.

This has since proven shortsighted and the UN will now need Chad more than it thought it would, as the Malian crisis has put the spotlight back on Chad. Only a couple of days after the start of the French operation Serval in Mali (including French fighter and tanker refueling planes flying out of Chad’s capital N’Djamena), President Déby announced on January 15 that 2,000 Chadian troops would join the French forces at the end of January. Chad, seeing its own national interest in taking on Islamic fighters in northern Mali, was the first country from the Sahel and only non-ECOWAS member to respond to the Mali crisis. Better suited for desert operations than other ECOWAS troops (its slow deployment was criticized by President Déby), the Chadian troops were in the forefront in Gao, then Kidal and the Ifoghas mountains, and took the most casualties of all. At least 36 soldiers have been killed, of which 26 died in a single battle on February 22, including the chief of Chadian Special Forces; many more were injured, including President Déby’s own son, 28-year-old General Mahamat Déby.

This bold move clearly asserts Chad’s new military power in the region. Déby’s regime barely survived the February 2008 rebel attack on N’Djamena, which was attributed to disagreements that arose between rebel forces when victory was in reach, and to the launching of Déby’s attack helicopters from the airport, which was made possible by the protection provided by French Opération Épervier troops stationed there. But this incident motivated Déby to boost its military capabilities, acquiring additional armored vehicles, Sukhoi-25 fighter planes and MI-24 attack helicopters in support of an army of over 30,000 troops for a population of about 11 million (compared to an army of less than 8,000 troops in Mali for a population of 16 million, or an army of 12,000 in Niger for a population of 16 million). This was made possible by the start of oil production in Chad in 2004 (and exporting through a pipeline to Cameroon/Gulf of Guinea), and President Déby challenging the terms of the loan agreement signed with the World Bank and an oil consortium based on a Norwegian social model (90 percent of revenues had to go to priority sectors such as health, education, rural development and infrastructure) for national security purposes (80 percent of oil revenues now going to “administration and security”).

Only two years after having hosted a UN mission itself, and President Déby being very critical of UN peacekeepers for “hiding behind sand bags,” Chad—although it recently announced the beginning of the withdrawal of its troops from Mali—is now about to become a troop contributor to the UN mission in Mali. Although Chad will not get the MINUSMA Force Commander position as it had initially hoped (Rwandan General Jean-Bosco Kazura, former UNAMID deputy force commander, was named on June 10), Chad’s participation in UN peacekeeping would represent a major step, which could buy it important political capital as it did for other African “newcomers” like Rwanda. Chad had, until now, only contributed 100 troops to the regional force MICOPAX in CAR (led by the Economic Community of Central African States) led by General Oumar Bikimo, who then went on to command the Chadian troops in Mali. The UN has, however, indicated that Chadian troops that will be integrated will have to meet UN standards—in terms of training and respect for human rights and will be screened for child soldiers—and has given Chad as well as African contributors to AFISMA four months to get their contingents up to acceptable levels.

But Chad’s new regional leadership role is not only military. Last month, N’Djamena hosted a summit on sustainable development, which brought together three important subregional organizations (Comité permanent inter-Etat de Lutte contre la Sécheresse au Sahel (CILSS); Autorité du Bassin du Niger (ABN); and Agence Panafricaine de la Grande Muraille verte). Chad also revived the Communauté des Etats sahélo-sahariens (CEN-SAD) after the disappearance (and ultimately death) of its founder and financer Muammar Qaddafi, and hosted two CEN-SAD summits in N’Djamena in 2010 and 2012, both attended by International Criminal Court-indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (in open violation of Chad’s obligations as a party to the Rome Statute). Taking on this role also makes Chad a potentially important partner for the implementation of the long-awaited UN integrated strategy for the Sahel presented to the Security Council this month.

While the fall of Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 deprived President Déby of a key ally, it also opened a new political-strategic space for Chad to assert itself. Chad also benefited from a sustained rapprochement with Sudan, encouraged by the prospect of each holding their respective national elections in Spring 2011, and the South Sudan independence and related negotiations including on the sharing of oil wealth, which have focused Khartoum’s attention. With its neighbor to the east no longer representing a threat, President Déby was able to refocus its attention towards the new instability of its Northern (Libya) and Western (Niger and Mali) neighbors. It even reverted its 2010 request for the N’Djamena French base to close, and instead asked France to conduct aerial reconnaissance flights along its northern border with Libya, while allowing 950 French troops to remain stationed in Chad. Chad’s military involvement in Mali also gave Déby–in power since 1990–a renewed international legitimacy despite his poor human-rights record and heavy-handed approach to longtime political and armed opposition at home. On May 1, 2013, Chadian authorities announced they had foiled a “conspiracy” and supposed coup attempt, and arrested two members of Parliament, senior military, and members of civil society in the following days.

Another major shift has also happened in the Central African Republic (CAR), but there, President Déby’s handling of the crisis after he let go of his longtime protégé President Bozizé has been called into question. Déby had supported Bozizé’s arrival to power in a 2003 coup, and 100 members of his own Chadian presidential guards had been protecting him for years. But in October 2012, Déby withdrew the guards, and although Chadian troops intervened to stop the first offensive by Seleka rebels (initially suspected of having links to Chadian rebels) in December, they didn’t the second time it happened a few months later. The fact that Bozizé had in the meantime turned to South Africa for protection (South Africa deployed 400 soldiers to Bangui in January) may have also influenced the decision by France and Chad not to intervene that time. (Seleka rebels took over Bangui on March 24, 2013, killing thirteen South African soldiers.) Déby may have received guarantees from the Seleka rebels at a time when he had become suspicious of Bozizé’s growing independence. But the instability in CAR (with the possibility of Chadian-dominated MICOPAX being replaced by larger Africa force in the future) and the growing anti-Chadian sentiment in CAR may durably affect Déby’s traditional influence there.

In the span of a few years, Chad has become a new regional power and a credible African voice. The Chadian military intervention in Mali and its disregard for its obligations to the International Criminal Court surely resonated with the continent’s bold new declaration of independence made during the May 2013 African Union Summit, when the AU put forward the idea of an African Immediate Crisis Response Capacity (while the African Standby Force is being operationalized), and AU chair and Ethiopian Prime Minister accused the International Criminal Court (ICC) of “race hunting.” For these reasons, the African Union, which nominates the African members to the Security Council (a system unique to that continent), may look favorably on Chad’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2014-2015.

Arthur Boutellis is a Research Fellow and Adviser to the Peace Operations and Africa Programs at the International Peace Institue. He recently authored the chapter “Chad & the Central African Republic” in Responding to Conflict in Africa: The United Nations and Regional Organizations (Palgrave Macmillan, May 2013, Jane Boulden, ed.)