As Chad Leads in Regional Security, Its President Seeks More Western Support

A group photo during the opening session of the G5 Sahel force summit in Bamako, Mali. From left: Burkina-Faso president Roch Marc Christian Kabore; Mauritania president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz; French president Emmanuel Macron; Mali president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita; Chad president Idriss Deby; and Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou. (AP Photo/Baba Ahmed)

In an interview with the French press, broadcast on June 25, Chad’s President Idriss Deby stated, “We cannot continue to be everywhere—in Niger, in Nigeria, in Cameroon, in Mali—and to surveil 1,200 kilometers of the border with Libya. All of that is excessively expensive, and if nothing is done, Chad will unfortunately have to pull out.” Coincidentally or not, on June 30 the International Monetary Fund approved a $312.1 million loan to Chad, of which $48.8 million will be disbursed immediately.

Deby’s comments—and their seeming effect on Chad’s Western partners—highlight the complex situation in which Chad’s government finds itself. The case of Chad also raises broader issues concerning the relationships between security, development, democracy, transparency, and power in Africa and beyond. Deby has been in office since 1990, and he has maintained that position in large part by using his regional influence to manage domestic problems.

Now at the forefront of counterterrorism operations in much of West and Central Africa, and an important player in Libya, Chad’s government is on one level stronger than ever. For Washington and Paris, Chad is the linchpin of various purported “African solutions to African problems” —especially the Multi-National Joint Task Force fighting Boko Haram and the incipient G-5 Sahelian regional force that is meant to combat jihadism in Mali and surrounding areas. Chadian officials hold major portfolios at the regional level, with Deby’s former foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat serving as chair of the African Union Commission and with another former foreign minister and presidential chief of staff, Mahamat Annadif, serving as the civilian head of the United Nations’ stabilization force in northern Mali. Chad also hosts France’s Operation Barkhane, a Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission. Chad’s leadership in the security realm is growing.

Yet at the same time, as Deby argued, Chad’s counterterrorism projects are expensive. Combined with the impact of reduced global oil prices, those costs have nearly emptied Chad’s treasury. Struggling to pay salaries and stipends, Chad has faced protests by civil servants and students. Within the military, discontent may be growing, for example among soldiers who have not received their salaries for serving as United Nations peacekeepers in Mali.

The domestic crisis in Chad has compelled Deby to explicitly lean on his key Western partners for either more money or more time. Some of these arrangements are taking place in the oil sector (Chad produces around 120,000 barrels of oil per day). For the second time since 2015, Chad is reportedly seeking to delay repayment on the outstanding balance of $1 billion it owes to Switzerland-based Glencore, which advanced Chad $2 billion in 2013 and 2014. The Chadian government has also put pressure on Exxon, another multinational oil company operating in Chad. In October 2016, a Chadian court ordered Exxon and its partners to pay the shocking sum of $74 billion in allegedly unpaid royalties and penalties; in June 2017, Exxon may have quietly agreed to pay $200 million to resolve the dispute. The initial penalty, it seems, may have been Chad’s opening bid in a negotiation that ultimately yielded the government a smaller, but still crucial, sum.

The Chadian government is also asking Western and African donors for more development funding. Chad will hold a roundtable in Paris in September to seek contributions for its newly adopted national development plan. Potential partners have already shown a willingness to participate: Deby recently hosted the vice president of the African Development Bank, which is financing projects in Chad’s electricity sector; the Bank confirmed that it will attend the Paris roundtable. The adoption of the development plan was one factor in the IMF’s decision to grant a new loan. The IMF did not make any allusion to Chad’s role in regional security, but other actors are clearly aware of the bargaining power that Chad has with donors because of its security role. Meeting the committee organizing the roundtable, France’s ambassador to Chad asked the Chadian government—according to the paraphrase of a Chadian news site—“to avoid playing the security card.” But the card has already been played, and with effect.

Deby has also used his position to mute international criticism of his regime. In June, the Swiss charity Swissaid published a bluntly critical report about connections between Deby’s government and Glencore. The report alleges that oil wealth has primarily benefited Deby and his Zaghawa ethnic group, and that Deby runs Chad through corruption, nepotism, and repression. The report details how key posts, especially within the security sector and the cabinet, have gone to Deby’s sons, older brother, in-laws, favored wife, and other relatives. In short, the report was not exactly the kind of publicity that Deby, or any such leader, can afford. The government’s response was telling: the Ministry of Justice opened a formal inquiry into the allegations, but at the same time, the government brought public (and likely private) pressure to bear on Swissaid, accusing the charity of seeking to “harm Chad’s image.” Twelve days after the report was published, Swissaid announced that it was taking the report down from its website.

How much trouble, domestically, is Deby in? It’s difficult to say, but signs of discontent among soldiers raise the specter of mutinies and coup attempts. The extent of unrest among civilians also highlights the regime’s delicate position. These trends bring to mind the trajectory of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré (ruled 1987-2014), who also played a major role as regional power broker, although more through mediation efforts rather than through military deployments abroad. Compaoré faced down periodic waves of popular discontent—until the revolution of 2014, which toppled him through a fast-moving series of protests. Deby, by explicitly calling in favors and hinting that he might reduce Chad’s role in regional security, is working to prevent any such outcome. For the moment and quite possibly for the medium term, he is succeeding: having gained more time to pay back major loans, and having secured new loans, he is better-positioned now to pay soldiers and civil servants, and in that way to restore some goodwill.

The transactional nature of the relationship between Deby and the Western powers—regional security in exchange for funding, with little criticism—is not limited to Chad. Other leaders in Africa and beyond, watching how Deby manages this period of crisis, will take clear lessons about their own options and incentives.