Violence continued to simmer in Chad this week as President Idriss Déby's military fought back against rebel groups in the capital of N'Djamena and France said it was prepared to send troops to help the government. The implications of the conflict extend beyond the borders of the oil-rich African nation: Spillover from conflicts in the neighboring Sudan and Central African Republic has created a refugee crisis in Chad that many fear could be exacerbated by the new political battles, which began when rebel groups overran N'Djamena on Saturday. Human Rights Watch estimates that about 400,000 displaced persons-many from Darfur—are living in refugee camps in eastern Chad, near the Sudanese border. Earlier this week, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution supporting an African Union effort by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo to put an end to the fighting. NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul discusses the political and humanitarian implications of the crisis with Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch and expert on Chad's frequent struggles with stability. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What triggered the rebel attack in Chad? Should we have expected it?
Reed Brody: This has been brewing for a long time. I think the question was never if, but when. The governments of Sudan and Chad have been at each other's throats for several years now, with each supporting each other's rebels. The government of Sudan really wants to control the border and to shut down the international community's only window onto what it is doing in Darfur.
Another factor in this was the decision by President Idriss Déby of Chad a couple of years back to amend the constitution so that he could serve a third term as president. So the people who thought it was their turn to get a piece of the pie, which really in Chad comes down to the revenues from oil fields in the south of Chad, felt that only alternative was to pick up arms. And they then went and joined the existing rebels that are trying to overthrow the Chadian government.
What is the scale of the crisis?
There are different scales. On the one level, this is about taking power in Chad, which means running Chad, controlling oil revenues, and, for Sudan, creating a buffer on its western border. In human terms, this is going to have very real consequences for the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees living in camps in eastern Chad because a rebel victory would very likely shut down the space for humanitarian assistance for these people and would also make it much more difficult for the international community to assist the victims of the conflict and the ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
What are the rebels demanding?
They couch their demands in terms of justice and democracy, but none of them have any real democratic credentials. They are mostly fighting for a piece of the action. There are no good guys here. The tragedy of Chad is that since independence, power has only changed by force of arms.
To what extent do you think the current government, past governments, and former French colonial administration share responsibility for the situation?
Unfortunately, Chad's Western benefactors have never been overly interested in democracy in Chad. They have been interested in Chad at different moments for different geopolitical reasons. For a time, the United States, for instance, supported the most brutal regime in Chad's history, Hissène Habré's government from 1982 to 1990, which was responsible for thousands of political killings, systematic torture, and waves of ethnic cleansing. And Habré was supported by the United States as a bulwark against Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya. When Habré was overthrown by Déby, France in particular, but the United States as well, supported Déby as factor of stability in region and, more recently, as the devil that they knew. Essentially, Déby has made himself indispensable by playing ball with France and the United States in the war on terror, in allowing a window into Sudan and Darfur. But democracy and human rights have never really been on either Déby's or France's or the U.S.'s agenda.
One of our great fears here is about Mahamat Nouri, who is the leader of probably the strongest faction in the rebel movement and was effectively the Number 2 in Habré's government. If he were to win-and it's not clear which faction has the upper hand-we're very worried that there would be reprisals against those who have been working to bring Habré to justice. Hissène Habré is now living in Senegal, where he is facing trial on charges of crimes against humanity.
What support is there for someone associated with such atrocities?
This really doesn't have anything to do with popular support. I don't think there is a lot of support for these rebel groups. It's hard to gauge the support for Idriss Déby, because the elections that have been held have not been free or fair. But I also think it's fair to say that a lot of people in Chad do not support some of these rebels' actions.
In terms of the African Union and United Nations response, are you satisfied or do you think there's more they should be doing?
The AU response has been typically very disappointing. Unfortunately, the African Union hasn't given itself the means to have an effective response in this kind of situation. The U.N. should be condemning the attempt to overthrow a government by force, but it should also use its leverage with the Chadian government to encourage respect [for democracy and human rights]. A number of Chadian opponents have been rounded up—democratic opponents, not military opponents. In the last few days, several of the most prominent political opposition figures have been arrested. The Chadian government appears to be using this fighting to settle scores with the unarmed opposition. So at the same time the UN should be condemning any attempt to invade another country and overthrow a government by force, it should also be using its leverage with the Chadian government to call for an end to arbitrary arrests and harassment of the democratic opposition.
To what extent do you think Sudan is involved?
I think this is very much about Sudan. These rebel groups would have sought to overthrow Idriss Déby for their own reasons, but they would not have gotten this far without the backing of Sudan. First of all, their bases are in the Sudan, they've apparently received financial and military support from Sudan… There are certainly homegrown reasons to be disaffected from current Chadian government, but I don't think that these groups spring from any of those legit democratic reasons. I think they spring from very self-interested motivations, and rather it's the government of the Sudan that has every interest in overthrowing Idriss Déby.
How will the fighting impact the Sudanese refugees in Chad?
It depends on what happens. If the rebels take over, it could make it much more difficult to get humanitarian assistance in. It's not at all clear the rebels would allow the deployment of the European Union police force, which has a mandate to protect the refugees. It will greatly complicate the humanitarian task for these hundreds of thousands of refugees. We [at HRW] know that there have been attacks in the camps. It's said that the camps have been bombarded in the last couple of days. The Sudanese, if they're not creating it, are at least empowering and amplifying the unrest. I don't know if they're using it to go after the camps, but it's certainly logical for them to do so. Sudan wants nothing better than to have a free hand in Darfur and across the border.
Can this end well?
At the moment, we're very pessimistic. None of the likely outcomes will be very good for the people of Chad and for the Sudanese refugees in Chad. The best hope would be if there were some kind of national dialogue, actually. What has really been missing in Chad is the voice of civil society, an attempt to have a broad national dialogue about the way ahead. It's all been about military confrontation, about which military force is going to prevail, never about how to help the people of Chad.
One possible outcome is that the rebels would win, which does not promise democracy for the people of Chad and opens the possibility that there will be retaliation against the human rights groups. There's also a real possibility that the Zaghawa population, which is the ethnic group of the current president, Déby, could come under attack. But because there are several different groups in the rebel leadership, another possibility is that they will fall out among themselves, that this alliance that Sudan has cobbled together will not hold, and we could see a return to fighting between these groups…There's also the possibility that Déby will prevail, which will at least mean that power will not have changed by force. But he is already tarnishing victory by rounding up the opposition political leadership. The best result, but one that looks furthest away, is to have a broad political negotiation—they have a National Conference in Chad--among all the different elements of Chadian society.
Any other concerns?
I think there's a real fear in the entire region, including the Central African Republic and both Congos, that Sudan is starting a domino effect, and that Chad is just the first country on Sudan's list. And in terms of international intervention, so far I don't see it. The international community really has to start getting tough with the Sudan.