Chad Conflict Stirs Global Response

Rebel forces have attacked the Chad capital city Ndjamena in an attempt to overthrow the government of President Idriss Deby, who's been in power since 1990. Mira Woods, of the Institute for Policy Studies, and David Buchbinder, of Chad for Human Rights Watch, discuss the conflict.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, award-winning books your kids will want to read. It's our regular visit with the head of the American Library Association, Loriene Roy. And an intimate conversation about African-Americans and depression. That's a little later. But first we want to turn our attention to the situation in the central Africa nation of Chad. Over the weekend rebel forces attacked the capital city, N'Djamena, in an attempt to overthrow the government of President Idriss Deby, who's been in power since 1990.

The government says its forces pushed the rebels back. The rebels say they made a tactical withdrawal to allow civilians time to leave before they launch another attack. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council condemned the attack and urged member states to support the government in repelling the invasion. To talk about more about the roots of this conflict and the international response, we're joined by two experts on the region.

Here in our Washington studio is Emira Woods. She's the co-director of foreign policy and focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Also joining us is David Buchbinder. He's an analyst at Human Rights Watch. His research focuses on Chad and the surrounding region, and he joins us on the phone from Budapest. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. EMIRA WOODS (Institute for Policy Studies): Great to be with you, Michel.

Mr. DAVID BUCHBINDER (Human Rights Watch): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Emira, first to you, who are the rebels and why are they seeking to bring down the current government?

Ms. WOODS: Well, Michel, let's remember, this all started back in 2005 when the Deby government essentially decided to change the Constitution so that he could run for a third term. So he changed the Constitution the following year. He then held elections. The opposition boycotted those elections in 2006 and Deby declared himself the winner.

So a lot of this kind of goes back then to the changes in the Constitution, the election that many thought was flawed and should not have gone forward, and the core issue of people feeling completely like the rule of law has not been respected in Chad.

MARTIN: David, what's your take on this?

Mr. BUCHBINDER: Yeah, I think that the 2005 changes to the Constitution are definitely precipitating factor. Immediately afterwards you had substantial defections to rebel groups based in Darfur. But I think the key thing, though, is that Chad has a closed political system and it has had a closed political system since long before Deby came to power. There have been four coup d'etats, successful coup d'etats since Chad earned independence from France in 1960.

So the political system in Chad is not one of sort of multi-party democracy where you go out and try to win the vote of the people and serve the people. Instead it's a politics of factional warfare, where the aim of the government is to maintain power by all means necessary. And you know, the kinds of things that we were seeing this weekend are an outcome of that political system.

MARTIN: David, it's been reported that some of the rebels are former members of the government. To your knowledge, is that true?

Mr. BUCHBINDER: Yeah, that's absolutely true. In fact, some of the rebel factions, there are three rebel factions that fought in N'Djamena over the weekend - N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. And one of them is actually made up of direct family members of President Deby. So not only are many of them members of the government, former members of the government, also former members of, you know, members of Deby's family.

But these are the same, many of the same insurgents that have been sort of cycling around in insurgencies, most often based in Darfur, for 30 years. And you know, the acronyms of the armed groups tend to change, but the same people tend to be in insurgencies.

MARTIN: Emira, the country is routinely described as oil rich. Is that true, and is oil revenue playing a role in this conflict?

Ms. WOODS: That is absolutely critical. When you think about Chad, you should think about oil and you should think about the richness of the oil, particularly in the southern part of the country in Chad. Chad has the second largest development program, the World Bank funded program, that is the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline that is pushing oil from Chad into Cameroon and off here to the U.S. and many other cities.

And so we have to recognize the critical role that big oil is playing. It's all the key companies, Exxon Mobile, 40 billion plus in profits. And many others, Shell, Chevron, that are there active in Chad. So…

MARTIN: The critical role this is playing in this conflict - is it your contention that part of what is at issue here is an attempt to claim control of these oil revenues?

Mr. WOODS: Critical to all of this is a sense of a population that has seen all of the excitement over the discovery oil completely been pushed aside by the actual manipulation. You see, again, the oil companies making all the profits and the communities making absolutely nothing. So there were legislations put in place, hard fought legislations, to, for example, reserve some of the oil revenues for future generations, a future generations fund. There was actual dedicated funding for education, for healthcare, for also alternative sources, alternative sectors.

The agriculture sector was to be funded through oil revenues. But all of this legislation has been pushed aside by the Deby government, as again, in collusion with the oil companies and the World Bank, there's been actually an entrenched power that has excluded the voice of the people. So I think there is both political discontent that you see in Chad and incredible economic discontent as the wealth is concentrated in so few hands in spite of the richness of the land.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the conflict in the central Africa nation of Chad, where rebel forces are hoping to force President Idriss Deby from power. And I'm joined by David Buchbinder with Human Rights Watch, and Emira Woods, who's with the Institute for Policy Studies.

David, the Chadian officials say that the rebels are being backed by the Sudanese government. In fact, one official called this a direct war with the Sudanese president. Is that a credible claim? Do you think that's true?

Mr. BUCHBINDER: Oh, it's absolutely credible. This is not even a secret in Chad. I mean if you talk to any Chadian rebel, they'll tell you all kinds of stories about Sudanese government sponsorship and support. Aside from the sort of anecdotal evidence, the Chadian rebels have very clearly been free to establish bases in west Darfur. Safe Harbor is, you know, more than available. And there is plenty of evidence of weapons and cash coming from Khartum to these Chadian rebels.

And it's been that way for, again, for many years. But I don't think it's a much of a stretch to say that the Chadian insurgency is an extension of Sudanese government policy, which involves the destabilization of Chad for various reasons. I don't want to get into the motivations of the government of the - of the Sudanese government. But there's no doubt that this is a Sudanese government backed insurgency.

MARTIN: It would help us to understand what their stake in this is. I mean, I understand it's complicated. But as briefly as you can, why would the Sudanese government want to destabilize Chad?

Mr. BUCHBINDER: Up until very - not too long before the Darfur conflict began in 2003, Chad and Sudan had fairly good relations. The Sudanese government actually sponsored President Deby in his insurgency. He overthrew the then-president of Chad in 1990. So what then happened was that there developed a proxy conflict in Darfur wherein the Chadian government was backing the Sudanese rebels that have been fighting in Darfur. And the Sudanese government increased support to Chadian rebels in response.

I don't really know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but there's no doubt that the Darfur conflict sort of generated a proxy conflict between Chad and Sudan. And when the Chadian rebels last fought in the streets of N'Djamena, which was in April 2006, the Chadian government basically threw open this support that had been somewhat covert for the Sudanese rebels. And right now the Sudanese rebels are crucial in the Chadian government's defensive strategy against the Chadian rebels. So the Sudanese rebels have been fighting in N'Djamena and dying. And so this a proxy war.

MARTIN: And Mira, I think, and speaking of Darfur, I think a lot of Americans would be familiar with this region because Chad has been a location of a very large center of refugee population from Darfur. I think there are some 400,000 refugees from Darfur on the western border. What happens to them? What happens to them in this conflict?

Ms. WOODS: Michel, that is the best question, because often with these conflicts, it is innocent civilians that suffer. It is, in this case, both the Chadians and the people from Darfur that have sought in Chad that end up being caught in the mix. And this is why I think there is enormous concern when you hear France saying they will use any means necessary to do what they need to do, because the danger is that civilians will be caught in either aerial bombardments, which they've already fled from Sudan, or they will be caught in other types of skirmishes.

MARTIN: Well, finally, though, what is France's role here? The French president says France will be ready to intervene if necessary. But he also said this is not a (French spoken) anymore. What's he saying?

Ms. WOODS: What he's saying is that French colonial efforts have been at play in Africa since, really, the 1800s. And France have had a role both in controlling the political and the economic systems of many African countries for quite a long time. And so, even though there has been political independence since 1960, France has had a base there in Chad. They have played a critical role, both in putting Deby into power in the 1990, and now seem to be ready to play a role in keeping him in power even today. So the role of France - the role of the oil companies against France and the U.S. being core to the oil companies securing their interests there in Chad - it is a critical issue in the geopolitical's test match that is going on. And again, the danger is that the citizens will be caught - the innocent civilians will be caught in the middle.

MARTIN: David, a final word from you. What - I'd like to hear your take in the minute we have left on what you think France's role in this is and will be. And also, the Security Council which, as I said, voted to support the government.

Mr. BUCHBINDER: France has backed the Deby administration militarily in the past. It appears that that backing sort of evaporated a little bit. And it's part of the reason why there was street fighting in the capital. But Chad will be important to France, and Chad will be a partner to France, whoever is running the government, be it Deby or one of these rebels. Chad is a crucial part of France's foreign policy. On the Security Council, France pushed for a presidential statement, non-binding statement, urging support for the Chadian government. They were not able to get language in the - to use all necessary means to support the government, which would have suggested military support. Russia blocked that. But France is active on the Council, and France will also be probably active in drafting a new Security Council resolution to deal with what we're seeing right now in N'Djamena.

MARTIN: All right. David Buchbinder is an analyst for Human Rights Watch. He was on the line with us from Budapest. And Mira Woods is co-director of foreign policy in focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. She was here with me in the studio in Washington. Thank you both so much for your analysis today, and I hope we'll be in touch again as the situation continues.

Ms. WOODS: It's a pleasure. Thank you, Michel.

Mr. BUCHBINDER: Bye-bye.

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