Chad to play pivotal role in regional peace

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Under Chad’s transitional president Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, the country is moving to take up a more active, and more constructive, role in regional security. This is exemplified by the country’s latest move to deepen relations with Morocco in order to create an axis of cooperation and stability, especially with a view to the increasingly unstable Sahara region.

The West Sahara conflict, between Morocco and the only partially recognized break-away Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, has been ongoing for decades, in which Chad used to provide backing to the rebel Polisario Front until 2006. Natur ally, this had caused a lot of lingering bitterness in Rabat, but Déby Itno’s current initiatives represent a concerted effort to recover goodwill with Morocco by becoming a reliable economic and political partner.

Besides deferring to the significance of the United Nations as a neutral mediator in the conflict, both countries have now signed several cooperation agreements. In October, for example, Chad backed an autonomy proposal for the Sahara made by Morocco, emphasizing the need for bilateral cooperation in the region. The move shows Chad is trying to build a new alliance that will bring stability to the progressively fragile Sahel region by removing a vector of conflict from it.

The Saharan Sahel region spans the breadth of the African continent, from the Pacific Ocean in the West to the Red Sea in the East. Marking a transitional zone between North and South, the Sahel includes territory in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Recent years have seen the Sahel emerge as a geopolitical flashpoint on the continent: following Libya’s regime change and an uprising in Northern Mali in 2012, regional security has only worsened. In Mali, areas neglected by authorities saw the rise of armed groups, with recruitment made easy by poverty, unemployment and a lack of state presence.

Today, these groups have multiplied, violence has spread from the north of Mali to more central parts of the country, and even spilled over into neighbouring countries like Burkina Faso and Niger. More than 4.2 million people have been displaced by the conflict, and a host of countries in the region have now been drawn into the conflict. With a myriad of factors contributing to the violence, the solutions will only be found through resolute multilateral cooperation.

And this is where Idriss Déby Itno could come to play a vital role. Itno came into power earlier this year after his father’s sudden death in combat. Since then, he has appointed an interim government in order to maintain stability and security in the country at a particularly vulnerable moment, a move that has largely been successful. The stability in Chad can to a large extent be attributed to the fact that the interim government has made stringent efforts to adhere to opposition – and international – demands for compromise, significantly alleviating fears that Itno would become just another strongman in Africa.

For example, the government invited Chad’s rebel groups to participate in a national dialogue under the umbrella of a special technical committee (CTS) that was established in August to help facilitate the upcoming presidential and legislative elections. The CTS has already met with at least 20 leaders of armed groups, including representatives of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) – notably the group responsible for the offensive in which President Idriss Déby was killed.

More recently, Itno’s interim government decreed an amnesty for close to 300 rebels and political dissidents, meeting a key demand by groups involved in the national dialogue forum. The amnesty will see 296 individuals pardoned for offences ranging from “crimes of opinion,” “terrorism” and “harming the integrity of the state.”  Rebel groups have hailed the move as a significant step towards “dialogue, reconciliation and peace,” in what is seen as a sign towards long-lasting stability in the country and therefore the Sahel region as well.

Indeed, these internal developments will undoubtedly have positive ripple effects on the Sahel, radiating all the way to East Africa. The standard response of governments to violent uprisings has been informed from a short-term security perspective, seeking only to do violently away with the “problem” of armed groups. Disappearances and extrajudicial killings have often formed part of this strategy. Community policing initiatives, on the other hand, necessitate time, dedication and, most importantly, trust. Itno’s determination to reach out to rebel groups and foster productive dialogue marks out a political roadmap for governments across the African continent.

The impact of this shift in thinking is already becoming evident. After French President Emmanuel Macron announced a drawing down of French forces fighting against Islamist militants in the Sahel earlier this year, defence ministers from the G5 Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – agreed to double down on “hearts and minds” engagement anti-terror tactics.

This new strategy will target the farming and livestock herding areas of the “three-border region” at the convergence of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. Here, militant activity is at its most intense, intersecting with a lack of economic opportunities for young people, limited access to basic social services, and climate change-induced food insecurity. A programme led by G5 Sahel leaders will see the construction of roads, telephone coverage and hydraulic projects in the region, as well as the delivery of governance initiatives to bolster support for justice.

This gradual rebuilding of security is essential for the long-term prosperity of the Sahel. With the imminent withdrawal of French forces in the region, it is up to Chad to take up the mantle at a time when terrorism threats are growing from both the East and West. The work has only just begun.

Image credit: Óglaigh na hÉireann/Flickr