Global Policy Forum

Sudan and Chad’s Proxy War



By Blake Evans-Pritchard

September 4, 2009


Scott Gration, the United States' recently-appointed envoy to Sudan, understands that there are many different issues surrounding the Darfur conflict that must be resolved in order to put an end to suffering in the region for good.

Since his appointment in March, the former US Air Force officer has taken positive steps towards addressing some of them.

But not enough is being done to end the proxy war being waged across the border between Sudan and Chad, and unless this is resolved, peace within Darfur is likely to remain elusive.

The United Nations estimates that as many as 300,000 people have been killed as a result of fighting in Darfur since 2003, although the Sudanese government maintains that this number is no more than 10,000.

The number of people that have been displaced by the conflict is thought to be as high as 2.6 million, with 250,000 of these seeking refuge across the border in Chad.

Although the war in Darfur has officially come to an end, and Gration says that Khartoum is no longer engaged in a "coordinated" policy of genocide, the suffering of those in the camps continues.

Until there is a durable peace to the region, those who have been displaced cannot return home.

Washington is expected to complete its comprehensive policy review on Sudan within the next few weeks.

But Colin Thomas-Jensen, a policy adviser with the Enough Project, which campaigns against genocide around the world, fears that the Chad component could be left out of the review.

"Chad is a withered husk of a state," said Thomas-Jensen. "Chad has a chronic domestic crisis, which, unless resolved, leaves very little chance of ending the proxy war with Sudan."

The rest of the world is likely to pay close attention to any new change of direction from Washington, and leaving the Chad equation out of the policy review would be a missed opportunity for the new US administration.

At the centre of the rocky relations between Chad and Sudan lies the perpetual struggle for survival by the countries' two autocratic leaders: Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum and Idriss Déby in N'Djamena.

Both regimes have accused each other of funding rebel movements across the border.

Hard evidence of these claims is almost impossible to find, but each side certainly has a good motive for backing the different rebel groups.

For Déby, supporting such movements is an effective way of heading off any future coup attempt without placing a large burden on his own security forces. JEM is the obvious group of choice for Déby to back, since most of its leaders come from his own tribe, the Zaghawa.

Bashir, on the other hand, has for a long time been exasperated with Chad's meddling in the Darfur conflict, and believes that a regime change in N'Djamena would make it easier to impose his will in the region.

Cross-border attacks between Chadian and Sudanese rebels have fallen away recently, although this may have has much to do with the impossibility of fighting during the rainy season as it does with an improvement in the political situation.

According to Selena Brewer, a policy adviser for Human Rights Watch, HRW, who has recently been to the region, "Things remain extremely tense."

Both the Chadian government and the Sudanese government have deployed soldiers along the border to keep an eye on possible rebel insurgencies, which creates even greater tension.

The two UN operations either side of the border - UNAMID in Sudan and MINURCAT in Chad - do what they can, but, as Brewer points out, "They both have their backs to the border", which leaves a gap where terrible atrocities still go unmonitored.

Gration's biggest success since his appointment has arguably been to persuade four influential Darfur rebel factions to unite for peace talks with the Sudanese government.

Tellingly, though, JEM, which is thought to take much of its funding from Déby, is not one of them.

JEM remains one of the most significant rebel movements in Darfur, and it is Chad that holds the key to bringing it to the table.

Even if Déby is not directly responsible for funding JEM, which looks doubtful, the fact that he is doing nothing to rein them in is contemptible.

JEM rebels have for a long time operated out of Abeché, which is within the Chadian border and supposedly policed by the Chadian armed forces.

The Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, SPLM, which sits in an uneasy power-sharing alliance with the government, recognises the important role that Chad can play in ending the Darfur conflict.

Last October, Pagan Amum, the SPLM's secretary general, held with talks with Déby aimed at resolving the crisis.

Privately, the SPLM hopes that, if a lasting peace could be brought about, the marginalised peoples of Darfur would find some solidarity with the SPLM, which has just come out of its own protracted war with the government.

Finding a coordinated way of dealing with Chad is not an easy thing to do, though.

The two nations that continue to have the greatest influence with Chad are France and Libya, which have both supported Déby's regime in the past.

Any initiative involving Chad must be channelled through one of these two countries.

Gration is well aware of this and, in August, he announced that he has been engaging with Libya in order to find a solution.

But Thomas-Jensen, from Enough Project, fears that the Sudan envoy is being too cautious about prescribing remedies for Chad - and the danger of this is that it might not be properly reflected in the US policy review.

"Gration clearly wants to deal with the proxy war element as part of his brief," he said. "But at the same time he doesn't want to get caught up in the job of sorting out Chad's domestic problems. Our concern is that there might be a strategy for Chad, but the diplomatic heft won't be there to move forwards with it."

Unless Chad can be persuaded to take more responsibility for ending rebel hostilities across the border, then other initiatives to end the suffering in the region are going to produce only limited results.


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