As the World Is Distracted, Boko Haram Terrorists Strike a Key Western Ally

The battle against jihadi terrorism in Africa takes one of its deadliest turns yet, with consequences far beyond the region.

As the world’s attention turns almost completely to the coronavirus pandemic, the battle against jihadi terrorism in Africa’s vast Sahel region has taken one of its deadliest turns yet. On March 23, Boko Haram terrorists ambushed a military encampment of Chadian soldiers on the Boma Peninsula, in the Lake Chad region. Over seven hours, the militants—whose group’s name roughly means “non-Islamic education is a sin”—killed at least 92 heavily armed troops with machine guns and bombs and injured dozens of others.

It is the deadliest attack the Chadian military has ever suffered. Chad’s ruler of 30 years—President Idriss Déby Itno—visited the site of the attack the next day and picked through the burned-out wreckage. “I have taken part in many operations,” he said in a televised address, “but never in our history have we lost so many men at one time.”

The massacre will reverberate far beyond the region, for it highlights and compounds a worrying trend. The Chadian regime—long thought of as the West’s indispensable ally in the fight against terrorism in Africa—could be nearing breaking point.

It is hard to imagine a more difficult nation to govern than Chad. The landlocked central African country is more than five times larger than Britain. Its 16 million people are divided among more than 200 ethnic groups and consistently rank among the poorest in the world.

Chad is surrounded by conflict. To the north, Libya’s civil war rages on. To the east, powerful militias vie for control of Darfur and Sudan. To the south, waves of bloodletting keep the Central African Republic one of the most devastatingly underdeveloped places in the world. And to the west, powerful jihadi groups strap bombs to young girls around the Lake Chad Basin in northeastern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.

To rule such a land, one must be a fighter and a canny survivor. Déby, a wiry and softly spoken 67-year-old, is both. He was a skilled military man before he came to power. When Muammar al-Qaddafi tried to carve out a “Greater Islamic State of the Sahel” and sent tanks into northern Chad in the late 1980s, Déby led nimble Toyota pickup trucks packed with fighters across the Sahara to drive the ambitious Libyan back.

In 1990, Déby ousted former dictator Hissène Habré and was proclaimed president. Since then, he has come close to ruin several times as he faced rebellions, coups, and economic crises. But despite overwhelming odds, Déby has always pulled through.

There are four key factors to Déby’s longevity. First is clever governing. Since coming to power, he has worked hard to subsume opposition movements. He has even used several polygamous marriages to cement his hold on power. The president’s many wives and children have helped him fill his government with allies, bridge ethnic divides, and control Chad’s key industries.

Oil is another key factor. Black gold started to be piped out of southern Chad through Cameroon in late 2003. In 2018, the country exported about 130,000 barrels per day, making it the 40th-largest oil producer in the world, just ahead of Denmark. Though limited, the small trickle of oil money has been enough to help the president bring opponents onside and fund his military.

The third reason for the regime’s stability has been its effective military—at least until now. Chad has a small elite army within the national army, known as the Directorate-General of Security Services of State Institutions. It is made up largely of men from the president’s own Zaghawa ethnic group, ensuring a high degree of loyalty, and is widely considered to be the most skilled and battle-hardened force in the region. But this military comes at a huge cost—about one-third of the national budget.Déby’s powerful army and willingness to use it in the global war on terrorism have made him a darling of the West and a key player in the fight against terrorist groups in Africa.

Finally, Déby has been adept at cultivating allies. His powerful army and willingness to use it in the global war on terrorism have made him a darling of the West and a key player in the fight against terrorist groups in Africa. Chad sent thousands of soldiers to drive jihadis allied with al Qaeda out of towns in northern Mali in 2013 and has conducted successful campaigns against jihadis around Lake Chad—operations in which the country’s far larger and richer neighbor, Nigeria, has utterly failed. Chad has also committed 1,000 troops to the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a counterterrorism force made up of 5,000 troops from the key states of the Sahel region.

Most Western leaders have ignored the regime’s democratic abuses, seeing Déby instead as the key bulwark against insecurity in the region. This has garnered him no small amount of international legitimacy. In 2014, Déby was among other African leaders hosted at a White House dinner by U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Déby also makes regular visits to the Élysée Palace in Paris, where French President Emmanuel Macron embraces him like an old friend.

Both France and the United States have helped prop up his regime. France bases its 5,100-strong Sahelian counterinsurgency mission, Operation Barkhane, out of the capital of Chad, N’Djamena. Washington has trained hundreds of Chadian soldiers and poured tens of millions of dollars into the country in aid, military equipment, and funding. It has also used the country as a base for air and special forces operations.

But Déby’s nine lives may be running out. Right now, he faces a toxic cocktail of challenges. Nothing has shown the precariousness of his regime more than the events of the last year. In February 2019, dozens of pickup trucks filled with fighters from the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), a Chadian rebel group led by Déby’s own nephew, entered Chad from Libya and headed toward N’Djamena to overthrow the president.

Chadian airstrikes failed to stop the convoy, and crisis was averted only when French Mirage 2000 fighter jets scrambled to bomb the convoy at N’Djamena’s request. The jets strafed the rebels for three consecutive days, stopping the advance.

The fact that France was forced to intervene showed many just how weak Déby’s military could be at home. It is widely thought that high-ranking members of the military were unwilling to fight the rebels because of ethnic ties.

According to a report released immediately after the French airstrikes by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the Chadian army is “overworked” from fighting on several fronts, and some soldiers have been “demoralized” by cuts to their allowances. In this context, the report said, “groups like the UFR will undoubtedly continue to encourage desertions.”

A year on from the rebellion, little has improved. The Chadian military is perhaps more overstretched than ever. In late 2019, the government was forced to declare a state of emergency in three eastern provinces for four months to stop a cycle of interethnic violence. The army has suffered huge losses to resurgent jihadi groups in the Lake Chad area in the last year.

“Déby is a survivor, and he’s hanging on, but he’s trying to put out fires all over the periphery of the country,” Richard Moncrieff, the Central Africa director for the International Crisis Group, told Foreign Policy. “He has a pretty fractious inner circle, and he knows that any local conflict could quickly escalate into a national one.”

Worse still, the economy—perilously positioned at the best of times—is in tatters. When the price of oil fell to $36 a barrel in 2016, Chad went through two years of a deep recession. The economy showed signs of recovery in 2018 but has now been hit by an even worse plunge in the oil price due to the coronavirus crisis, with the cost of a barrel of crude recently hovering around $20.

“The economic situation is just impossible,” said Marielle Debos, an associate professor of political science at University Paris Nanterre and the author of Living by the Gun in Chad. “Chad’s economy is very dependent on oil and civil servants, and military salaries are not being paid. The new drop in oil prices is going to have huge consequences and make the country even more fragile.”

Moreover, huge questions remain about Déby’s health. He has no clear heir and has visited Paris several times for medical treatment in recent years. “Each time he’s in France in a hospital, people say he’s sick and this time he’s not going to make it,” Debos told Foreign Policy. “One day Déby is going to die, disappear, or be overthrown. One of the big questions facing Chad is what happens after that. The day he is not the president anymore, everything could fall apart. It’s very dangerous to have a very powerful army coming mainly from one ethnicity.”

Since the attack on the Boma Peninsula, Déby has already begun to turn inward and shore up power at home. He had agreed to send around 500 troops to help provide security to the tri-border region between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger—but now those troops will be staying at home. “This is a major setback for Operation Barkhane and the G5 Sahel force, who are trying to contain the spread of groups allied to Islamic State and al Qaeda,” said Rida Lyammouri, an expert on the Sahel region at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan think tank.

The government has declared its Lake Chad area a military zone and asked the population to leave, adding to an already critical displacement crisis. “We are all anticipating major humanitarian consequences,” Lyammouri said.

Déby’s habit of survival has often confounded analysts, but his regime’s future is as uncertain as ever.