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Renouncing the Rebels: Local and Regional Dimensions of Chad–Sudan Rapprochement

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From 2003 to 2009 the governments of Chad and Sudan engaged in a fierce proxy war waged through the provision of material support to each other’s armed opposition forces. Chad’s support for the Darfur armed opposition was motivated by key individuals in the innermost circle of the government, exacerbated by direct family ties with Darfur rebel leaders. Sudan’s conviction that Chad’s backing would remain as long as President Idriss Déby remained in power provided the impulse to support Chadian rebel efforts to depose him. The war culminated in armed opposition attacks on N’Djaména in April 2006 and February 2008 and an assault on Khartoum in May 2008.

By May 2009, however, frustration and fatigue were affecting both regimes’ willingness to continue the conflict. Proxy raids were repeatedly falling short of their objectives, partly as a result of the failure of each regime to unite its neighbour’s opposition groups into efficient coalitions. At the same time, major domestic political processes were looming in each country—notably the referendum on South Sudanese self-determination in January 2011 and presidential elections in Chad, now scheduled for May 2011.

These and a number of other factors led Khartoum and N’Djaména to begin a serious rapprochement starting in late 2009. Khartoum began to move Chadian opposition forces away from the border. Chad reciprocated by demanding the withdrawal of the UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) from its territory and strongly pressuring the Darfur Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) to sign a peace agreement, before expelling the movement and its chairman, Dr. Khalil Ibrahim, from Chadian territory in May 2010.

Bolder steps followed. Déby visited Khartoum in February 2010 and Sudanese president Omar al Bashir flew to N’Djaména in July. That same month, Sudan ordered four main Chadian armed opposition group leaders to leave its territory, sending them to Qatar. Since then, several hundred Chadian opposition forces, most from marginal splinter groups, have given up fighting and returned home, some on flights chartered by the governments of Chad and Sudan, others by their own means. In October 2010 some 2,000 Chadian rebel combatants—most of those remaining in Darfur—agreed to be disarmed by the Sudanese government. By mid-2010 it appeared that both countries had almost completely repudiated their proxy conflict.

This Working Paper reviews the specific circumstances of the recent Chad– Sudan rapprochement and the series of events that took place to bring this extremely divisive six-year conflict to a close. The study focuses specifically on the effects of the rapprochement on the armed opposition movements and the internal crises facing each country. Among its key findings are the following: • The rapprochement has unquestionably increased stability in the region. The loss of external support to both Chadian and Darfur rebel groups reduces the immediate threat of armed attack in either country. • Despite this increased stability, there are no political solutions to either the Chadian political crisis or the Darfur rebellion in sight, providing a combustible mixture that may once again ignite into collective violence. • Government reshuffles in both countries paved the way for the rapprochement. Key personnel who supported regime change in the other country were moved from their posts and individuals supporting the new policy of cooperation were appointed. • Domestic factors—most notably electoral processes—in both countries were crucial to turning the two governments towards rapprochement. The costs associated with the proxy conflict, made more significant by fluctuating oil prices, were also important. • The inability of the Chadian and Darfur rebels to unite contributed to their failure to secure external political support and the eventual cessation of material support from Sudan and Chad, respectively. • One of the main achievements of the détente is the weakening of the Chadian armed opposition to approximately 1,000 fighters as of early 2011. The main groups are now more divided than ever, having lost their sole backer, the Sudanese government. • While Chad has expelled JEM from its territory, the group has not been disarmed and is managing to survive by expanding its areas of operations and recruitment—and could pose challenges to future relations between North and South Sudan. JEM’s primary external supporter is now Tripoli (at least until the February–March 2011 turmoil in Libya). • The immediate impact of the rapprochement is not all positive: it has left dissatisfied combatants from both countries in the most unstable areas of the region, namely the Sudan–Chad–Central African Republic (CAR) tri-border area and the contested border between North and South Sudan, thereby adding to existing instability.

This Working Paper is based on field research undertaken in Chad (N’Djaména and south-eastern Chad) in November 2010. The author also used material from previous original research and additional missions in Chad (April–May 2009 and March–April 2010), Sudan (Khartoum, Darfur, and South Sudan, December 2009, June 2010, and December 2010), and Qatar (July and December 2010), in addition to interviews in France. This report is based primarily on a wide range of interviews with government officials, Chadian and Sudanese armed opposition leaders and combatants, international diplomats, mediators, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It was researched and written before author Jérôme Tubiana joined the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Sudan as a ‘regional expert’.