Oil Industry at the Heart of the Zaghawa Power Struggle in Chad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 5

It was only a few years ago when the African nation of Chad was being promoted as a groundbreaking example of a new model of transparent oil revenue distribution that would relieve poverty and initiate development. Tribalism and kleptocratic rule would no longer be part of the familiar equation of vanishing oil wealth in other parts of Africa. Instead, only a few weeks ago, the world witnessed blood running in the streets of the Chadian capital of N’Djamena as rival factions of the minority Zaghawa tribe battled for the right to empty Chad’s ever-growing coffers. This unwelcome instability only adds to a downward spiral of violence in a region already beset by political and ethnic violence in neighboring Darfur and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Chad is host to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Darfur and the Central African Republic, as well as Chad’s own internally displaced peoples. Most Chadians live in grinding poverty overseen by a political and administrative structure routinely viewed as one of the most corrupt in the world. Despite this, the February 2-3 attack on N’Djamena by 300 armed pick-up trucks full of rebels had less to do with righting these glaring inequities than with replacing President Idris Déby’s Zaghawa faction with other Zaghawa factions eager to take control of Chad’s sudden oil wealth.

Role of the French

Formed as a territory of France after the conquest of a number of small sultanates and the expulsion of the Libyan Sanusis in the early years of the 20th century, Chad gained independence in 1960. There is a strange relationship between Chad and France that began in 1940 when Chad, through its governor, Felix Aboué—actually from French Guiana—was the first overseas territory of the French empire to declare for Free France. General Leclerc had the first Free French military successes in Chad before marching into southern France, together with thousands of Chadian troops. In the process Chad became inextricably tied with the mythology surrounding the creation of modern, Gaullist, post-war France. In practice this often translates into seemingly inexplicable French support for the government of the day in Chad, regardless of corruption or inefficiency.

The French military presence in Chad is officially referred to as Operation Epervier (Sparrowhawk), which began in 1986 as a means of supplying French military assistance in the form of troops and warplanes to the regime of President Hissène Habré as the Libyan army tried to seize the uranium-rich Aouzou Strip in northern Chad. When General Déby overthrew the increasingly brutal Habré in 1990 the French looked on. Though the dispute with Libya was settled in 1994, the French military mission stayed on as a “deterrent.” Today it includes about 1,200 troops, six Mirage aircraft and three Puma helicopters (Le Figaro, April 19, 2006). Typically the French supply the regime with intelligence and logistical assistance. France has limited commercial interests in Chad and is largely uninvolved in the nation’s oil industry.

Rebel leader Mahamat Nouri notes that Chad and France share a “community of interests in history, religion, blood and culture,” while adding that the French government—and not the people of France—have befriended Déby against the people of Chad (TchadVision, February 27).

Chad’s Oil Industry

Crude oil was first discovered in Chad in the late 1960s, but development of a local industry was delayed due to the remoteness of the land-locked country, lack of infrastructure and political instability. The oil boom changed all that, and today a consortium run by ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and the Malaysian Petronas operate Chad’s oil industry. Three oil fields in the Doba Basin are currently in operation, with estimated reserves of 900 million barrels (Afrol News, December 22, 2004).

A 2000 deal between Chad, the World Bank and a consortium of oil companies called for the construction of a $3.7 billion pipeline from Chad’s oilfields to the Cameroon port of Kribi on the Gulf of Guinea. Three years later 160,000 barrels per day were running through the pipeline, gradually growing to the peak capacity of 225,000 barrels per day. The agreement called for 70% of Chad’s revenues from the project to go toward infrastructure development and poverty relief. Transparency and accountability were to be the key in avoiding the widespread corruption of other oil-rich African countries.

In practice very little of this new affluence trickled through the hands of the regime. Increased spending on weapons began almost immediately while electricity remains unknown outside of the capital. A failed rebel assault on the capital in April 2006 led a shaken President Déby to begin diverting an even greater share of oil revenues toward arms purchases for the army and the Republican Guard. Unfortunately for Déby, the World Bank had already suspended roughly $125 million in grants and loans and payment of an equal amount of royalties in January after the President unilaterally changed the terms of the 2000 agreement. Déby simply threatened to turn off the taps and things suddenly began to swing his way. Under pressure to keep the oil flowing in Chad, the World Bank offered a new deal doubling the amount of oil revenues going directly to the government for unsupervised spending to 30%. With oil having now crashed through the $100 a barrel barrier, there is suddenly enormous and unprecedented wealth available to whatever faction can seize and control it. The Sudanese may be training and supplying the Chadian rebels, but they do not need to give them a reason to fight.

The government is actively encouraging new exploration in the promising Lake Chad Basin as only the existing Doba Basin oil fields are subject to the oversight and supervision terms of the 2000 agreement. The distribution of all new revenues from the industry will be completely unsupervised by outside agencies. Unfortunately the industry has created very little local employment, most of which is menial and low-paying.

The Zaghawa and the Chadian Power Structure

The struggle for Chad and its oil industry is part of the growing commercial and political strength of the non-Arab Zaghawa in Chad and Sudan. The Zaghawa are a small indigenous semi-nomadic tribe that once controlled a string of petty sultanates running across what is now northern Chad and Darfur. Despite their small numbers, they have become politically and economically powerful and are challenging the dominance of Sudan’s Jallaba (Nile-based Arabs) over Darfur. Déby’s support for Zaghawa-dominated rebel groups in Darfur has led to reciprocal Sudanese support for Zaghawa factions seeking to depose Déby.

Traditionally the Zaghawa are divided into several groups, including the Zaghawa Kobe, Zaghawa Tuer and Zaghawa Kabka. They are closely associated with a similar tribe, the Bidayat. Their growing strength in the region does not necessarily imply unity—the Zaghawa are heavily factionalized. The president of Chad, Idris Déby, is a Zaghawa, but his strongest opposition is formed from other groups of Zaghawa, many of them led by his relatives. It is some measure of the growing power of the Zaghawa that, despite comprising only two percent of Chad’s population, they are still able to divide their forces in a struggle for power to the exclusion of every other ethnic group in the nation. Déby is kept in power by the Zaghawa-dominated Armée Nationale Tchadienne and the Garde Républicaine (largely Zaghawa Kobe).

In neighboring Darfur, the strongest of the anti-Khartoum rebel groups is the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The leadership is strongly Zaghawa and is supported by Chad, though there have been disputes over JEM recruiting from the ranks of the Chadian army. Sudanese sources claim that a leading JEM commander was killed while assisting Chadian troops against the rebels in N’Djamena (Sudan News Agency, February 4). Darfur’s National Movement for Reformation and Development (NMRD) is drawn mostly from the Zaghawa Kabka and includes former leading members of Chad’s Garde Républicaine and the state intelligence service. The National Redemption Front (NRF) is another Zaghawa-dominated rebel movement that receives military support from N’Djamena.

Chadian Opposition

The Chadian opposition takes the form of a bewildering array of acronym movements that shift, merge and realign almost daily. The rebel movements are largely defined by tribal rather than ideological differences and operate from bases inside Sudan (AFP, January 8). Sudanese support for the rebels has been an effective way to delay the undesired deployment of the European Union peacekeeping mission to Chad and the Central African Republic

The leading rebel groups have developed a unified military command. These groups include the Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD), the Rassemblement des forces démocratiques (RAFD), and the UFDD-Fondamentale. The UFDD are mostly Gura’an from the Tibesti region—the tribe of Déby’s predecessor, Hissène Habré—and are led by Mahamat Nouri, the former Chadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The RAFD is a coalition led by twin brothers Tom and Timane Erdimi, who also happen to be Déby’s nephews and former cabinet ministers in his government. Most RAFD fighters are Zaghawa defectors from the Garde Républicaine. The UFDD-Fondamentale is led by an Arab, Abdul-Wahid Makaye.

The Rebel Assault

Like an earlier assault on N’Djamena in April 2006, the rebels were eventually driven off, but only after severe fighting in the streets of the capital. Rebel tactics typically draw on the highly mobile land cruiser-based tactics perfected in the 1980s by Zaghawa and Tubu fighters against Libyan troops in northern Chad. There are reports that the 300 Toyota Land Cruisers used in the assault were purchased by Khartoum, while the entire operation was planned by Salah Gosh—head of Sudan’s National Security and Intelligence Service—and the Sudanese defense minister, Lt. General Abdelrahim Muhammad Hussein (Al-Sudani, February 7; Sudan Tribune, February 7).

Chad often refers to the rebels as radical Islamists in an effort to garner international support and has accused Saudi Arabia of recruiting mercenaries associated with al-Qaeda to fight alongside the rebels, going so far as to make an official complaint to the UN Security Council (Al-Wihda, May 5, 2007; AFP, November 30, 2006; Reuters, December 1, 2006). As one rebel spokesman has noted: “We have no Islamist ideology… It is now a fashion in the world to call one’s enemy an Islamist or a terrorist” (Al-Wihda, November 26, 2006). After the assault on N’Djamena, the Chadian Interior Ministry put over 100 prisoners on display for the press, describing them as “Sudanese mercenaries, Islamic militants and members of al-Qaeda” (Reuters, February 13).

The defeat of the rebel attack even as it reached the presidential palace in N’Djamena was more likely due to poor training and coordination on the part of the rebels than to French intervention. The timing of the assault reflected Khartoum’s urgency in deposing Déby and ending Chadian support for Darfur’s rebels before the arrival of the European Union peacekeeping force made this a practical impossibility.

France provided logistical and intelligence support to the president’s forces during the fighting. The French Defense Ministry confirmed that it arranged for ammunition for Chad’s Russian-built T-55 tanks to be flown in from Libya for use against the rebel offensive (Reuters, February 14). Oddly enough, the Chadian prime minister accused Libya of supporting the rebel attack (Sudan Tribune, February 7). Other reports that French Special Forces participated in the fighting in N’Djamena have been denied by Paris (La Croix, February 8; L’Humanité, February 9).

Chadian Reaction

Following the assault, President Déby instituted a State of Emergency, set to last until March 15. Déby’s forces are fortifying the capital to deter similar attacks. Armed vehicles will no longer be able to strike across the savanna into N’Djamena with the construction of a three-meter deep trench around the city that will force all traffic to go through fortified gateways. The trees that offer the only refuge from N’Djamena’s blistering heat are also being cut down after rebels used some cut trees to block roads during the raid (Reuters, March 3; BBC, March 4). The regime is also seeking to buy half a dozen helicopter gunships from Russia or other East European sources.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Chad in late February in a show of support for President Déby that included a call for a more effective democratization process (TchadVision, February 28; African Press Agency, February 27). Earlier, Sarkozy had declared his intention to make a clean break with French neo-colonialism in Africa, but his quick reversal on Chad demonstrates the deep roots of the French government’s “FrançAfrique” network that seeks to preserve commercial and strategic interests in the former colonies. Despite Sarkozy’s visit, France may already be preparing for the post-Déby era by granting asylum to Chadian opposition leader Ngarlejy Yorongar. Full details are lacking, but Yorongar is reported to have been arrested on February 3, held in a secret N’Djamena prison—probably in the headquarters of the state intelligence service, the Direction des Renseignements Generaux—and finally dumped in a cemetery on February 21 before finding his way to Cameroon. Another opposition leader, Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, was arrested at the same time but has not been seen since (AFP, March 4; Al-Wihda, March 6). Former Chadian President Lol Mahamat Choua was also detained, but was later released.

European Union Peacekeeping Force in Chad (EUFOR)

A 14-nation EU peacekeeping force began deploying in February but is not expected to be fully operational until the end of March. The majority of the 3,700 troops will be French, with the second largest contingent of 450 troops coming from Ireland. EUFOR is commanded from France by Irish Major General Pat Nash and in Chad/CAR by French Brigadier Jean-Philippe Ganascia.

EUFOR deployment was delayed by the rebel strike into N’Djamena which came at precisely the same time deployment was set to begin. EUFOR allows the French to expand France’s military presence in traditional overseas areas of influence like Chad and the CAR in a way that would raise eyebrows if done unilaterally. Though it has said little publicly, France is worried about the growing U.S. military encroachment into Africa through the establishment of AFRICOM and various counter-terrorism training programs, including one in Chad. The spokesman for the rebels’ unified military command, Abderahman Koulamallah, describes the EUFOR deployment as “a low maneuver by the French government to try and rescue Déby” (Al-Wihda, March 7). Other rebels speak of EUFOR as a French commitment to “liquidate” the opposition (TchadVision, February 16).


Following mediation from Senegal, Chad and Sudan have agreed to sign another in a series of peace agreements on March 12 at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Dakar (AFP, March 6). There is little reason to hope that this agreement will be any more effective than those that have preceded it. Rebel leader Mahamat Nouri has denied reports of negotiations with the Déby regime, claiming the president “treated us as nobodies. He has no intention at all to negotiate while we have been demanding national dialogue, round-table meetings, etc., for 20 months in order to resolve our problems permanently. But we never received any response” (Radio France Internationale, February 21).

In an effort to retain power, President Déby has purged the general staff several times in the last few years and has lost many of his most powerful supporters in the military. The president is seriously ill and would like to be succeeded in the presidency by his son Brahim, but this is unlikely to happen. Far from becoming the hoped for example of a way out of the factionalism and corruption that has tended to accompany the discovery of oil reserves in Africa, Chad has developed a bloody intra-tribal struggle for control of oil revenues with little hope for stability and progress in sight.