(Chadian soldiers gathered near the Nigerian town of Gamboru after retaking the town, 1 February 2015. AFP)
On Thursday morning, January the 29th, news percolated through social media that Chadian forces, with the tacit consent of the Nigerian government, had crossed the international frontier and recaptured Malam Fatori – a north-eastern Nigerian town that had been captured by Boko Haram in October last year. This was a watershed moment. For the first time in Nigeria’s 54 years as an independent country, foreign troops are conducting major military operations inside the country. Similarly, with Chad’s intervention, the war against Boko Haram has entered a new phase, and possibly presages a wider regional intervention – the balance sheet of which can only be properly assessed in the fullness of time.
So why did Idriss Deby send Chadian troops into Nigeria? How are we to make sense of this bold gambit?
N’Djamena’s Paramount Ruler: The Enduring Quest for Security
The desire for security is said to be the primary driver of state behaviour in international politics. For autocratic states, like Chad, this drive is often subsumed under the all-consuming quest for regime security. Threats to political stability in dictatorships often produce a clarity of action that is lacking in other spheres of governance. Thus the deteriorating security environment around the Lake Chad area, and the long-term threat this poses to the Deby regime’s stability and survival, is probably the most salient and perhaps the main trigger for Chad’s intervention.
The Lesson of History
(Chadian troops on patrol after beating back a rebel assault on N’Djamena in three days of brutal fighting. In the background, the smouldering ruins of the central market; a silent testament to the perils of insecurity confronting Chad’s rulers. (Benedicte Kurzen/New York Times)
The abode of rest (English translation of N’Djamena) has historically been anything but for Chad’s paramount rulers. The immense challenges of “broadcasting state power” to the periphery and achieving internal primacy over a country that is vast, “desperately poor and locked in perpetual strife” has often concentrated their efforts – and in many cases consumed them. Francois Tombalbaye, the first President was killed in a coup d'état in April 1975; after close to a decade-and-a-half of one-man rule, punctuated by rebellions and the onset of what became a 14 year Civil War. Jérémie Ngansop, a Cameroonian journalist, famously gave this gripping account of his demise:
Tombalbaye … died weapon in hand. He had, in effect, fought to the last cartridge against his attackers, aided by only a few faithful members of his praetorian guard. Everyone had let him down.
Whilst Tombalbaye’s successors have so far been spared his grisly end, none have however so far left power under auspicious circumstances. They were either forced out in a coup, or resigned under the pressure of events.
Idriss Deby himself, the current incumbent and Chad’s longest lasting President so far, ascended power in December 1990 on the crest of a rebellion against his predecessor. And in his two-and-a-half decades in power, he has faced his fair share of unrests and revolts. In the last decade alone Deby has survived a coup plot in March 2006, and the attempts of Sudan-backed rebels to unseat him by storming the capital in April 2006 and February 2008 – the second attempt precipitating French military intervention to beat back the rebel offensive.
This violent past forms the historical backdrop and “lifeworld” that shapes Deby’s political outlook. But this doesn’t tell us much about why Chad’s political leadership decided to move decisively against Boko Haram. For that, we must turn our gaze to geography.
The Influence of Geography
Boko Haram’s unwavering determination to carve out a transnational Shari’ah governed state in the region, its expanding reach, and Nigeria’s floundering efforts to contain the spill over from this growing regional threat has obviously unnerved Nigeria’s neighbours – none more so than Chad.
One look at a map of the Lake Chad region and some geographical realities quickly foreground themselves. N’Djamena is much closer to Nigeria’s Borno state, the locus of Boko Haram’s insurgency, than Nigeria’s own capital, Abuja. N’Djamena is about 200 miles away, as opposed to Abuja which is just under three times that distance. In fact, of the four countries abutting Lake Chad (Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria), Chad’s capital is the closest to the insurgency’s epicentre. The same is true for Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, and the Mandara mountain range, often referred to as Boko Haram’s stronghold.
Unlike Abuja, which only serves as Nigeria’s seat of political power, N’Djamena is also Chad’s major economic and commercial nerve-centre. With a limited road network – much of it unusable during the rainy season – and no railways to stitch such a massive country land-locked into a unified economic space, parts of Chad are often more culturally and economically linked to neighbouring countries than they are to other parts of the country. Thus the capital city and its surrounding region are oriented towards Nigeria and Cameroon due to Chad’s reliance on those two countries for its access to the Atlantic Ocean. This dependence on Nigeria and Cameroon for Chad’s vital access to the ocean, and Nigeria’s economic weight in the region, has made the two countries Chad’s “main commercial partners”. Consequently, Boko Haram’s growing insurgency and the group’s plundering of trade routes in Nigeria and Cameroon has badly affected Chad’s commerce.
An added factor in trying to understand the gravity of the threat posed by Boko Haram to Chad is the proximity of the group’s growing operational reach to the $4 billion Chad-Cameroon pipeline project which ships oil from Chad’s Doba basin in the south of the country to the port of Kribi on Cameroon’s Atlantic coast. Whilst the Doba basin oil fields and much of the pipeline infrastructure are closer to Chad and Cameroon’s eastern borders with the Central African Republic (CAR) than they are to their western borders with Nigeria; if left to grow unchecked, it is not implausible the Boko Haram could eventually set its sights on such a strategically vital infrastructure to Chad’s economic security.
Yet another added layer are the dangers of an “arc of instability” linking Nigeria’s restive north-east to the two Sudan via Cameroon and CAR – all troubled neighbours of Chad – through which insurgents, jihadists and weapons can move at will igniting, supporting, and reinforcing rebellions across the Sahel, West Africa and Central Africa. A nightmarish vision for any political leadership; especially one for whom the perils of insecurity are a near-permanent presence. The “Islamic State” group’s incipient polity in the Levant – Boko Haram’s ideological and operational model – is a searing reminder of the capacity of determined insurgents to break open and reorder fragile state systems, much like the one in which Chad is nested.
These are perilous geographical realities which to my mind Idriss Deby could not ignore. For a country with an enduring history of rebellions and instability – often stoked and inflamed by external troubles – it is rational that the “perfect Machiavellian Prince”, as he has been described, has perhaps decided that it’s better to fight abroad than wait for the conflagration to reach home.