by Alexander Hurst
Chadian markets are a hectic blend of sun, sweating bodies, swatting flies, sandy red earth, the drone of different dialects, the exhaust from motorbikes, and the creative tension of bargaining in progress. Last weekend however, just such a market became a scene of horror when three suicide bombers from Boko Haram blew themselves up, killing 27 people and injuring 80 on an island on Lake Chad.
Although in the aftermath of the Paris attacks the United States and Europe remain concentrated on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Syria and Iraq, they would do well not to overlook Western Africa’s Sahel. Chad has been a key component to regional stability, but a specific blend of sociopolitical characteristics makes the area a potentially fertile ground for the spread of IS ally Boko Haram and the perpetuation of generations of violence.
A strain of rebellion, reintegration, and defection runs deep in Chadian political history. François Tombalbaye, the first president, was overthrown by his military commander, Felix Malloum, in 1975. Malloum then integrated a northern rebel, Hissène Habré, into his government as prime minister. In 1980, Habré launched a bloody coup attempt against a transitional government that had succeeded Malloum, inviting intervention by Libyan forces under Muammar al-Gaddafi. Two years later, Habré seized full power and defeated Gaddafi’s army with French and American help. He then began a bloody, two-decade reign that earned him the nickname “Africa’s Pinochet” and an ongoing trial for crimes against humanity.
Eventually, Idriss Déby, his top general, defected to Eastern Chad where he raised enough support among his Zaghawa ethnic group to return to N’Djamena in 1990 and oust Habré. This cycle hasn’t ended with the 25-year rule of Déby. In 2006, rebel soldiers that he had sent to the Central African Republic to install Francois Bozizé as president just three years earlier fought against him in the Battle of N’Djamena, which he narrowly won with French military support.
The cumulative effect of these decades of near constant conflict—or permanent state of entre-guerres, or “between wars,” as Marielle Debos, professor at the Université Paris-Ouest, terms it—means that Chadian society has become marked by legions of young “men-at-arms” for whom violence has become both a profession and a way of life. Less concerned with ideology than with a search for political and economic rents, these young men maintain fluid loyalties. In a chronically poor region largely stripped of economic opportunities, they sell violence to those seeking power, and once power has been attained, exercise violence with near impunity as violence itself becomes a mode of governing. But a real way out will only be found by a few, and so eventually they defect, and begin the rent-seeking search again.
The danger now is that Boko Haram could continue its move east from Nigeria into northern Cameroon and Chad, and exploit these larger structural factors present in regional violence and instability. Although the group’s foundations are undoubtedly ideological—it emerged from Salafi/Wahhabi groups in the late 1970s and pledged allegiance to IS in March 2015—Cambridge University researcher Adam Higazi writes that “the support base of Boko Haram may extend beyond the ideological core that began the struggle.” The US Institute of Peace found through surveys in Nigeria’s Sokoto state that high unemployment, poverty, and widespread corruption are major factors beyond ideology that push young men toward Boko Haram’s anti-government messaging and promises of loot.
These same conditions are present in Chad and the border region with Cameroon, factors that Boko Haram could exploit in a move eastward. Reports have surfaced this past year that the group is recruiting by offering salaries as high as $800 a month—or eight times an average local income. However, exactly how much recruitment is coming from Chad itself remains an open question. In an email exchange, Higazi noted that “Boko Haram may be attracting fighters from Chad by paying them and enabling them to participate in the plunder of the region, but we’d need substantive evidence to confirm that.”
If Boko Haram has not yet started to draw on the political, economic, and ethnic fractures present in Chad, that’s good news. Just such an expansion is what the United States, France, and the regional coalition of African states are trying to prevent. Unfortunately, for decades the US and France have answered the “stability” question by supporting a Chadian “strongman,” first Habré—who received financial, logistical, covert, and direct military support—then Déby, who won permission from the World Bank to spend more of his nation’s oil revenue on the military.
This constant short-term focus—whether on protecting economic interests (for France) or having a bulwark against communism (for the US)—has impeded the development of real institutions of government and governance, and even directly exacerbated cycles of violence. As the RAND Corporation reports, US military and security assistance has had little to no effect on reducing fragility in countries like Chad. In the past six years, Chad has received slightly over $18 million in such aid from the United States, although this certainly underestimates the combined foreign contributions to the Déby regime. France maintains a permanent military presence in the country, supporting and has even directly intervening on behalf of Déby.
Part of the problem is that such support often fuels corruption, rent-seeking, a violence-with-impunity mode of governing, and the social resentment that follows—often along ethnic lines. The Chadian military has certainly been implicated in brutal conduct, even withdrawing from the UN peacekeeping mission to the Central African Republic after allegations that it was providing active support to the Seleka rebels. In supporting the Déby regime, the US and France should urge Chad to avoid heavy-handed crackdowns on ethnic groups like the Kanuri from which Boko Haram has recruited.
Any attempt to combat the spread of Boko Haram should not sacrifice the broader and more long-term view for the immediate one. Although France has effectively implemented Band-Aid type interventions like that in Mali, such quick fixes will never be big enough or long-lasting enough to solve the region’s long-term problems. To address those larger issues a combination of preventive and prescriptive measures is needed to prevent Boko Haram from igniting a wider religious conflict, like the one that has plagued the Central African Republic, and to develop inclusive institutions in Chad and its neighbors. For starters, American non-military financial assistance to Chad could be increased and re-targeted to more effective institution-building. In contrast to military aid, the US has invested woefully little in the real economic and political development of the country—and this little became almost nonexistent in 2015: just $23,000, excluding direct food aid.
Fortunately, despite the history of violence, divisions in Chad have been far more often political and economic, with a healthy dose of ethnic clan-ism, than religious. That reality is visible on the streets of the mixed southern city of Moundou, where Christians and Muslims shop together at markets and sit together in classrooms only a hundred kilometers from the Central African Republic. Local civil society is attempting to keep things this way. One initiative is working to create ties between imams and Christian pastors in the hopes that such links will filter down from authority members to their respective communities and prevent radicalization. But the problem of hopeless young men with purchasable loyalties will only be solved by long-term economic and institutional development. Neither of these approaches is sexy; each is probably necessary.
As an ideological problem, Boko Haram is as difficult to defeat as any other intractable terrorist group. But at least if it is confined to ideology, it will remain an isolated—albeit dangerous—phenomenon.
Photo: Victims of a Boko Haram bombing in Nigeria in 2014
Alexander Hurst, a dual Master’s candidate in Public Management and International Relations at Sciences Po and the London School of Economics, has spent time working in southern Chad. Tweet to him @iamhurst.