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Early Warning: Risks for Violence Against Civilians in Chad

Chad moved up 13 spots in this year’s Early Warning Project Statistical Risk Assessment, from 23rd in 2020–21 to tenth in 2021–22. Chad has consistently ranked in the high-risk (top-30) category, with tenth marking its highest ranking to date. This interview with Jérôme Tubiana explores the risks, potential scenarios, drivers, and dynamics of violence against civilians in Chad. The assertions, opinions, and conclusions in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Jérôme Tubiana is a researcher and journalist with over 20 years of experience covering Chad and Sudan. He has contributed to numerous publications, including Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and the London Review of Books. 

1. Do you see risks of targeted, systematic killing of civilians in Chad?

There are risks but not necessarily in the short term (the coming months). However, the competition between political and military players manipulating tribal divisions or tensions can potentially trigger an uptick in violence in the long term (the next years).

2. What scenarios would promote or accelerate those risks?

Chad has been experiencing political and military turmoil since the killing of longtime President Idriss Déby last April. The waning hopes of democratic change and the late president’s son’s leading role in the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) are disgruntling political and military players and other communities.

So far, the military’s repression of civilian protests, which has included the use of excessive force and the deaths of at least seven civilians, has been rather limited. In the short term, the Chadian military is not necessarily targeting civilians; they are trying to prevent protests from becoming uncontrollable. 

Communities that have felt oppressed, like portions of the Goran, could retaliate against the politically dominant, though national minority, Zaghawa community if the Zaghawa community loses power. This scenario would be similar to what happened to the Tigray community in Ethiopia. Some Goran people may be nostalgic for the era of the former Goran president, Hissène Habré, and they may seek revenge against the Zaghawa.  

The spread of dynamics from Sudan among Darfur and Chadian Arabs, which belong to the same cross-border tribes, provides cause for concern. This risk could correspond to existing or future conflicts between farmers and herders, including herders increasingly moving south and occupying the land. It may also trigger some religious violence; the herders are Muslim, but in the south, most farmers are Christians. 

There is also a risk of Chadian Arabs, including some Janjaweed militia members, exporting violence from Sudan when they return to Chad. Chadian Arabs might feel the government did not represent them well compared to other tribes in Northern Chad and that it is their turn now to be dominant. This tension could spark violence against the Zaghawa and other non-Arab groups.

An additional scenario could involve attacks on Sudanese refugees residing in Eastern Chad because of violent conflicts between Arab and non-Arab communities in West Darfur at the border with Chad. 

Finally, there is always some violence and repression just before and after elections against political opponents or people perceived to have voted “wrongly” in Chad. If there are more massive protests, there is always a risk of violence.

3. What are the drivers of those risks?

If the ruling military junta faces contestation, either politically, ethnically, or both, and loses control somehow, it could drive those risks. Additionally, the ruling Zaghawa group might quickly become victims of targeted violence because they are unpopular in Chad. Third, the risk of Arab supremacist ideology, which has long been active in Sudan, spreading into Chad could be a driver of risks in the mid-to-long term. 

4. What do you think of Chad’s significant increase in rank in this year’s Early Warning Project Statistical Risk Assessment? What changes on the ground might explain this increase in risk?

Chad after President Idriss Déby is much more unstable. The collective body entering power is mired with internal tensions and divides. I would expect next year’s classification to be worse for Chad because of this new uncertainty. 

Chad has been quite resistant to the Sudanese pattern of racial violence between Arab and non-Arab populations, but it appears to be more apparent in Chad now. Mahamat Ahmat Alhabo, an opposition leader and current justice minister, warned about this violence first. He has been trying to do his best to avoid this kind of violence alongside supporting a democratic transition, but he may not have that power. This warning, from a prominent intellectual and political leader, should not be understated. 

However, this increase in rank is a bit surprising given that on the ground in Chad, not much has changed since last year. Yet, there is always a little bit of unseen truth in such classifications, which is not easy to see when you monitor a country daily.

5. Who are the potential perpetrators and target groups?

Potential perpetrators of violence against civilians include the army and the Zaghawa. When the Chadian Zaghawa feel threatened, they can mobilize both the army and local defense forces, but also Sudanese Zaghawa, including those already integrated in the Chadian army and members of Sudanese rebel groups. Other perpetrators may include Chadian Arabs and the Sudanese Janjaweed, who include Chadian Arabs since there is significant cross-border overlap within Arab communities.

Vulnerable target groups include the Zaghawa in the scenario discussed and generally the non-Arabs in the east, especially the Wadday people and minorities like the Masalit and the Dajo. The Sudanese Janjaweed, Chadian Arab civilians, and Chadian Arab rebel groups have already targeted these groups in the east between 2005 and 2010.  

6. What are the possible roles of external actors or enablers?

The French policy of supporting Déby’s military and dynastic system indirectly contributes to the fragmentation of Chadian society and sets the stage for further violence. 

Russia's role is not very positive. Russia’s troops on the ground in Central Africa are already prone to violence against civilians. It could become a proxy war between France and Russia at the Central African Republic (CAR)-Chad border. Russian troops and CAR government allies could target Chadian groups or Central African communities in Chad considered to support Central African rebels.

Sudanese Arab militias, rather than the Sudanese government, are among other relevant actors. There has always been a back and forth of Chadian elements within the Sudanese Janjaweed militias. Whether in Sudan or Chad, most of those former Janjaweed elements are probably still armed and can be very dangerous. Many of these originally Chadian forces have become much more violent through fighting in Sudan and accustomed to a very different ideological and racial mindset, labeled by experts as “Arab supremacism.” This ideology is now spreading to some  Chadian Arab youth, and some Arab elders are saying it is breaking the social fabric in Eastern Chad.

7. Are there any resiliencies that might help prevent future atrocities?

While the Zaghawa dominate the new junta, other groups are also represented. There is an attempt to secure some broader representation. Interestingly, the military does intervene quickly to prevent violence, and they do not always intervene on the side of the Zaghawa. Additionally, Mahamat Idriss Déby, who is now the leader of the TMC, has a more diverse ethnic background than his late father. This background may allow him to reach different ethnic groups, secure more support, and prevent more conflict in different parts of the country. 

Historically, Chad has been rather resistant to the Sudanese pattern of racial violence between Arab and non-Arab populations, mostly because it did not have successive governments using Arab and Muslim identities and supremacism as a banner against supposed internal and external enemies. Despite a similar history of government manipulation, the traditional leaders and conflict-resolution mechanisms are more intact than in Darfur. It is key to support those traditional leaders and mechanisms and to ensure the government and its forces do not act as spoilers of the local social fabric.

8. What actions should the international community take to prevent mass atrocities in Chad?     

The international community should pressure the current government to open the door for a real democratic transition. The transition may lead to a bit of instability, but the instability will be positive and translate to less risk of mass violence in the long term. The United States and other governments should exert some pressure on France to engage in a coordinated effort for Chad’s regional stability. In Sudan, France seems to be supporting a civilian democratic transition, but this does not match French policy in Chad. International players should tackle that quite clearly because part of the risk for Chad is coming from Sudan. The French policy in Chad is sending the wrong message to Sudan. Likewise, the current situation in Sudan is sending the wrong message to Chad. 

This post was edited by Tallan Donine, Elbaz Fellow at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.