Africa Report N°180 21 Oct 2011
The full report is available in French.
The end of the long reign of Muammar Qaddafi, killed on 20 October in his hometown of Syrte, opens the way to democracy in Libya. His fall has also left the country and its neighbours facing a multitude of potential new problems that could threaten stability in the region. Chad is a case in point. Qaddafi made his presence felt in all the country’s conflicts, for good and ill, and he maintained a close relationship with President Déby. Because the latter supported his doomed benefactor politically at the start of the insurgency and only belatedly aligned with Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), the new era of Chad-Libya relations has started on the wrong foot. The NTC’s accusations – denied by N’Djamena – that Chadian fighters supported Qaddafi militarily, racist attacks against black Africans, refugees and related displacement issues and the volatile situation on the border increase forthcoming challenges.
During his 42-year reign, Qaddafi was time and again an actor and mediator of Chad’s conflicts, while using his southern neighbour as a testing ground to achieve his regional ambitions. Under Déby, N’Djamena was a willing subject, and relations between Tripoli and N’Djamena improved significantly. The two leaders’ relationship had its ups and downs, but Déby allowed Qaddafi to increase his influence through patronage in return for political and economic support.
Qaddafi’s involvement in Chad became paradoxical. After initially playing an active role in destabilising the North, he contributed in recent years to bringing relative peace to that historically rebellious zone by mediating between armed groups. In view of this, Déby saw Qaddafi as essential to his own regional policy and was, therefore, reluctant to accept the possibility of his fall when the Libyan insurgency broke out and slow to realise its full consequences. When the crisis began, Déby tried to defend Qaddafi’s legitimacy by accusing the rebels of colluding with Islamists. Though his government denied it was providing any military support, the presence of Chadian fighters in Libya among Qaddafi’s troops stripped his statements of weight.
However, Déby’s accusations naturally made the NTC suspicious of N’Djamena, which it considered as favouring Qaddafi’s continued rule. This had serious consequences for the treatment of Chadian nationals in Libya in areas where the insurgents gained control. It was only when NATO intervened and power shifted away from Qaddafi, that the Chadian government took a more strategic and realistic stance, calling for negotiations and establishing preliminary contacts with the NTC.
Déby knows from recent history that hostile relations with Tripoli could quickly endanger the stability of northern Chad. The recent normalisation of relations with Sudan that he achieved with Qaddafi’s help is far from irreversible, so he would like to avoid tensions with the new authorities in Tripoli. N’Djamena is also concerned for the plight of Chadian nationals in Libya, who frequently have been perceived and treated as mercenaries, though at least the overwhelming majority have been in the country for years for purely economic reasons. It is likewise aware of the need to maintain economic relations, particularly trade and investments, between the two countries.
Given the security and economic interests at stake, the Chadian regime has now recognised the former rebels, and Déby has met with the NTC leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil. But despite this rapprochement, uncertainty about the future of relations remains. Will the new rulers of Tripoli and Deby be able to win each other’s trust and put aside grievances born during the eight-month crisis? How will the volatile situation in southern Libya’s impact on these relations? What will be Libya’s new policy on the Chad-Sudan equation? More generally, what will be Libya’s new relationship with the rest of Africa?
Due to the length of his reign, his influence abroad and strong patronage politics, Qaddafi’s shadow will continue to be felt in Libya and neighbouring countries. The upheavals that preceded and followed his fall have created new and potential problems, including massive displacement of populations; tribal tensions within Libya and racist attacks against nationals of sub-Saharan countries; a possible resurgence of Islamism; and the proliferation of fighters and weapons. It is too early to say whether the changes will evolve into medium- and long-term factors of instability in the region, notably in the Sahel and Darfur. However, the issues faced by Chad, a country bridging black and North Africa and east and west Sahel, highlight some of the dangers the region faces in the post-Qaddafi era.
N’Djamena/Nairobi/Brussels, 21 October 2011