Playing a dangerous game in Chad

UN withdrawal from Chad will leave vulnerable people with no protection and waste efforts already made to stabilise the region. By Tom Rowe.

The 400 Irish troops in eastern Chad protect thousands of Chadians and Sudanese refugees, as well as numerous humanitarian aid agencies, from danger.

Threats include opportunistic banditry from armed men, stealing everything from animals to walkie-talkies; deliberate attack from Sudanese-backed militia, with the aim of terrorising the population into staying away from their original villages and land; and abuses by the Chadian army, which has been shown to take children to use as servants for soldiers. The children lose contact with their families who flee villages due to fighting, and the military denies knowledge of their whereabouts.

(All pictures taken by Tom Rowe in Chad.)

Previously part of the European Forces (EUFOR), the Irish donned blue helmets when they were subsumed into MINURCAT, the UN force deployed in Chad, in January 2009.

Not only does it provide military protection, MINURCAT is also developing a justice system in eastern Chad, a region where the hand of the government is light in all aspects except the military. A system for providing security in and around camps for displaced people and refugees is also in the process of being created.

These vital efforts, not yet finished, will come to an end when the UN soldiers are forced to leave when its mandate ends in May.  

Although attacks have not occurred as frequently as in the past, due to UN military presence and recent agreements between Sudan and Chad, the immediate future is not so certain.

National elections this month in Sudan, and National Parliamentary Elections scheduled for November in Chad could easily destabilise the countries. The two states - or more accurately their Presidents, Déby in Chad and Bashir in Sudan - have made agreements before, only to swiftly break them. Both have secretly funded anti-government insurgencies in the other country, with Déby funding groups in Darfur and Bashir aiding militants in eastern Chad.

When the UN troops - 400 Irish, but also including 4800 other soldiers from all over the world - leave, there will be little to stop the bandits, the Sudanese militia the population call the Jangaweed, or the Chadian army from abusing the people all over again. 

On a 2008 trip to eastern Chad, it was easy to see the difficulties in patrolling a border region that was entirely notional on the ground. The frontier only exists on maps. The people of the region do not even consider themselves Chadian or Sudanese, but identify themselves by their tribe.

Yet the Irish army seems to have mastered the intricacies and the vast sandy tracts of the region, with its low scrub, dried riverbeds, and 45-degree heat. This is an achievement, and the people I spoke to there were truly happy to see the troops landing in their hundreds on the dusty strip in Goz Beida. 

Meanwhile Irish politicians, also identified by tribe, have not yet mastered the art of international relations, leading to a cack-handed announcement of their troops imminent departure before the UN mandate runs out and the rainy season sets in, possibly leaving equipment stuck in the morass that is eastern Chad from May to September.

This was a surprise for their colleagues on the United Nations team negotiating with the intractable President Déby. The former coup leader, now in his 18th year in power, has asked the UN to withdraw from the country, claiming that his troops will provide protection to the people in the east, seemingly without a hint of irony. 

Déby may have been only playing for more control or limits on the UN, but the Irish are not up on the rules of this sport. Announcing the withdrawal of the troops amounts to putting the ball into Deby's half. It weakened the UN's hand in talks, as Déby could point to the fact that the troops are already leaving. The UN said as much in an Irish Times report that called the Irish announcement 'ill-timed'. 

But should we give our government the benefit of the doubt?

Perhaps, in a slick diplomatic move, new Minister for Defence Tony Killeen was actually playing the man and not the ball, using the threat of withdrawal to force the hand of President Déby into admitting that he wanted the UN there - his friendship with Sudan's President Bashir has often been strained - but was just looking to leverage a bit more control over the thousands of foreign troops in his country?

You don't stay in control of a place like Chad for 18 years without some cunning. Then again, Déby has probably never come up against a Fianna Fail politician.