Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Regime change in Chad?

Is it time for regime change in Chad? Admittedly, it’s a tarnished phrase, part of the modern lexicon (like “ethnic cleansing”) that seems to provide an aura of innocence and order to an undoubtedly messy and sordid event.

We write this as three different rebel groups have coalesced into one fighting machine and are presently awaiting the evacuation of N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, to resume its assault and bring down the regime of Idriss Déby. The African Union has claimed its body will refuse to accept the rebel government. Mr. Déby, after all, is an elected leader of a sovereign state. The United Nations has also pledged its support. The Security Council is working out a a way to prop up the Déby regime.

Even with the backing of these political bodies, the question of regime change is still pertinent. One, the rebels are literally waiting outside the capital to begin a final assault. Secondly, we have to ask ourselves whether Chad would be better without President Déby?

As much as we love uttering the word “freedom” and throwing around expressions like “democracy,” is a country like Chad part of a world where those two terms exist in mutually exclusive environments? There are grey areas for each, especially in the case of Chad, a fractured, poor country.

Déby’s 17 years in power have not been pretty. Transparency International ranks Chad as the eighth most corrupt country in the world, which is admittedly a step up from just a few years back. The U.S. State Dept. heavily criticized Déby’s most recent “seriously flawed” election (where he changed the constitution to be able to run) and chronicles the concentration of power in the president’s ethnic group, the Zaghawa. The Council on Foreign Relations examined how Déby circumvented the once-acclaimed Petroleum Revenue Management Law that was to guarantee a portion of oil royalties distributed directly to public works, the sectors of health, education, rural development and environmental projects.

Chicken crosses the road
As predicted, the agreement over oil revenues worked until Déby needed weapons. Déby, like today’s rebels, originally came to power through a military insurrection launched from Sudan’s Darfur region. Yet he has brought a semblance of stability to Chad, which had suffered nearly three decades of civil war since its independence from France in 1960.

After more than a decade of relative peace, hostilities began again in 2004 when Janjaweed militias from Darfur began attacking villages in neighboring eastern Chad, and Déby immediately accused Sudanese President Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir of trying to destabilize his country. In August 2005, a group of militants formed an army in an attempt to overthrow the Déby government and soon began attacking Chad’s military.

As rebel activity increased, Déby did admittedly what any other leader would do: Use any money at his disposal to protect himself and, the way he saw it, his country. It is not the first time national security trumped other needs. (One could also make the argument that many of the recorded human rights violations in Chad were conducted in the name of national security.)

Now we come to the chicken and egg portion of our program. What came first? Déby’s iron-fisted, cynical rule, and the power he wholesale doled out to his Zaghawa tribe. Or, the rebellion. (Some cynics may point out that Déby, like Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja, needs a “rebellion” to make the case for staying in power. With rebels attacking the capital city twice in a two-year span, I’d say that’s doubtful in the case of Déby. The Jury remains out on Tandja.)

The question at hand
Let’s get back to Déby’s rule. There is the question of whether the people of Chad want to be ruled by someone else than Déby. It’s their decision, of course. In our eyes he may have done wrong by attempting to change the constitutional number of term limits, but a majority of voters supported his plan. He may have overseen questionable elections, and his party may dominate politics, but it the country, on paper at least, is a semi-functioning democracy. He didn’t force the opposition to boycott the previous election.

In these matters, there’s an important question to ask: How corrupt or dominating does a government have to be before it’s considered corruptly dominating. Where does one draw the line of leading ruling party and one-party state?

In this instance, we can pose a less pie-in-the-sky question: What happens if a majority of Chadians want a one-party state? I’d say in some cases political liberties – the right of multi-party elections, the right of a representative opposition – may fall in different categories than traditional human rights – the right of assembly, the right to a free and fair trial, freedom of thought, etc. Perhaps this is the difference between freedom – universal rights – and democracy, which is just a system of government.

This may seem obvious in a post-Saddam Hussein world, but if a majority of Chadians support the Déby regime, no matter how harsh it is, the international community should respect that. Continuing with Saddam in mind, what happens when a majority of Chadians want Déby out but because he’s got such a stranglehold on power, they’ll never get him to budge?

There is no such thing as a good coup d’etat, of course. Of the more than 100 coups taking place in Africa since the mid-1960s, members of the International Crisis Group estimate that only two could actually termed “good coups”: Mali in 1991, which is better seen through the lens of the anti-Soviet revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe a few years before; and maybe Mauritania in 2005.

There’s a lot of reasons for this. International law for one. Secondly, the instability that often arrives with a coup. Idriss Déby may not be a particularly good president, but he provides for the world a known quality. This devil we know is often better than the devil we don’t know.

To serve and protect
Let’s say either the UN Security Council through France, with its 1,500 soldiers stationed in Chad, decides to protect the Déby regime. With rebels barking at the gates, perhaps this may be a good time for the Sarkozy government to bleed some reforms out of Déby. If the French would guarantee his protection, Déby may be very amenable to a compromise. (Of course, any security guarantees may lead France down a slippery slope of protecting tyrants in need – a bad habit they promised to reconsider.)

Anyway, time is apparently running out, and a humanitarian disaster is possibly afoot. So let’s start with Déby guaranteeing a portion of the oil revenues for “future generations” as he was supposed to do with the Petroleum Revenue Management Law. We could continue with demanding the annulment of the often violent harassment of opposition politicians and journalists. We could move on to finding a counter balance to the power that lay in the hands of the president’s ethnic group. One wouldn’t have to stop there, but you get the point.

Isn’t this just another instance of big, powerful states playing the game of neo-colonialism? I’d give you a qualified “yes.” One could make the argument that the proposed reforms may take the wind out of the rebellion’s collective sails. (Claims of Sudan’s financial support notwithstanding, much of the make up of rebel troops are former members of Chad’s military tired of the regime’s corruption and ethnic-identity politics.)

A rebellion robbed of its gripes would not only lose legitimacy, but could cease being a tempest in an already instable region. It would also benefit regular Chadians by providing a respite from the chaos and fighting. Perhaps then they can go on with building a government of their choice.

None of this seems particularly revolutionary or even daring. That’s the point. The region is already unstable as it is, adding more refugees certainly won’t solve any problems. Nor will providing cover for a shadowy rebellion that nobody knows its true aims. And remember, no matter how promising it sounds, haven’t we learned that regime change often produces unintended consequences?

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