Civil War Looms Ahead of Elections

Chadian President Idriss Deby is campaigning for a fourth consecutive five-year term ahead of elections on May 3, after controversially altering the constitutional term limit. (Photo: Thomas Coex / AFP-Getty Images)

Soldiers are out in force on the streets of the Chadian capital N'Djamena and residents are stocking up on cash and food in case of a descent into fighting after rapidly advancing rebel forces closed in on the city's outskirts late on Wednesday.

Military sources told IRIN on Wednesday morning that an army helicopter was shot down close to the town Ngouri, 125 miles north of the capital. At 7 p.m. local time an independent radio station announced that around 50 rebel vehicles had passed through Dourbani, a town 50 miles east of N'Djamena.

"We were sent here by the authorities yesterday evening to contain the rebels in case they attacked," said a government soldier posted at a roadblock on Wednesday afternoon. Government forces stationed around the city are heavily armed with machine guns, tanks and artillery.

Mobile telephone communications in the city have been cut intermittently since Wednesday lunchtime, as also happened during a failed coup attempt in March. Residents report an increased military presence on the streets, and shops, banks and government offices were scheduled to close until further notice at the end of the day on Wednesday.

"I've heard the rebels are at the edge of the city," said Arlette, 30, a government worker waiting in a long queue of people withdrawing money from a central bank in N'Djamena.

"We are scared but there is no alternative. We will wait to see what happens tomorrow. I have made reserves [of food and water] for my family so we will not starve if there is war," said a nervous shopkeeper in the city center.

The town Mongo, 250 miles from N'Djamena and around 185 miles further west than any previous rebel attack, on Tuesday night became the latest location confirmed occupied by rebels in their west-bound sprint across the sparsely-populated country from bases thought to be in Sudan.

The exact situation outside N'Djamena remained confused by conflicting government and rebel reports over which areas of Chad's vast, semi-arid territory were under whose control. In media interviews via satellite phones rebel leaders boasted of major military victories, but independent information about their location, weapons and personnel strength is hard to come by.

The towns of Haraze Mangueigne, Am Timan, Abou Deia and a refugee camp at Goz Amer that make an arch through the southeast of Chad have all been confirmed as having fallen briefly into rebel hands since attacks began on Sunday. Analysts told IRIN that President Idriss Deby, who the rebels want to depose, has reason to be alarmed.

"Regardless of exactly how close the rebels are to N'Djamena they are making rapid progress and the Chadian army has not been able to stop them," said Christopher Melville at the Global Insight research group in London.

According to Melville widespread defections from the army to various rebel groups, and the death of former army chief of staff General Abakar Youssouf Mahamat Itno in heavy fighting in the east in late March has meant that "some of the strategic thinking that might have accompanied counter insurgency has gone out the window."

President Deby is campaigning for a fourth consecutive five-year term ahead of elections on May 3, after controversially altering the constitutional term limit. He has been in power since 1990 after staging his own coup d'état with only a few hundred soldiers which he too launched from Sudan.

"These actions are being done to disrupt the presidential elections," said a government spokesman on Tuesday evening. The government has repeatedly accused neighboring Sudan of fueling the fighting and calls the fighters mercenaries and militiamen, not rebels.

Despite the seemingly increased strength and coordination of the rebel movement as it advances towards the capital, predictions of N'Djamena's fall may still be exaggerated, said analysts.

President Deby published a manifesto on Tuesday in which he said he "considers his enemies today to be future partners tomorrow," a move which analysts said could open the door to negotiation and accommodation with the rebel groups.

Meanwhile France, which has been providing logistical and intelligence support to the Chadian army in its fight against rebels in the east, was reported by Agence France Presse on Wednesday to have sent 150 soldiers from Libreville, Gabon, to N'Djamena to bolster the 1200 French soldiers already deployed there. Analysts are divided over whether France would be prepared to fight to defend President Deby's government in the event of a showdown in the capital.

"This puts France in a very difficult position," said Global Insight's Melville. "While they would be loath to get involved in another civil war like in [Ivory Coast], the fact they have been open in their support for Deby in the east indicates how much they hate the idea of losing Chad to what is from a French geopolitical standpoint a Sudanese rebel movement."

N'Djamena, home to roughly half Chad's 5 million population, was the scene of the most violent battles when Chad's civil war, which raged throughout the country from 1965 until the mid 1980's, reached its most bloody head in 1980. Then, government functionaries fled the capital and state authority collapsed.

"I would expect a real mess again if the rebels do get into the city," said William Foltz, Professor of African Studies at Yale University.

Chad's rebel movement is formed by a diverse mix of groups, eight of which are loosely united under the coalition United Front for Democratic Change (F.U.C.D.). "All the parties can agree that Deby must go, but if they accomplish that then keeping a coalition together will be quite a task," added Foltz. "Deby would have been smart to have just retired." © IRIN

[This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]