WORLD

For Mitterrand, an African coup

MARCI MCDONALD November 16 1981
WORLD

For Mitterrand, an African coup

MARCI MCDONALD November 16 1981

For Mitterrand, an African coup

CHAD

Hollywood could not have orchestrated a more aptly timed showstopper. No sooner had 31 African leaders sat down in the streamlined urbanity of Paris’ International Conference Centre than the news flashed around the world. And diatribes against the mercurial Moammar Khadafy’s occupation of Chad suddenly needed revision. The Libyan dictator, hardly known for his willingness to oblige, appeared to be doing just that. In response to Chadian President Goukouni Oueddi’s week-old invitation to get out, Khadafy’s 10,000 soldiers were readying for an airlift home to Tripoli.

“What a coup de theatre,” marvelled one incredulous African diplomat. But like the rest of his confreres gathered at the eighth annual Franco-African summit, he nervously refrained from exulting. After all, if the Libyan withdrawal was a victory, nobody was yet sure for whom. In Paris, the aquiline Goukouni—who only the week before was rumored to have been overthrown by his own pro-Libyan foreign minister, Ahmat Acyl—turned up instead in power

and in pinstripes. Then he deadpanned that Khadafy’s move “did not surprise” him. But in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, ministers worried that the Libyans were abandoning them to renewed assaults by Chad’s rebel former defence minister, Hissène Habré, who last year managed to take over the capital.

But from his headquarters inside the Sudanese border, Habré promptly announced a ceasefire and declared his willingness to negotiate. In Paris, the summit just as promptly rallied a sixnation continental force under the colors of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to fill the breach in Chad within days.

To some observers, the scenario seemed too uncharacteristically peaceable and pat. Indeed, the only sure winner appeared to be France’s president, François Mitterrand. His first efforts at African diplomacy were hailed as a tour de force. Not only had Mitterrand lured nine more African chiefs to the summit than his predecessor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he had managed to pull off a military coup without emulating Giscard’s practice of dispatching French soldiers.

But France is already sending arms to Chad.

And after the conference learned that Paris will finance and outfit the OAU force, some critics saw Mitterrand’s policy simply as a more discreet brand of paternalism.

But as events unrolled, it became increasingly clear that he had played a major behind-thescenes role in plotting the Libyan pullout. The only question that remained was voiced by French TV commentator Christine Ockrent, who asked why Khadafy had complied.

One reason may be that Khadafy feared the scheduled denunciation by summit leaders, many of them key members of the OAU. Egypt, the Sudan and Somalia have threatened to protest his presidency of the organization next year. Other speculation centred on intelligence reports that despite its oil wells Libya is in tight economic straits. But the most compelling motivation appears to be Khadafy’s desire to normalize relations with France in the wake of his scuffle last summer with American naval aircraft. Paris had let it be known that ties would not be re-

stored until Khadafy does two things: rebuild the French Embassy in Tripoli-burned down by his rampaging populace last year—and clear out of Chad.

In recent weeks, the colonel has turned into an enthusiastic pen pal of Mitterrand’s. After what now appears to have been a calculated false scare over a Chadian coup last month, Khadafy reportedly wrote that he would neither topple Goukouni nor keep his troops in N’Djamena if they were not wanted. In return, Paris convinced the Africans to let him retreat with his capricious feathers unruffled.

But as Mitterrand basked in unanimous raves over his first African performance, the most uncertain player to emerge from last week’s events remained Chad itself. War-ravaged and impoverished, it now faces new ten-

sions: the friction between pro-Libyan and anti-Libyan factions and the dangerous “Libyanization” of its already shaky eastern provinces, where the colonel’s forces set up Khadafy-style revolutionary committees. The delight of departing Libyan commander, Col. Radouane Salah Radouane, in pointing out to the press that his name meant “guardian of paradise” seemed a cruelly ironic comment on a country where life still promised to be infernal.

-MARCI MCDONALD