WORLD

A tinderbox set to ignite

Chad threatens to embroil African, Arab and Western states in conflict

Claudia Wright February 9 1981
WORLD

A tinderbox set to ignite

Chad threatens to embroil African, Arab and Western states in conflict

Claudia Wright February 9 1981

A tinderbox set to ignite

WORLD

Chad threatens to embroil African, Arab and Western states in conflict

Claudia Wright

While the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was producing its expected call for an economic jihad (holy war) over Jerusalem, several of the participants were engaged last week in a variety of manoeuvres aimed at neutralizing the Libyan incursion into Chad. Saudi Arabia, typically, was trying to detach the new Chadian government from its Libyan backers by offering worldly goods, but several worldly minds were hinting strongly that moves were already under way to kill it with means other than kindness.

The civil war in Chad, an impoverished landlocked country in north-central Africa, has pitted the largely Moslem north against the Christian south for 15 years, and the former French colony is now the cockpit of Balkan-style conflict that threatens to embroil a large number of African and Arab states,

along with France and the United States. Chad is a member of the OIC and at last week’s summit in Mecca and Taif, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal worked hard behind the scenes to stop the conflict from escalating. His first move was to persuade Ahmat Acyl, Chad’s 36-year-old new foreign minister, that Chadian President Oueddei Goukouni should reverse an earlier decision not to attend the summit. Goukouni had been in Tripoli, Libya, on his second visit of the month, but

he flew to Saudi Arabia in time to attend the summit.

The Libyan role in Chad has been the focus of powerful reaction internationally. Libyan-based armor and artillery forces (see box) gave Goukouni the decisive edge last December over his opponent in the civil war, Hissène Habré, a former Chadian defence minister. Before that, several efforts by the Organization for African Unity (OAU) to mediate and demilitarize the conflict failed, and according to Acyl, so did appeals by

his government to France: “The provisional government of Chad asked the friendly governments and neighboring countries for aid. Nobody answered the request except Libya. France was asked to give aid to help stabilize the country, but France did not offer any aid.”

In the wake of victory, last month Goukouni made his first visit to Tripoli, where he and Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy signed an agreement that was widely interpreted as allowing Libya to merge with and annex Chad. But in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, and again in Saudi Arabia, Acyl and Goukouni denied that there had been any loss of Chadian sovereignty. Acyl promised that “once stability is established in Chad, we will not accept any foreign

power or presence—Arab, Moslem, Western.”

This was the point of leverage that the Saudis were seeking to exploit, offering substantial aid to create stability, after which Goukouni’s government could send the Libyans home. No definite agreement on this was revealed at the summit meeting, but the text of an unreleased resolution, approved by the heads of state, promises substantial new funds for drought aid and economic development for the arid Sahel area that includes Chad.

The Saudis also discussed the issue with Sudanese President Gaafar Numeiri and with the heads of state of

Niger and Senegal. But these discussions may have had a different focus, as a private comment by one Niger official indicated. “Why doesn’t Washington give the green light to attack?” he said. “Libya, with its ties to the Soviet Union, is a danger to Africa.” Numeiri was asked whether Egyptian forces were being infiltrated into camps set up for Habré on the Sudanese side of the Chadian border. (Habré has relied on Egyptian arms and cash for several years, and in Cairo 10 days ago, Presi-

dent Sadat hinted at the infiltration plan, which has had secret French backing.) Numeiri replied that he would approve “if it is the will of the Chadian people.”

Chadian officials say that Habré has no capacity to wage a guerrilla war by himself. They also believe that France’s overt military moves—reinforcement of contingents already in the Central African Republic, Senegal and Gabon and an alert for a naval squadron at Toulon—are mostly bluff. The covert ones

are of greater concern. “France is responsible for this problem,” Acyl says. “France used to kill thousands of people [in Chad]. Why didn’t the African countries complain about the presence of France?”

So far Washington has done nothing publicly except criticize Libyan intervention in Chad. But U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, when NATO commander, had a close working relationship with French African forces—particularly during the Franco-American intervention in Zaire in 1977 and 1978. General Numeiri, for his part, is regularly treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and neither he nor Sadat would act without Haig’s approval.