- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

N’DJAMENA, Chad — The streets of this capital were filled last week with rifle-toting men in battered pickup trucks after rebel groups threatened to overthrow President Idriss Deby before the May 3 elections.

Many of the men wear the brown camouflage garments issued to the army, but others prefer the gowns and turbans favored by residents of this capital. In poor but oil-rich Chad, no one raises an eyebrow at an unmarked truck bristling with machine guns and plainclothes fighters hurtling down the street.

Some of the weapons may have been bought with oil profits earmarked for poverty relief, a diversion that caused the World Bank to suspend loans to the Deby government in December. In response, Mr. Deby ordered the closure of Chad’s new $4.2 billion pipeline unless he was paid $100 million by the Exxon Mobil-led consortium holding his share of the proceeds.

After a rebel attack on the capital last week, the president said he doesn’t see why he should not spend the money to buy arms. He gave the consortium until the end of April to come up with the cash.

Years of corruption and nepotism in Chad and instability in neighboring Sudan have made many enemies for Mr. Deby. His cordial relationship with Sudan, which helped him seize power 16 years ago, soured after Khartoum accused him of providing arms and bases for rebels in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Many of the Darfur rebels are Zaghawa, the ethnic group to which Mr. Deby and his inner circle belong. Now the Chadian leader accuses Sudan of funding Chadian rebels of the United Front for Change. “They are mercenaries, not rebels,” he told reporters last week, flanked by heavily armed bodyguards.

Oil wealth, dirt poor

But another insurgent group that includes defectors from Mr. Deby’s elite guard unit and his twin nephews says it is fighting because the president has not done enough to support his kinsmen in Sudan. Last year, the Bush administration accused the Khartoum government of collaborating with Arabic-speaking militias to commit genocide against African tribes, including Mr. Deby’s Zaghawa people.

Observers contend that Mr. Deby’s decision to seek a third term has upset many of his inner circle, who had plans of their own for ruling the country and its oil wealth. Chad did not begin pumping oil until 2003. Although last year’s output was a modest 250,000 barrels per day, the freshness of the fields and the uncharted areas of desert have attracted great interest from investors, notably American giants Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil, plus Petronas, Malaysia’s government-owned petroleum corporation.

In 2004, Chad had the fastest-growing economy in the world. However, little of the money has trickled down to the population. In the heart of N’Djanema, the capital, crowds of children offer to sell bags of peanuts on dusty street corners. Most will not live to age 45; with the average wage below a dollar a day, few Chadians can afford health care.

Transparency International rates the country alongside Bangladesh as the most corrupt in the world. Since gaining independence from France 46 years ago, no government here has changed hands at the ballot box.

Observers say that even if Mr. Deby were overthrown, the country’s enormous oil wealth makes it unlikely the rebels could cooperate in forming a government or hold elections as promised.

“The [United Front for Change] is a very, very loose alliance of Chadian opposition groups orchestrated by Khartoum,” said Colin Thomas-Jensen, a Washington-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Continued fighting likely

“If Deby falls from power, continued conflict is likely as opposition groups jockey for position … Chad could easily and quickly become a base used by government-backed militias to attack rebels based in Darfur,” Mr. Thomas-Jensen said.

Neither of the two main rebel groups had a clear majority constituency in Chad, he said. A rebel victory still could degenerate into anarchy reminiscent of 1979, when 12 factions struggled to control the country. Bullet holes still pockmark the older buildings in the capital.

Last week’s attack added more pockmarks across the walls of the National Assembly. After so many defections, witnesses said soldiers wore red armbands to overcome the difficulty of distinguishing government forces from the rebels.

For now, the capital is calm, but there are daily reports of rebel attacks from the east. Although Chadian rebels have largely stuck to their promises not to target civilians, Janjaweed bandits are moving into the countryside as soldiers and rebels battle for control of the major towns.

“Chadians have been displaced since September 2005, but in the last week we have seen this number increase considerably,” said Matthew Conway, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “They are not only fleeing fighting between the government and the rebels, but Janjaweed militias that are sweeping into vacated areas in southeast Chad.”

The UNHCR estimates more than 65,000 Chadians have fled fighting in the east, joining more than 200,000 refugees from Sudan.

The victims belong to the same tribes that are being targeted in Sudan.

Khadija Yaya Moussa and her three children spent four days on donkeys crossing the desert after attacks on her village, Koloye, which is less than five miles from the border with Sudan.

“The Janjaweed came on cattle raids before, but now they are killing people,” she said through an interpreter. Now the family sleeps in the chilly air at a refugee camp, and welcomes strangers by rolling out a mat under a tree. Mrs. Moussa feels safer surrounded by humanitarian workers, she said, but she still fears being caught between hostile forces.

“We seem to be victims of the Sudanese government and the Chadian government,” complained Seid Brahim Mustapha, the sultan of Dar Sila, where Mrs. Moussa and many other villagers have sought refuge.

“There is a political reason for this,” said Mr. Mustapha. “It is a provocation, to destabilize the country.”

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