Troop contributions to international interventions by authoritarian states pose a puzzle. On the one hand, participation in such interventions indicates support for a liberal-cosmopolitan order that entails the protection of human rights at an international level. On the other, authoritarian regimes deny these rights to their own citizens.
Research on this puzzle has produced contradictory findings.
Some assume that, in the medium to long term, troop deployment supports democratisation efforts and eventually helps implementing a liberal-cosmopolitan order.
Others challenge this perspective. For example professor of international affairs Arturo C. Sotomayor argues that this is a “myth of democratic peacekeepers”. The military, in many places a key obstacle towards democratisation, does not necessarily become democratic through their participation in peace operations. Academics in political science and international affairs Jamie Levin, Joseph MacKay, and Abouzar Nasirzadeh go even further to argue that troop deployment impedes democratic change.
I argue that Chad during the reign of President Idriss Déby supports this.
My central argument is that Déby used participation in international interventions for his own purposes, namely to stay in power. He lacked domestic legitimacy and presided over a little-institutionalised state between 1990 until his death in 2021. Through his participation in international interventions, Déby made himself an indispensable ally of France (and to a lesser extent of the US) and helped them further their interests in the wider Sahel.
Déby benefited threefold from his alignment with France and his active stance in international interventions. First, he received large-scale funding that he could feed into his patronage network and strengthen the military.
Second, he could reduce tensions within the military by sending parts of it abroad.
And finally, and most importantly, he secured the support of major external actors who helped silencing national and international criticism against his rule. In 2019, the French government even rescued the Chadian president once rebels advanced toward the capital.
The dividend of troop deployment
Chadian troops have participated in several international interventions on the continent. This includes France’s and the United Nation’s operations in Mali, the operations of the G5 Sahel and Multinational Joint Task Force in the Sahel, and the operations of the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States in the Central African Republic.
For Déby the financial benefits of providing peacekeeping forces were significant.
France alone allocated €12 million a year to Chad throughout the 2010s for structural cooperation . In addition, donations and other forms of aid worth €53 million were provided through the French forces which maintained a large base in Chad.
Chad also benefited from joining the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force. The two coalitions were established to fight al-Qaida, Boko Haram, and their affiliates in the region.
Donors were willing to spend more on these mechanisms than they would have been prepared to offer on a purely bilateral basis.
Another source of foreign funding were the reimbursements paid by the United Nations for the peacekeepers. The 1,090 Chadian troops deployed in peace operations in 2014, for example, meant a reimbursement of an estimated US$17.4 million for that year.
These funds benefited the military as well Déby’s regime in two ways. Chadian troops became better equipped and trained, which helped the Chadian leader in his fight against domestic rebels and other challengers. And Chad received large amounts of development aid in the slipstream of military assistance. These funds could be fed into the patronage network, resembling a kind of “rentier peacekeeping.”
Déby benefited from participation in military operations in other ways too. Sending troops abroad helped him ensure that the military would not turn into a threat. Such a threat loomed large after he provided some positions within the military to his group, the Bideyat. Sending some forces abroad mitigated internal tensions within the group.
It was nevertheless costly, and led to rivalries with other segments of the security apparatus.
Lastly, Déby saw his international reputation rise – and dependence on him increase as well.
Even though oil revenues had generated funds to improve the military’s capabilities and secure Déby’s regime from within (Chad became a large oil exporter in the 2000s there were nevertheless a host of external threats especially in the early days of his rule.
As such, Chad had suffered from insecurity in its neighbouring states and from a proxy war fought on its soil. A different kind of threat stemmed from French politicians who had vigorously demanded democratic reforms in Chad.
It was the eventual support for France, the US, and their counter-terrorism agenda that led to a situation in which Déby’s rule became significantly less challenged from abroad.
Chad’s active participation in international interventions and Déby’s willingness to assume casualties – particularly in Mali, where his troops fought alongside France – were the main factors that brought that change. The Chadian president could translate the external recognition, visible, for example, through several visits of French presidents, into a stronger domestic position that overshadowed concerns about the legitimacy of his rule.
At Déby’s funeral in April 2021 Macron dignified Chad’s late president as a “friend” and “courageous” soldier.
But international support for Déby and the dependence on his troops had a downside: it came at the expense of democracy and respect for human rights.
Chadian civil society was frequently frustrated with the unconditional support Déby received from his international backers. Western governments ignored calls from national and international NGOs to hold Déby’s regime accountable for the human rights abuses and antidemocratic practices in the country. Authoritarian rule was effectively strengthened. Déby was just too important.
And the pattern seems to be repeating itself for his son Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno who succeeded him after his death.
Written by Martin Welz, Lecturer of Political Science, University of Hamburg.