Chad on the brink: how the war in Sudan hurts its fragile neighbour

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Since the 15 April outbreak of hostilities in Sudan, the civilian population has been bearing the brunt.

The Rapid Support Forces, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (called Hemeti), are in conflict with the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s de facto head of state.

Nearly 1.4 million people have been displaced. Of these, 330,000 have crossed into neighbouring countries.

Chad – already a fragile country itself – is one. Around 90,000 Sudanese refugees have entered Chad since the conflict began. The new arrivals have added to 600,000 mostly Sudanese refugees already in Chad after fleeing previous conflicts, especially in the Darfur region.

Despite its oil wealth, Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world. Chad and Sudan share a common border of 1,400 kilometres. They also share the same ethnic groups living on both sides of their borders.

As a political scientist and expert in ethnic and religious conflict with a focus on Chad, I outline how the ongoing armed conflict in Sudan poses security, humanitarian, political and economic challenges for Chad.

Fragile security

In the past, relations between Chad and Sudan have been characterised by conflicts, proxy wars and fragile peace agreements.

The Darfur region plays a crucial role. It has at different times been a shelter for rebel groups of both countries.

Before he took power in Chad through a coup in December 1990, Idriss Déby Itno, an ethnic Zaghawa, and his militia had their rear base in Darfur. Members of Darfurian Zaghawa belonged to the inner circle of his rule.

After his death in 2021, a military council led by his son Mahamat took power in Chad.

Sudan’s Hemedti is well connected within Chadian politics and military. He is of Chadian Arab descent and has his stronghold in the Darfur region. His family lives on both sides of the border.

Hemedti’s cousin, General Bichara Issa Djadalla, is the personal chief of staff to Mahamat Déby. Hemedti’s victory or defeat in Sudan could be a huge risk for the transitional president Déby in Chad.

In the case of his victory, Chadian Arabs could feel encouraged to try to take power in Chad as well. Many Chadians want an end to the Zaghawa rule, which has lasted for more than 30 years. Chadian Arab forces could be a real threat for Mahamat Déby.

In case of defeat, Hemeti would not give up his stronghold, Darfur. The gold of Darfur is the reason for his wealth and military strength. Hemedti is known for his cruelty and ruthlessness. The Zaghawa of Darfur could become the victims, as it was during the Darfur crisis in 2003. If Mahamat Déby did not intervene, other sons of Déby and Zaghawa members of the army could quickly get rid of him.

Humanitarian crisis

The consequences of the outbreak of fighting in Khartoum were immediately felt in eastern Chad.

About 90,000 refugees have fled from Sudan to Chad so far. Among them are about 12,500 Chadian returnees who have been living in Sudan for decades.

Most refugees arrived in eastern Chad with only what they could carry. Here they met a poor but traditionally hospitable population, including earlier refugees. The arrival of more refugees risks worsening a precarious situation.

International aid is desperately needed. The people lack water, food, medical care and all other necessities of life. According to UNHCR, only 17% of the funds needed to meet the most urgent needs of refugees in Chad have been received from donors.

During her recent visit, USAID administrator Samantha Power pledged $17 million in humanitarian aid to the Chadian government for new and long-time refugees in the east of the country.

UNHCR’s deputy high commissioner for refugees, Raouf Mazou, also promised help for refugees and Chadians during his audience with Mahamat Déby on 22 May 2023.

In spite of these promises, there’s a risk that if any group feels neglected in the allocation of support, tensions between the local population and the newcomers could increase.

With the rainy season approaching, the situation threatens to deteriorate further. Access to the refugee camps becomes almost impossible due to poor or non-existent roads. This will make it even more difficult for aid organisations to distribute relief supplies and to move the refugees away from the border region. A humanitarian disaster in eastern Chad is a possibility.

Economic crisis

Landlocked Chad is heavily dependent on imports of most goods – industrial products, raw materials and food. The two main ports that supply Chad are Douala in Cameroon and Bur Sudan in Sudan.

The closure of the borders has had an immediate impact on Chadian consumers. Prices of goods and services have risen by up to 70%, according to the Observatory for Economic Complexity.

The few Chadian exports have come to a standstill. Cotton, gum arabic and livestock are Chad’s main non-oil exports.

The war in Sudan might bring the already weak Chadian economy to a standstill. To make matters worse, there is currently a shortage of fuel in Chad. The shortage led to an increase in fuel prices of up to 300% – in a country where private households and manufacturers rely almost entirely on their own generators.

Political implications

Chad’s transitional president Mahamat Déby was surprised by the fighting in Sudan while on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. It took him almost a week to find a safe way to fly back home to N’Djamena.

However, he announced on his Facebook account that he had been in telephone contact with the two warring parties, trying to convince them to stop the fighting.

He wanted to present himself as a mediator to the international public. By talking to the two generals, he avoided choosing sides. He cannot afford to get caught on either side of the conflict between al-Burhan and Hemeti.

Since the death of his father, Mahamat Déby has tried to keep a firm grip on power despite national and international criticism. The transitional authorities suppress opposition to the Déby dynasty.

At its last meeting, the African Union Security Council reiterated the ineligibility of the transitional government, including its president.

The war in Sudan and its outcome could destabilise Chad even further and lead it away from any path to peace and democracy.

Written by Helga Dickow, Senior Researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institut, Freiburg Germany, University of Freiburg.

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.