Between 3 and 6 February, the French army launched airstrikes against a rebel convoy in Chad. The intervention came at the request of Chadian authorities, who welcomed France’s cooperation and the “neutralisation” of the fighters.

Considering the long history of French involvement in its former African colonies, there is nothing exceptional about these strikes. In fact, Chad has experienced more French military interventions since independence than any other African country.

But the justifications for France’s presence and the military techniques have changed recently in important ways. […]

Barkhane’s objective is to support the “war on terror” in the Sahel and Sahara. However, its most recent targets have been rebels attempting to seize power in N’Djamena. These Chadian fighters are far from nice democrats. They use the rhetoric of democracy and change, but many were close to Déby before their defection. Timan Erdimi, leader of the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), who happens to be the president’s cousin, was a pillar of the regime until he joined the rebellion in 2004.

Whatever we think of their past and current politics, however, the UFR has little to do with the jihadist armed groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin that France is purportedly in the region to combat. Chadian rebels, who found refuge in Libya and made alliances with other armed groups there and in Sudan, are driven by politics not ideology.

From a legal point of view, France’s February intervention falls within the framework of a military cooperation agreement dating back to 1976 since when it has been interpreted excessively broadly. But unless we believe that anything that helps Déby is part of the fight against terrorism, there is little connection between France’s February airstrikes and Barkhane’s raison d’être. […]

Supporting Déby at all costs

Chadian authorities have strategically instrumentalised the “war on terror” by rebranding rebels as “mercenaries and terrorists“. Since its army’s intervention alongside the French in Mali in 2013, Déby has also played up the military diplomacy card and made himself indispensable to Western allies. As a result, the conflict-ridden country has acquired the status of regional power in just a few years.

Chad’s army is currently engaged in the war against jihadist armed groups in the Sahel and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin. It is now badly overstretched, however, and is facing difficulties in trying to cope with a rebellion on its own territory. This is especially the case as many soldiers and rebels have been recruited among the same ethnic groups and share strong social ties.

This is why France’s airstrikes are particularly important. They are part of an escalation and are a sign that France is now supporting Déby at all costs while ignoring the regime’s authoritarian practices and human rights violations.

In France, this means very little. Debates on foreign policy and its consequences in the Sahel are staggeringly poor. Few French MPs have voiced concern over the strikes. But in Chad, the role of the former colonial power does not go unnoticed and continues to fuel a strong anti-French sentiment.

African Arguments | 14.02.2019

Airstrikes and “stability”: What’s the French army doing in Chad?