Close to the Libyan border, Chad’s gold-rich Kouri Bougudi region has been the scene of mounting tensions, compounded by tribal rivalries and external factors.
An Intersection of Ethnicities and Interests
The Chadian armed forces conduct routine patrols in the area with the stated goal of protecting the local population from looters. In reality, however, these steps are taken to assert control over the gold fields by Zaghawa, an ethnic group—just 1.1% of the population—that wields the most political power in Chad. The semi-nomadic Toubou people of the country’s north, who make up some 6% of the population and saw their political heyday in the 1980s-1990s, growingly oppose Zaghawa’s attempts to expand influence.
Another factor that contributes to armed clashes in the region is the steady influx of various Chadian movement from Libya, where they have been a target of Khalifa Haftar’s army units since late August. With them, small arms proliferate across the area, heightening the apparent breaches in security. Arm traffickers show a keen interest in drugs, too, which makes Chad’s goldfields inherently dangerous. Besides, tensions are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, as the region critically lacks access to drinking and agricultural water. The United Arab Emirates is notably interested in this area, seeking to secure the right to develop the Kouri 35 field. This interest is a concern for the army top brass (mostly Zaghawa), as they fear that interim President Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno will be more prone to support the interests of Toubou and, even if partially, Arabs. His personal background is a case in point here, as his mother is Toubou-Dazza, while his first lady is Toubou-Gaida. For some, this is evidenced by the President’s decision to dismiss over 100 high-ranking generals immediately after his visit to the UAE in June this year.
Growing Sway of the Emirates
The UAE is expanding its sway over northern Chad through a combination of humanitarian assistance and tighter military cooperation. The Gulf nation has recently sent medical devices, intensive care equipment and solar-powered lighting systems to the town of Am-Djarass, home to a UAE-funded field hospital. The place has recently emerged as an Emirati logistics hub for what The New York Times described as efforts to offer military and technical support for the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan’s escalating conflict. Other reports claim that some Chadian militias are fighting in the RSF ranks. These formations largely stand in opposition to the current government in N’djamena and have links to the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), a group fighting against government forces in the country’s north. Importantly, FACT was responsible for the death of President Idriss Deby, triggering an unpredicted political transition.
Chad’s Sudan Dilemma
This leaves the Chadian government on the horns of a dilemma as the UAE—a partner in cooperation and even military exercises—leans toward backing the RSF, while the backbone of the army elite (the Zaghawa) seem more willing to side with the Sudanese Armed Forces.
Sadiq al-Riziqi, President of Sudan’s Union of Journalists, argues that this dilemma, if solved in favour of the RSF to win more support from the UAE, will have implications for the intra-elite landscape in Chad. Most likely, such a turn of events would see the end of the Zaghawa’s political dominance. There might be the risk that the conflict in Sudan, while ongoing, could spill over into Chad.
The dilemma is further complicated by the RSF’s recent advancement into Sudan’s state of South Darfur, with their consolidated presence in Zalingei (Central Darfur) and El Daein (East Darfur). The capture of Nyala—not only the state’s capital but also the country’s second largest city—may well overturn the power dynamics in the conflict, especially since much of the government has retreated to Port Sudan, essentially leaving Khartoum to the hands of the RSF. In the meantime, Darfur is a region where the Zaghawa are one of the major ethnic groups. For the ruling elites in Chad, this seems a highly unfavourable development.
Nikita Panin, Expert for the Center of African Studies, HSE University