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Vol 65 No 9

Published 25th April 2024


President Mahamat considers the Russian bear hug

A letter to Washington has put relations in the cooler, as overtures to the Kremlin increase and the president ponders a change of allegiance

On 4 April the Chadian government threatened to cancel the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States, the law that regulates the conditions under which the 100 or so US soldiers, mainly Special Forces, operate in the country. Coming so soon after the Niger military junta's breach with the US – which also centred on the SOFA – the letter underlines the fragility of the US position in the Sahel.

The US agreed to leave Niger on 19 April after trying desperately to remain. If Chad also annuls its SOFA, US military operations would cease there and regional anti-jihadist operations would need to be reconsidered. Washington may seek to expand its role in southern Libya, where Russia is also extending its influence.

The Niger junta accused the US of being 'condescending' when Assistant-Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and the head of the US Africa Command (Africom), Gen Michael Langley, Africom visited Niamey on 14 March (AC Vol 65 No 7, General Tiani swaps the US for Russia).

A senior US Air Force officer in Niamey, where the Pentagon has a major drone base, made a 'whistleblower' complaint to Washington that the US embassy was dragging its feet in dealings with the junta and making life difficult, possibly dangerous, for US service personnel.

Chad's letter also contains evidence that the US may also have been acting insensitively, as well as insights into President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno 'Kaka''s regime in the run-up to the presidential election on 6 May (AC Vol 65 No 6, Kaka paves a hard road to sham poll). It was signed by Gen Idriss Amine Ahmed, the head of the air force, instead of going through the foreign ministry, the usual channel when talking to a foreign government.

It is a snub to the foreign ministry which the general saw no need to explain, and about which the well-respected Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, did not apparently complain.

Gen Amine, who was trained in Ukraine and Russia and is fluent in both languages, is well-known to be anti-west. He is close to Idriss Youssouf Boy, Kaka's most senior advisor, and his sister was married to Kaka's late father, President Idriss Déby Itno.

Amine is responsible for the policy of acquiring Turkish combat drones, and strongly supports rebalancing Chad's external relations towards Russia and the global south.

Looking to the east
He is not the only senior official in his 50s or 60s who wants a break with France and the US. Many of them received their higher education in Eastern Europe and Russia and do not share the hostility of their western counterparts to Moscow. The new Secretary General of the Presidency, Mahamat Ahmat Alhabo, also justice minister in Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo's cabinet, is fluent in Russian and hostile to France. His role is likely to grow if the turn to Moscow is confirmed. 

Amine's letter demands the US respond to an earlier request for copies of the agreement authorising the US presence at the Adji Kosseï air base, and since they failed to produce them, to leave. This could be a ploy to get the US to improve the terms on which it would continue its presence at the base, US media reported. If the Pentagon makes a better offer, Kaka could brush it off as a misunderstanding. If it doesn't, he could have Amine maintain the pressure.

Yet the prospect of a break with the US and with France raises serious questions for Kaka's international alignments and carries risks. Instead of trying to win popularity by prosecuting the members of the elite who plundered the electricity and water utilities, Kaka is shaking his fist at foreigners who dare to lecture Chad on its internal policy and abuse its sovereignty.

Up to now, France – and thus, the US – has been deeply unpopular locally because it has unconditionally supported Kaka's father and himself. Chadians who resent western donors for putting conditions on new money or political support are few. President Emmanuel Macron tried to stop Kaka standing for the presidency and was furious about the mass killings and arrests in October 2022 (AC Vol 63 No 22, Massacre threatens transition plan).

Kaka's opponents say that when he went to Russia in January, it was to strike a deal with President Vladimir Putin and to join the Alliance des États du Sahel (AES), the new alliance of the miliary regimes in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and that after he wins the presidential election he will ask French troops to leave (AC Vol 65 No 3, Juntas in shock split from Ecowas).

The evidence backing this view is weak, however. Personal relations between Kaka and Macron are certainly poor. Macron further snubbed Kaka in February 2023 when he would not allow Idriss Youssouf Boy to join their meeting at the Elysée palace. Macron rubbed salt in the wound by telling Kaka that Boy was corrupt and highly unpopular and he should sack him.

In February, Boy got his revenge by obtaining the removal of Gen Ahmat Kogri, director of the Agence Nationale de Sécurité de l'Etat (ANSE) since July 2017.

Kogri was a long-time trusted interlocutor of France's foreign intelligence service, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE). The new head of ANSE, Ismäel Souleymane Lony, does not speak French well and has little experience, meaning the DGSE has to talk directly to Boy.

The allure of the Kremlin
Kaka may like Russia's promise to all African leaders – that it can protect them against any coup or assassination attempt – but such a dramatic switch is problematic.

Many Chadian officers hear what their colleagues in Central African Republic and Mali tell them about the Russians. They are ruder than their western counterparts, and the Kremlin has no money to give, unlike the US, France and the European Union. 

Russia sells or barters but has nothing to trade except weapons and, from time to time, cereals. Chad's financial needs are great, and neither Russia nor China can help there. Discontent within the military could well be echoed in the general population quickly. 

Sourcing new money
The United Arab Emirates looks like an unlikely alternative source of finance to traditional donors. Kaka's last visit to Abu Dhabi ended in humiliation because they would not top up the money they had already donated towards his presidential campaign.

Abu Dhabi is aware that Qatar may want to restore its relationships with Ndjamena but there is no point starting a bidding war until after Kaka's election. Kaka's options are few as he will have no democratic credentials, and his stability is ultimately dependent on his ability to bribe and co-opt opponents. 

But Kaka feels he is being pushed away from the west. Three members of the US House of Representatives with important committee roles on Africa visited Ndjamena in March, mainly to review the problem of refugees from the fighting in Sudan. 

When they met Kaka they said he should have more respect for human rights, that there still needs to be accountability for the October 2022 killings, and the coming elections should be credible. 

Kaka did not enjoy the lecture and many see his démarche to the Pentagon over the presence of its troops as his revenge. He may also have had in mind the harsh words exchanged during the ill-prepared visit of US Assistant Secretary Phee to Niamey. The Chadian and Nigerien military are close but relations were dented when Nigerian President Bola Tinubu succeeded in persuading Kaka to ask the junta in Niamey to release President Mohamed Bazoum from his detention since 26 July. The Niger junta's boss, Gen Abdourahamane Tiani, reacted badly to the plea. This has affected relations between Ndjamena and Niamey, and Kaka probably blames the west for this too.

As the electoral campaign moves on Kaka faces a problem familiar to his father – by what percentage should he win the election in the first round? The question is not whether the election will be rigged, but only whether he chooses a massive figure, or follows his father's example and attempts to maintain some international credibility by winning with around 60% of the vote.

The US will be faced with the same problem that France has faced for decades: does it maintain its democratic credibility, or swallow its pride and make a pact with the devil in the name of fighting the spread of jihadism?

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