Avoiding the Resurgence of Inter-communal Violence in Eastern Chad

By International Crisis Group

Intercommunal violence, particularly between Arabs and non-Arabs, has ravaged eastern Chad throughout 2019 and could further threaten the country’s stability. The government should initiate a debate on managing pastoralism and support an inclusive conference on the east.

What’s new? Throughout 2019, bloody intercommunal conflicts, in particular between Arab and non-Arab communities, have ravaged eastern Chad. Notwithstanding recent calm, the violence is indicative of deep identity fractures and is underpinned by competition for land and traditional and political power.

Why does it matter? Chad’s internal situation is fragile, and renewed violence in the east, a region that borders the historically troubled Darfur province of Sudan, could threaten its stability.

What should be done? The government should apply the state of emergency more flexibly to allow inhabitants to access markets and public services, initiate a debate on managing pastoralism, punish civilian and military officials for abuses of power and support an inclusive conference on the east.

Executive summary
Hundreds of people have lost their lives in a spike of intercommunal violence in the east of Chad in 2019. Tensions have often pitted majority groups in Ouaddaï and Sila provinces against Arabs. These conflicts flow in part from established rivalries between herders and farmers, but also derive from deeper identity-based competition over land, traditional authority and local political positions. In addition, populations no longer trust authorities who they accuse of taking sides in local disputes. The government in N’Djamena is worried about rapid changes in Khartoum, and the proximity of Sudan’s troubled Darfur province increases risks in Chad’s east. Chadian authorities should avoid an overly rigid application of the state of emergency in the east, which has helped reduce violence but has hurt local populations. To avoid renewed conflict, the government should also initiate a broad debate on how to manage nomadic pastoralism, take measures against military and other officials who abuse their power at the local level and back an inclusive conference on the east.

The violence in the Ouaddaï and Sila regions has multiple origins. It is firstly linked to the settlement of nomadic herders from the country’s north. This is not a new phenomenon. But its current scale causes concern among the region’s majority farming communities, who fear losing power and accuse the newly arrived groups, especially Arabs, of refusing to respect local customs. Herders, meanwhile, feel stigmatised. Some Arabs say they are treated like foreigners in a region where their families have been part of the society for generations.

The conflicts also reflect the area’s troubled relations with Sudan’s neighbouring Darfur province. The crisis in Darfur and the proxy war between Chad and Sudan in the 2000s exacerbated local tensions and rivalries among communities that are now at loggerheads in the east of Chad. These proxy wars saw pro-government Sudanese militia, the Janjaweed, recruit Arabs and attack villages in Ouaddaï and Sila provinces, forcing many residents to flee and generating resentment against Arabs in general. Even today, many in Sila and Ouaddaï fear that Arabs want to take over their land and expand power at their expense.

Visits by the president and his minister of public security throughout 2019 attest to growing official concern about instability in the east. The government fears that periodic violence could spread to other provinces, and even lay the ground for different government opponents and insurgents to find common cause. The crisis comes at a time of growing national strain and just months after a column of rebels entered Chad from Libya in February 2019. While the new dispensation in Sudan has been broadly welcomed by many regional and international actors, its implications for the stability of eastern Chad and the security of the border between the two countries remain unclear.

Faced with rising tensions in the east, Chad’s authorities decided to escalate their response in August 2019 by imposing a state of emergency in Ouaddaï and Sila, as well as in Tibesti in the north. The government has strengthened its military presence in the east and intensified efforts to disarm communities and warring actors there. This has helped reduce both clashes among different groups and criminality in late 2019. But populations in Ouaddaï and Sila are now suffering from abuses by security forces and restrictions on movement and trade. Moreover, the government’s actions have addressed neither the communal tensions nor the problems of local governance which underpin recent conflicts. It could be hard to hold legislative elections, currently scheduled for 2020, in the east.

To avoid further violence and, even if major progress is unlikely in the short term, deal with the deeper causes of this crisis, authorities should:

  • Initiate a broad debate with civil society and Chad’s international partners about nomadic pastoralism, with a view to adjusting land ownership policies and mechanisms and drafting clear consensual rules for the settlement of new populations. Such a debate is all the more important given that nomadic herders from the north are set to continue moving southward due to climate change and other factors, creating further intercommunal strains in the east and elsewhere in the country.
  • Discipline locally based officials and army officers who, because they have invested in large herds or work for absentee owners of those herds, pick sides in herder-farmer conflicts. To avoid conflicts of interests, the authorities should not send state representatives to places where they own cattle.
  • Support an inclusive conference on the east bringing together traditional authorities, traders, parliamentarians, and economic and religious actors. It should deal with herder-farmer relations, access to land, the use of diya (blood money), the role of traditional chieftancies and the circulation of small arms, and should formulate recommendations. That conference should lead to the creation of a permanent mediation committee, comprising some of the conference’s participants, to ensure follow-up of its recommendations. That committee should then become an official body, supported by the government, to mediate among warring communities in the east.
  • Support the work of traditional chiefs instead of harassing them.
  • Introduce greater flexibility in applying the state of emergency to permit Ouaddaï and Sila inhabitants to access weekly markets and public services and resume their activities. Authorities should also take measures against officials who abuse their power in dealings with traders and other civilians.
  • Ensure that arms collected during disarmament operations are systematically destroyed.
  • For their part, Chad’s international partners and donors should encourage authorities to take the above-mentioned actions. Humanitarian actors should also include a rapid reaction capacity in their national planning for the east, in case the situation deteriorates significantly.

    Nairobi/Brussels, 30 December 2019