French army at ease as Chad falls to rebels

Mark Huband in N’djamena

The Guardian, 5 December 1990

THE taxi driver turned up the volume of a taped reading from the Koran, saying: “Today Islam is peace.” He sighed. “Know Islam,” said the voice, the deep, precise French interspersed with chants in Arabic. The Chadian Plain swept before us, the tall smoke columns of bush fires drifting across the emptiness.

The driver hummed with the chanting. “It is good [former President Hissene] Habré is gone. [Rebel leader] Idriss [Déby] will do well. He is for Saddam Hussein. It is okay that Libya supported Idriss. It is okay, even though Libya is not so much for Saddam. But Saddam is a real Muslim. And now he has Idriss too.”

He switched on Radio Chad as we neared the border. Mr Debe, the new Chadian leader, had annulled the results of the National Assembly election held in June, the report said. The governing body was now the Popular Salvation Movement’s executive council, whose army was to be known as the Salvation Army Front.

Dug-out canoes plied across the Logone River between Koussari and N’djamena, where its tributary, the Chari, flowed off south into the desert. Mr Habré’s Anakaza tribe were fleeing west across the river to Cameroon. Mr Déby’s Zaghawa were going back, the boatman said. He dug his pole into the brown water. A man perched on the prow scooped handfuls of water from the river into his mouth. “No more problem going to Chad,” he said. “All different now. Not like before.”

The river bank was thick with people. Draped in thin cotton turbans, revealing only small dark eyes, the new army led us across the sand and into the city.

The Salvation Army’s turbaned troops perched on the sides of the Toyota Land Cruisers. They sped through the empty city with heavy guns mounted on the backs of the trucks. French soldiers perched on the sides of their Saviem jeeps. They patrolled the streets where the revolution had happened and had left only questions as it emerged from the desert.

“We work for the army which is in place,” said the French army captain as we toured the French military base in N’djamena. He thought for a moment. “No. We don’t work for them. We provide.”

Until the fall on Saturday of Mr Habré, France provided the Chadian armed forces with 90 hours per month of flying time on board French military transport aircraft. Arms, ammunition and food had been transported to the army’s bases throughout the country.

At the French military base, Foreign Legionnaires stared through their sunglasses as the commander attempted to explain how Mr Habré’s government could fall at the hands of Libyan-backed forces, without French soldiers providing support for their ally.

“I believe honestly that there is no country designated as an aggressor within the military arrangement operational in Chad,” said Colonel Dumaz. On Monday, Libyan military aircraft arrived unannounced in N’djamena and repatriated over 400 Libyans who had been freed from Chadian prisons by the new government. The prisoners were taken during the Libya-Chad war in the early 1980s.

France, under pressure from the United States during the height of the Reagan anti-Libya years provided military assistance to the Habré government to fight the Libyan occupation of the Aouzou Strip in the north of the country.

But now, there is no “designated” enemy recognised as the regional aggressor. So, Libyan planes landed, took away their imprisoned nationals, and left.

Mr Habré had been very rude about the French government before he fell from favour. Now he and most of his government have fled across to Cameroon. But Mr Déby may not be in office long. Mr Habré’s overthrown predecessor, Goukouni Weddiyei is rumoured to be planning a fresh attempt to take power.



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