By Mark Naftalin

With all eyes on southern Sudan, those interested in the stability of the wider region would be well advised not to overlook current and future events occupying Sudan's western neighbours.

January's referenda on Southern Sudan's self determination and the status of Abyei are two of the most important events to occur within the region in years, if not decades. Media and diplomatic attention on the potential local and national fallout is as inevitable as it is understandable. However, the referenda and subsequent negotiations are not the only coming events within the unstable triangle of Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). Ignoring Sudan's two western neighbours - the CAR and Chad - risks overlooking the fragile balance of stability within, as well as between, the three countries.

Despite numerous postponements, presidential elections are now due to be held in the CAR on January 23 and in Chad on May 8, with the latter's parliamentary and local elections in February and March respectively. The two former French colonies have historically been beset by conflict, including involvement by the military in political affairs, and are consistently two of the ten most vulnerable states worldwide according to the Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy Failed State Index. Furthermore, they continue to be entangled with events beyond their borders.

Chad and the CAR are ranked low on the 2010 Ibrahim Index on African Governance, and elections in either country do not necessarily indicate good governance or guaranteed future stability. The CAR's incumbent leader, President François Bozizé, came to power in a military coup in 2003.

There have been some commendable developments since: elections in 2005, the signing of peace agreements between the government and a number of rebel groups, the launching of a national unity government, economic reforms and the CAR's placement on the agenda of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission. However, in a country that is still one of the world's most neglected, large areas outside the capital, especially in the east near the Sudan border, continue to be conflict-prone.

With a ragtag army estimated to have between 3,000 and 6,500 men, many who are associated with human rights violations, the CAR is in desperate need of stability around the elections. There has been a lack of recent progress in implementing the peace agreements, small arms can be found throughout the county and there are substantial shortcomings with regard to the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants. Timber, diamond, uranium, gold and possible oil reserves may lead to large numbers of armed spoilers surrounding any event affecting the country's future governance.

Like Bozizé, President Idriss Déby of Chad is no stranger to military coups.He seized power in 1990 and has since been subject to a number of attempted overthrows. Déby unconvincingly repelled a rebel coalition offensive in 2008 which almost toppled him. The attack originated from the east of the country and had the support of the Sudanese government. Despite the presence of government military forces now in eastern Chad and significant investment in the army, Déby may not have the capacity on his own to defend himself if the fragmented rebels unite to deliver a concerted and targeted attack later in the year. If France calls Déby's August 2010 bluff, when he insisted that France pay compensation for its ongoing military presence in Chad, or face withdrawing its soldiers and aircraft, Déby's options may be limited. Déby may have been sabre-rattling with an eye on the election but the point remains that, with a limited support base and without French assistance, he is vulnerable and the country unstable.

An Uneasy Rapprochment

The end of December marked the termination of the UN Mission in Chad and the CAR (MINURCAT). Chad cited a significant and welcome improvement in security in the east of the country and concluded that MINURCAT, which was responsible for promoting domestic and regional stability, was no longer required. Insecurity in eastern Chad, where the vast majority of MINURCAT troops were based, certainly diminished in the latter half of 2010. However, this was more a consequence of a January 2010 rapprochement between Déby and President Uma-al-Bashir of Sudan that led to the deployment of a joint border force, a cessation of the proxy war between the two countries and an end to safe havens for each other's rebels. Furthermore, Chad saw devastating flooding over the summer which resulted in reduced movement amongst those responsible for attacks.

Whether the bilateral agreement continues to be maintained and enforced on the ground remains to be seen. Both leaders have previously interfered in the internal affairs of each other's countries and have strong elements within their respective inner circles who favour continued meddling in their neighbour's sovereign space. The current normalisation of relations, although encouraging and of a longer duration than previous agreements, may not last. The risk analysis for each country is pragmatic to the point of being crude: as soon as either party realises that there is greater tactical benefit to be gained from a renewal of proxy war, violence may mirror that seen prior to 2010.

Such a development would not bode well where conflict contagion has previously hampered the region's stability. Insecurity in eastern Chad is frequently assumed to be little more than spill-over from Darfur: a conclusion that ignores internal axes of conflict within Chad. Nevertheless, the two conflict arenas are closely overlapping and a breakdown in relations, together with the withdrawal of MINURCAT - however ineffective it was - would have a considerable impact on stability between eastern Chad and Darfur. With Khartoum focussing on the fallout from the referenda and the rapprochement having brought much needed security ahead of Chad's elections, Déby may decide that he has maximised the political rewards for stability in the east.

Chad's armed forces are currently deployed in the country's east and are well placed, if and when the time comes, to provide covert support to Darfur's rebels as some contingents have done in the past. Darfur's most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has been hesitant to engage in the recent negotiations with international mediators and may gain fresh momentum with a show of force following Sudan's referenda. For his part, Bashir may be keen to militarily reassert his authority in Darfur following the perceived humiliation of having to negotiate over southern Sudan's future. Vitally, the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has previously provided Darfur's rebel groups with weapons and training, and may re-engage with them if necessary as an anti-Khartoum proxy. The one saving grace is that with the immediate priority being southern Sudan, Khartoum may not want to further exacerbate tensions on the Sudanese-Chadian border or overstretch itself, and therefore may try to maintain last year's rapprochement and pursue stability at all costs.

The CAR may be regretting Chad's fait accompli over MINURCAT's future. With MINURCAT mandated in the latter half of last year to dedicate less than fifteen percent of its overall military force to CAR, and its civilian, humanitarian, judicial and political affairs units mostly confined to eastern Chad, the CAR is requiring more and better targeted international assistance rather than MINURCAT's total withdrawal. In late November, the Convention des Patriotes pour la Justice et la Paix overran a key strategic town and airport in the northeast and the CAR government required assistance from the Chadian military to re-take the area. Moreover, the CAR has been a launchpad for military incursions including those active in southern Sudan. Despite President Obama sanctioning in May the US policy to 'apprehend or otherwise remove' the top commanders of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the LRA has stepped up attacks in the area, which are likely to persist into early 2011. Its presence has already led to Ugandan military involvement in the CAR as well as in southern Sudan, and the highly mobile LRA will continue to exploit ungoverned spaces between the CAR, Sudan and Chad. There are rumours that LRA leader Joseph Kony himself is in south Darfur; if accurate, this would mark a dangerous escalation given that his organisation has previously acted as a proxy for Khartoum against nearby southern Sudan.

With international attention focussed on Sudan's referenda, those interested in stability within the wider region would be well advised to look beyond the impact of a possible Khartoum- Juba rift. It is vital not to lose sight of other dynamics occurring in the region over the coming months. Such developments are significant in their own right - on both a humanitarian and security level - but risk being overshadowed by the importance of southern Sudan's referenda and resulting negotiations. Given the substantial interconnectedness and porous borders, security issues in Sudan's western neighbours may ultimately interplay with stability in Sudan. The nightmare scenario where insecurity internal to southern Sudan may be compounded by events external to it is a distant one. However, in a part of the world known for its volatility and where stability quickly unravels, the possibility of a symbiotic conflict trajectory is not altogether unfounded.

(Mark Naftalin is a Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).)


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