Stepping on toes

Sudan crisis threatens to bring fresh turmoil to neighbouring Chad

Tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees have already crossed into a country gripped by its own political crisis

The violent power struggle that has erupted in Sudan will heighten instability in its politically fragile neighbour Chad, with tens of thousands of refugees already crossing the border.

The exodus into Chad, whose military junta has been a western ally against Islamist extremism, highlights the mounting problems in countries across the volatile Sahel region, from Mali and Burkina Faso to Sudan. Military coups, the rise of jihadism and the ineffectiveness of western and UN peacekeeping operations, as well as heightened activity by newer powers such as Russia, have all added to the instability.

“What happens in Sudan, will not stay in Sudan,” said Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk intelligence company. “All of Sudan’s neighbours are struggling with political instability, civil wars and insurgencies. The longer the fight drags on, the more likely it will spill over.”

The fighting that began this month between Sudan’s armed forces and the powerful Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group has brought war on to the streets of the capital Khartoum, leaving more than 400 dead and sending some 20,000 civilians in the western Darfur region fleeing over the border to Chad.

Aleksandra Roulet-Cimpric, Chad country director at the International Rescue Committee, said the refugees were “traumatised and arriving with very little provisions,” while the UNHCR said they were placing “additional strain on [Chad’s] overstretched public services and resources”.

The rival factions in Sudan late on Monday agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire, although fighting continued in Khartoum on Tuesday.

This is not the first time that Sudanese have fled to Chad to escape violence. More than 400,000 Sudanese citizens have sought refuge in Chad since the start of the Darfur crisis that began as a rebel uprising in 2003.

The two rivals for power in Sudan — de facto president Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the army, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, leader of the RSF who goes by the name Hemeti — were both active in Darfur, where as many as 300,000 people were killed and some 2.7mn displaced. Hemeti, who is of Chadian origin, led a battalion of the feared Janjaweed militia that was accused of atrocities there.

His RSF includes numerous Chadian Arab fighters, young men driven to the group out of poverty, and former anti-government Chadian rebels. Hemeti’s family member Bichara Issa Jadallah was Chadian defence minister during the Darfur crisis. Jadallah is now an influential member of Chad’s transitional military council.

If the conflict in Sudan escalates into civil war, analysts fear that the fighting could spread over the porous Chadian border.

“Chad is at immediate risk because of ethnic ties, the rising number of Sudanese refugees and a history of attacks by Janjaweed militias on Darfur refugees and Chadian villages,” Durmaz said.

Read also: What you need to know about the war in Sudan

Chad was cast into turmoil in 2021 when longtime president Idriss Déby Itno, an ally of the west, in particular France, in the fight against Islamist extremists, was killed by rebel fighters. Deby’s army was the most effective fighting force in the region at combating jihadist groups. His son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, then seized power and become de facto military leader.

A promised democratic transition that was meant to culminate in elections in October failed to materialise, sparking protests by opposition groups that were violently put down. Some 50 people were killed, according to official figures, although the true number may be higher, with rights groups accusing security forces of firing at civilians.

“Chad’s a fractious place — not unlike Sudan. There are a lot of different groups and militias,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies think-tank. The current political process there was “about . . . keeping the Déby regime in place,” he added.

Analysts say western countries and the African Union have been paying insufficient attention to Mahamat Déby’s coup in Chad, compared with the criticism levelled at the juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

The African Union suspended the memberships of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea in the aftermath of their coups and they remain on the sidelines. Sudan is also suspended. But Chad is still a full member of the alliance.

Ulf Laessing, director of the Sahel programme at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation think-tank in Germany, said: “Western countries and the African Union have been much more tolerant of Chad than Mali because the country is seen as a stability anchor in a fragile region.”

“There’s especially a concern in western capitals that regime change in Chad will lead to turmoil and chaos like in Libya.”

When Germany’s ambassador to Chad did break ranks this month to criticise the lack of progress with the democratic transition, he was kicked out of the country. Berlin expelled the Chadian ambassador in response.

Laessing said worries of fresh flows of refugees into Chad from Sudan could further temper the west’s criticisms of Mahamat Déby’s regime. “There’s a fear that Chad might get destabilised,” he said, and so western countries “might be less inclined to raise concerns over the transition” as a result.

Mahamat Déby said last week that he had spoken to Burhan and Hemeti, calling for a “peaceful solution to this crisis which is shaking Sudan and has harmful consequences for the stability of the region”.

The situation in Chad has been complicated by leaked US intelligence suggesting that Wagner group, the Russian private military company, has worked with anti-regime rebels in the Central African Republic, where Wagner has a foothold, to overthrow Mahamat Déby. The intelligence leaks, which have been reported by US media, could not be independently verified.

Wagner was previously active in Sudan, where it trained RSF members, according to Hemeti. Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said on Monday that Washington still had “deep concern about the engagement of . . . Wagner group in Sudan”.

Eizenga, of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, agreed the mounting uncertainty in Sudan could create significant problems in Chad. “The Déby regime is kind of a pressure cooker,” he said. “If left long enough, pressure cookers can explode because inside there’s a lot of turmoil building.”

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023