Nairobi/Brussels — Risks of an escalation in Tibesti are high as friction is rising between the state, gold miners and the local ethnic Teda population. The government should lift what has become a blockade of the village of Miski, dial back its rhetoric and enter talks with the population.
What's new? In the gold mining areas of Tibesti in northern Chad, friction is rising among the state, gold miners and the local ethnic Teda population. In late 2018, clashes erupted between Chadian troops and a self-defence group in the town of Miski. Tensions and risks of a new escalation remain high.
Why does it matter? Neighbouring Libya's intensifying conflict and an increasing number of violent incidents in southern Libya make Chad's northern border zone a high-risk area. In this light, the deterioration of relations between the Teda and the Chadian state poses a particular threat for Tibesti's stability.
What should be done? To help repair relations between the Teda and the government and avoid another confrontation, the government should lift what has become in effect a blockade of Miski, dial back its rhetoric and enter talks with the self-defence group and the population. Chad's international partners should encourage such steps.
Tensions are escalating in northern Chad's Tibesti region, on the country's border with Libya and Niger. An influx of outsiders attracted by gold, the region's increasing militarisation and Tibesti's predominantly ethnic Teda population's deep distrust of the central authorities have all contributed. Strains are especially evident in the mining areas of Kouri Bougoudi and Miski, notably over the management of resources from mining. The authorities have been quick to assume, erroneously, that miners are complicit with Chadian rebels in southern Libya. In turn, locals suspect the government wants to seize what they view as their gold. In Miski, tensions culminated in clashes at the end of 2018 between the army and a local self-defence militia. Since then, Chadian troops have retreated to 100 kilometres outside the town, blocking access to it. With fresh instability in Libya threatening to spill into northern Chad, N'Djamena should avoid at all costs another bout of fighting, and should instead seek to open talks with Miski's self-defence militia and local leaders.
Tibesti has been fertile ground for rebellions since Chad's independence in 1960. It is also pivotal to the country's stability, particularly given its proximity to southern Libya, which has been plagued by instability, inter-ethnic conflict and a rise in trafficking since the 2011 overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, and has become a safe haven for Chad's rebels. After Qadhafi's demise, N'Djamena lent support to the Teda populations that dominate Tibesti and are present in southern Libya, relying on them to exercise some control over the sensitive border zone. But the recent deterioration of relations between the Chadian state and the Teda in Tibesti makes it a high-risk zone, particularly as the risk of conflagration in Libya mounts due to Marshal Khalifa Haftar's ongoing offensive on the capital Tripoli, and levels of violence increase in southern Libya.
Since 2012, the region's gold boom has attracted traders, thousands of miners, Chadian soldiers and army defectors and Chadian and Sudanese rebels, all seeking to profit from the windfall. Chadian rebel groups make regular incursions from southern Libya. The mix provokes considerable anxiety for the Chadian authorities. They worry that gold mines may become hives of rebel activity and funding and that members of the armed forces, notably high-ranking officials profiting from mining, might build relations with the government's enemies. The government's concern is understandable. But its public discourse unhelpfully conflates migrants with potential rebels, gold miners with opposition forces and Chadian rebels or local-defence militias with terrorists. By accusing local populations of complicity with bandits and anti-state forces, it incenses many Teda.
Miski is a microcosm of such tensions. Inhabitants suspect those close to the inner circles of power of wanting to control the town's gold mining. The authorities interpret local resentment as a challenge to their authority. A tipping point came in August 2018, when the government decided to integrate Miski from Tibesti into Borkou region, where the Teda are a minority and less influential. It then fired canton chiefs who opposed that decision. In Miski, people reacted furiously. Local monitoring committees set up in 2013 to oversee and levy taxes from gold mining morphed into a self-defence militia, under the command of two of the deposed canton chiefs and others with a past in the Chadian army and rebel groups.
In late 2018, N'Djamena responded with force, as President Idriss Déby deployed Chadian elite forces under the command of his son Mahamat Idriss Déby, alias Kaka. Those troops entered Miski, but after a draining month of guerrilla warfare with the self-defence militia that killed or injured several dozen soldiers, they withdrew and regrouped some 100 kilometres from the town. The government's approach now involves isolating Miski - making the gold-mining areas "unliveable", in the words of one minister - by controlling main roads to stem the flow of supplies and closing up some wells critical to the desert region's livelihood. The blockade could have dire humanitarian consequences and has stoked local defiance.
The result is a dangerous stand-off. The self-defence militia, which enjoys local support, demands Miski's reintegration into Tibesti, the return of the cantons and a legal framework, one that guarantees some profits stay in the region, for any future industrial mining (prospects of such mining happening any time soon are remote but nonetheless generate considerable disquiet in Miski). For Deby, the Miski crisis is not just about gold. He wants to project strength at a time when signs of dissent within the ruling elite and armed forces are ever more evident, a severe economic crisis and austerity measures sow public discontent and top officials fear, particularly after President Omar al-Bashir's downfall in Sudan, that public protests could escalate into further unrest. In reality, however, the government's crackdown and isolation of Miski is hazardous and likely to create further problems for Déby. As rumours circulate of another military offensive and the government's rhetoric hardens, the crisis risks spiralling out of control.
This scenario can still be avoided. Miski's self-defence militia is protesting local issues and does not seek to overthrow Déby's government. Most of its demands can be met without major concessions.
Steps to defuse the crisis would involve:
The Chadian government should dial back its rhetoric, rebut stories about another military intervention in Miski. It should ease Miski's strangulation, reopen roads into the area, put wells back into operation and facilitate humanitarian access to the town. It could also revisit its decision to shift Miski from Tibesti region to Borkou, and declare that it is open to talks.
Such dialogue would involve state representatives, the self-defence group, but also traditional chiefs and deputies from the region. Teda figures recognised by the government and locals, including current and former senior officials, could potentially mediate. Topics on the table should include the distribution of revenues from gold if it is ever mined on industrial level, the appointment of more Teda in the region's military hierarchy and a roadmap for the reintegration of militiamen who lay down their guns.
In return, self-defence committee representatives should signal publicly that they are willing to negotiate with state authorities.
Chad's international partners, particularly UN agencies, the EU and European governments, should both push for dialogue and encourage the government to facilitate humanitarian access to the region.