Challenge accepted, asshole

I learned a ton about Chad

Jeff Maurer is a former Senior Writer for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and writes a political comedy Substack called I Might Be Wrong.

In May, Matt wrote a column called Seventeen Points About Israel and Palestine. One part grabbed my attention: 

“Israel and Palestine are small nations and not strategically significant these days, so it’s notable that conflicts there attract not just more, but orders of magnitude more coverage than conflicts in, say, Chad, that objectively impact more people. And if human rights observers ding the government of Chad for something, you won’t see a swarm of people who feel Chad has been unfairly maligned swooping in to ‘Stand With Chad.’”

“If we’re honest with ourselves, we are probably all underweight on Chad takes. It would not take too much work to become the most knowledgeable person in your social circle on the subject of Chad. In that role, you’d have a great opportunity to change minds about Chad and educate others. Making a meaningful contribution to the Israel/Palestine discourse is a very difficult undertaking. Why not stick to Chad?”

This seemed like a strong point. And also a challenge... was he encouraging, perhaps even daring someone like me — whose career has mostly been spent writing about aggressively obscure topics on Abstruse “Comedy” Gulag Tonight with John Oliver — to focus on Chad? Was this the Substack-wonk equivalent of removing a glove and slapping me across the face? It sure felt like it.

Well, guess what, motherfucker: It’s been two months, and I’ve learned a shit-ton about Chad. You said, “it would not take too much work to become the most knowledgeable person in your social circle on the subject of Chad.” Wrong: It would take a massive amount of work if you’re in my social circle, because I now know so much about Chad that I’m a regular Marie-Christine Koundja. Which is a reference you’d get if you had one-tenth of my galactic-scale Chad knowledge.

Prepare to be wowed, asshat. 

Where to start? Perhaps with the incorporation of the Sao people into the Bornu Empire in the 16th century? Or maybe with the Sultanate of Bagirmi? No, better keep this remedial: In April, Idriss Déby, who led Chad for 30 years, died. Déby was oppressive even for a dictator, which is saying something; it might not take much to be “oppressive for an ice cream truck driver” or “oppressive for a child’s puppeteer” (now that Shari Lewis is dead), but oppression is a core job competency for a dictator. It’s like calling someone “creepy for a wrestling coach”. It means something.

Déby’s death is a big event for Chad's 16 million people (which is well more than the population of Israel/Palestine). It also has major implications for Chad’s neighbors, several of which are mired in conflict: There’s a civil war in the Central African Republic, Boko Haram/Islamic State militancy in Nigeria, a decade-long technicolor shit show in Libya, and ethnic conflict/high Bono prevalence in Sudan. Chad is a crossroads for some of the world’s deadliest conflicts. And while “A Crossroads For Some Of The World’s Deadliest Conflicts” isn’t likely to be adopted as a slogan by the Chad Tourism Board, it does underscore Chad’s strategic importance.

Yeah, this doesn’t work. But there are no bad ideas in brainstorming!  

I don’t often say nice things about dictators — except that Ferdinand Marcos had a damn fine head of hair, which he objectively did — but Déby was a bulwark against the worst actors in the region. He opposed Gaddafi’s proxies who crossed the border from Libya, and also Omar al-Bashir’s allies from the Darfur region of Sudan. Refugees from Sudan and the Central African Republic found relative safety in Chad. Also: Remember the #bringbackourgirls campaign? You tossed off a tweet about it while sitting on the toilet one afternoon in 2014. Incredibly, that tweet sort of worked: Many of the girls are now free. Of course, arguably more responsible for that outcome than your mid-defecation hashtag activism is the Multinational Joint Task Force that's been fighting Boko Haram and other militants in the Lake Chad Basin for the last seven years. The MNJTF is a semi-effective force of around 8,000 soldiers from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Chad is highly active in the MNJTF; the force’s headquarters are in Chad’s capital of N’Djamena, and Chad has engaged in some of the deadliest fighting of the campaign. The MNJTF is far from perfect, but they’re just about the only thing opposing Boko Haram. Besides you, of course — you did that tweet, after all.

Chad’s foreign policy interests often align with those of the West. That’s partly because Chad’s enemies tend to be egregiously awful (my extensive Chad research has revealed that Boko Haram is bad), and partly because Chad’s recent politics generally haven’t broken along the religious and ethnic lines that tend to define conflict in the region. Chad is about 41% Christian and 55% Muslim, but that split hasn’t always been deterministic in Chad’s politics; Déby was Muslim but spent much of his presidency fighting Muslim militias in the North and East. He had Christians and members of Chad’s many ethnic groups in his government because he was deeply committed to the liberal principle of pluralism and haha no I’m kidding he was just trying to neutralize his rivals and would do that any way he could. Like many dictators, Déby played the “the alternative to me is chaos” card in his dealings with the West, but it’s not certain that Déby will be followed by Yugoslavia-style ethnoreligious conflict.

Of course, we’re about to find out, because Déby is very dead. Chad’s constitution says that Déby's death should have caused power to fall to the President of the National Assembly and that new elections should be held within 90 days. But that’s not what happened. Instead, a “transitional military council” — accuracy of the first word in that phrase TBD — immediately seized power. They named Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, interim president. Mahamat “George W.”1 Déby has promised new elections within 18 months, but that's a real “divorced dad saying he’ll take you to Disneyland” promise — believe it when you're wearing the mouse ears and not a moment before. The unconstitutional power grab sparked protests in a country that has flirted with democracy but never been able to make it stick, leading to a deadly crackdown by the government that was condemned by Human Rights Watch. 

And here’s where there’s a nexus with the West — here’s where rank ignorance by the Matt Yglesias’ of the world really starts to matter. The West does have some influence over events in Chad. That’s especially true of France, which was the colonial power in Chad from 1913 to 1960. France has been a difference-maker in Chadian politics before; they deployed troops to counter an invasion from Libya in the ‘70s and ‘80s and stood behind Déby as he fought back numerous insurgencies. Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies who has done extensive fieldwork in Chad — he’s kind of the me of his social circle — confirmed that outside influence matters, telling me: “With Déby gone, even small gestures from the international community—be it France, the U.S., the EU, or the African Union—can greatly influence the political stability and trajectory of Chad during this uncertain time.”  

This is a decisive moment for Chad. Things could devolve into chaos. Or Chad could take a big step towards democracy and political pluralism. Or things could stay basically how they’ve been for the past 30 years. It’s all up in the air. And we in the West shouldn’t imagine that we’re anywhere near the center of Chad’s narrative -- none of us, not even long-time Chad experts like myself, will be to Chad what Lady Gaga was to the gay rights movement (though if someone wanted to start the hashtag #LadyGagaOfChad I wouldn’t object). But decisions that Western governments make do matter. 

So, what should our priorities be? Virtually everyone agrees: Road Warrior-style chaos — though awesome on film — would be bad in real life. Nobody is looking at Libya and thinking “seems fun.” Civil war would be horrific for the people of Chad and would likely add fuel to the fire in Nigeria, Libya, and Sudan. The word on everyone’s lips — from Very Serious Diplomats to human rights do-gooders — is “stability”. 

Here’s where simple thinking might take over. Traditionally, when you think “stability”, you think “strongman”. That’s the strongman sales pitch: They’ll bring order, stability, and on-time trains. And, yes, they’ll put a 50-foot portrait of themselves outside your window, and you'll have to participate in an elaborate theatre production every year to amuse the Dear Leader on his birthday, and he might also, you know... eat you a little bit (if we’re talking about Idi Amin). But hey: those trains. I live in New York; I’d vote for Idi Amin if he’d make the R train run on time.

But the “strongman = stability” logic might not apply here. After all, Chad under Déby wasn’t an exemplar of stability. One reason for that is that the only way to gain power was to fight for it. To the extent that Déby achieved peace, he often did so by bringing his armed opponents into the government, which incentivized insurgency. A government that allows more autonomy and legitimate paths to power might well be more stable than a dictatorship. 

So, the primary goal of stability might be compatible with the secondary goal of promoting democracy. Democracy’s not impossible in Chad; they have some civil society, and neighbors Niger and Nigeria are trending towards more democracy, not less. Also, since Chad’s international posture is largely the product of circumstance, it’s likely that a non-Déby government would maintain Déby’s alliances. Chad isn't facing a binary choice between Western-aligned dictatorship and Boko Haram-friendly Islamist theocracy. 

If I’m making things sound simple, that’s not my intent. To be clear: The situation in Chad is not simple. It is an eight-way zeppelin crash. If Idriss Déby’s death is to ultimately result in a more stable Chad that reflects the desires of its people, actors both inside and outside of Chad will need to make shrewd decisions that balance sometimes-competing priorities. Many Chadians have already made their voices heard by taking to the streets. France seems to be fine-tuning their position; they were effusive of Déby after his death, but criticized the subsequent crackdown against protesters and called for elections, albeit within the military council’s 18-month timeframe. The African Union has responded in basically the same way as France. It’s a complex situation; pushing the right buttons here will require — if you can believe this — more Chad knowledge than even I possess. Me! The Lady Gaga of Chad!

The United States has been quiet. Our actions towards Chad are possibly being affected by the hollowing out of the State Department that happened under Trump. This is exactly the type of situation where that neglect could cost us; I was a bureaucrat for nine years (speechwriter for the EPA), and I felt that our best work often happened when knowledgeable people were allowed to work on complex, non-hot-button issues. But that can only happen if your knowledgeable people are still in the building. It’s probably not great that there hasn’t been a U.S. ambassador to Chad since 2018; Biden hasn’t even nominated one yet. Also, virtually the only visible action by the State Department has been two short statements — 238 words combined — condemning the violence and calling for elections. Now: That’s only public action. Maybe things are happening behind the scenes. But I’ll admit to being slightly troubled by the fact that our entire public response to events in a country of 16 million, in a region with a quarter of a billion people, contains half as many words as Salt ‘N Pepa’s Push It.2

So there: Chad take achieved. Suck it, Matt! Though I have to admit: While Matt might be a real Luddite on Chad, he was probably right that the marginal value of a Chad take dwarfs the value of an Israel/Palestine take. Similarly, the effect of diplomatic action in Chad is likely to be far greater than in Israel/Palestine, and that would be true even if Israel/Palestine hadn’t established itself as the sword in the stone of world diplomacy. Déby’s death provides the first opening in 30 years for the people of Chad to have their voices heard, and I hope my government is doing everything in its power to stand behind them. But I don’t know that they are. It’s clearly well down their priorities list; after all, the headline “Biden Defeated as Voters Express Displeasure with Chad Diplomacy” seems unlikely. But maybe Biden should study up. After all, there will be presidential debates in 2024, and one might be town hall-style, and you just never know: I might be in the audience, holding a notecard, with my hand raised, ready to thoroughly embarrass any candidate who can’t adequately match my almost-godlike knowledge of Chad.

1

No one calls him this except for me right now.

2

Push It contains 637 words, though about 80% of them are “oooh” and “baby”.