Feb 21st 2008 | NDJAMENA
From The Economist print edition
The rebels are gone, but not forgotten
LOOTED and battle-scarred, the shops on Ndjamena's dusty main boulevard remain closed; thousands of Chadians, refugees in neighbouring Cameroon, have yet to return home; and the risk remains of a fresh rebel assault. But for now the message from President Idriss Déby, who on February 14th called a 15-day state of emergency, is clear: he has survived—again—the very type of coup attempt that first brought him to power 18 years ago.
The February 2nd assault on Ndjamena, now known euphemistically as “the events”, caught Mr Déby off-guard. The three main rebel groups, normally so mutually antagonistic, fused into one column and moved in from the east with some 3,000 well-armed men. And, in contrast to their attempt in 2006, this time the rebels, who owed their weaponry to neighbouring Sudan, were organised. They attacked along two main corridors, towards the airport and towards the presidential palace, leaving over 160 killed and hundreds more wounded.
Mr Déby did not survive through his own efforts alone. Fighters from a Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), came to his aid, hence the number of English-speaking “soldiers” staffing the former French colony's security posts. Meanwhile, the contingent of some 1,100 French troops based in Ndjamena offered just enough logistical and intelligence support to ward off the rebels. As their supplies dwindled, the rebels melted away after just two days.
Yet if the immediate crisis is over, what of its aftermath? The capital's citizens, inured to fighting in Chad's hinterland, remain shocked by the speed with which the rebels reached them. Few risk going out much after dark, even though the curfew begins only at midnight.
The obvious danger for the president is that there will be a next time, and that his luck will run out. A new generation of politicians in Paris is beginning to break with the traditional Françafrique policy of supporting so-called “strong men”. Indeed, though the president might think the French-dominated European Union peacekeeping force now deploying in the east is there to bolster his regime, Brigadier-General Jean-Philippe Ganascia says he is not out to fight for the government: “I won't know who is a rebel, bandit or anything else. As long as somebody is threatening the population, I am ready to use the means I have got.”
Nor is the threat to Mr Déby purely military. The battle for Ndjamena has strained his relationship with the JEM. The group might now regret their move into Chad, as in their absence there was a fresh Sudanese assault on Darfur. Inconveniently, the president's new defence minister, Mahamat Ali Abdallah Nassour, also looks strong. Given that several rebel leaders are former members of Mr Déby's government, the minister's allegiance is far from assured. Meanwhile, Chadians know that ordinary life may get even worse: prices of everything from petrol to mango juice are soaring. For the refugee camps in the east, supply lines to the land-locked country are already under pressure as pre-positioning of food starts ahead of the rainy season. If violence halts the supply effort, there will indeed be a state of emergency for a country harbouring half-a-million refugees and displaced persons.