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Defining Sudan-Chad Relations

Despite sustained cross-border attacks and a volatile security situation in Sudan's Darfur region and eastern Chad, bilateral relations have continued even as the two nations trade accusations of supporting each other's rebel groups.

If there is one thing most Africa experts agree on, it's that nothing in the Sudan-Chad relationship is simple. They describe it as a bond molded by deep cultural and tribal ties that transcend the borders separating Sudan's western Darfur region from eastern Chad. These links have kept relations between the people of these two regions strong despite official differences. And as William Church, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Strategic Studies in Rwanda points out, cultural and ethnic ties have, until recently, allowed the two governments to foster the kind of solid relationship they had when Chadian President Idriss Deby came to power in the 1990s.

"Some people believe that the Khartoum government supported Deby in his grab for power originally, and that they were, if not allies, [then] it was convenient for Khartoum to have Deby there. However, things have gotten a little rocky because of cross-border issues and a disagreement over the conflict that has spilled from both countries, from Chad into Darfur, and then from Darfur into Chad," says Church.

Sudan's involvement in Chad's internal affairs in not new. According to William Foltz, Professor Emeritus of African studies at Yale University, Khartoum has been a player in Chadian politics for decades and maintains a measure of cultural influence in Chad today. He says, "Hissen Habre, [President] Deby's predecessor, came to power [in the 1980s] with the help of the Sudanese government, then the government of [former president Jaafar] al-Numeiri. Then, Idriss Deby overthrew Hissen Habre a decade later, again with the connivance of the Sudanese government [under President Omar Hassan al-Bashir]. Now it's not clear who's backing whom, or when, and under what circumstances," says Foltz.

The Darfur Conflict

When the Darfur conflict broke out in 2003 between the Sudanese government and rebels demanding more political representation and a share of the nation's oil revenues, President Deby initially supported Khartoum against the rebels, even though many of them belonged to his own tribe. But according to Adam Wolfe, a senior analyst with the independent conflict analysis group, the Power and Interest News Report, that did not last long.

"It was really as Darfur sank into violence and the rebels in eastern Chad took advantage of the situation against President Idriss Deby - - that's when relations soured between Chad and Sudan. And they're still strained. In 2005, they made some effort just to contain the violence in eastern Chad and western Darfur in Sudan. However, there is limited progress and the prospects for this year are very bleak," says Wolfe.

Many analysts say the Darfur conflict and rebellions in eastern and southern Chad have weakened the authoritarian Deby government. Some Chadian rebels want to overthrow the president and return the country to democratic rule, while others want a greater share of the nation's oil wealth. Mr. Deby has also been criticized for not doing more to support Darfuri rebels belonging to his own influential Zaghawa tribe. Yale University's William Foltz says the Zaghawa reside on both sides of the border and are politically and militarily important to Chad.

"President Idriss Deby Itno is from a somewhat fringe lineage within the Zaghawa. But he took the additional name of "Itno" - - an important Zaghawa name - - so he is emphasizing his Zaghawaness. But here the blood ties come to play, so that you have Sudanese Zaghawa rebelling against the Sudanese government and bringing in their brothers and cousins from Chad to help them out in their battle," says Foltz.

Charges and Countercharges

Khartoum accuses Chad of supporting Darfuri rebels, while N'Djamena accuses Sudan of allowing Chadian rebels to operate from Darfur.

Last August, Chad severed diplomatic ties after accusing Sudan of backing a rebel attack on N'Djamena that killed hundreds of people. Sudan denied the charges and relations quickly returned to normal after the two sides signed an agreement promising non-interference in each other's affairs. More recently, Khartoum and the Darfur rebel groups agreed to a 60-day ceasefire to allow for a peace conference aimed at resolving the conflict.

Some analysts say resolving the Darfur crisis would help diffuse tensions between Chad and Sudan and in the region as a whole. The cross-border conflict has bled into the Central African Republic and displaced thousands of people in all three nations. According to the United Nations, Chad is hosting more than 300,000 refugees from Darfur and the Central African Republic, which is also fighting a rebellion, plus nearly 92,000 of its own internally displaced citizens. The United Nations is considering deploying peacekeepers in Chad and the Central African Republic to help refugees fleeing the Darfur crisis.

Future Relations

But Dorina Bekoe with the Center for Conflict Resolution and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace cautions that resolving the dispute between Khartoum and Darfuri rebels will not solve Chad's problems. She says, "Chad has its own internal problems that are fuelling the creation of many of those rebel groups [fighting in Chad and across the border]. There are some very clear internal pressures on [President] Deby, which are exacerbated by the Darfur issue. There are economic and political constraints and also fears of the Zaghawa losing politically. So resolving [the] Darfur [issue] will not clear up the internal divisions within the country [i.e., within Chad]," says Bekoe.

Most Africa experts can only guess what Sudanese-Chadian relations might look like if President Deby were replaced. What they do expect is for the current low-level, cross-border conflict to continue for the foreseeable future without developing into an official state of war between Sudan and Chad.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.