Aid Groups Want Obama to Take New Approach to Chad

A coalition of religious groups and refugee organizations wants U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to take a new approach to Chad.

The coalition of aid groups says the Obama administration should set a new foreign policy agenda for Chad that includes a comprehensive peace process and limits on U.S. military assistance.

The appeal is backed by the Africa Faith & Justice Network, the advocacy group Africa Action, and the U.S.-based Refugees International, along with the Christian children's group Caring for Kaela.

They want the new government in Washington to focus on Chad's domestic problems beyond the more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees in camps along the border.

"I would say the primary shift here should be about dealing with Chad as a country unto itself with issues that are essentially Chadian issues and not just a spill-over from Darfur," said Erin Weir, an advocate for Refugees International. She says the Obama administration should expand the mandate of U.N. peacekeepers in Chad to more actively resolve the country's civil war beyond its current mission to protect civilians and support aid efforts.

"Obviously those are very important, but ultimately those are band-aid issues. You can keep people alive, but if you cannot stabilize the country, you are going to be providing that kind of support, that security for a really long time," added Weir.

Chad and Sudan both accuse the other of backing rebel groups across their remote 500-kilometer border. Chadian President Idriss Deby and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir both deny direct involvement in their neighbor's conflict.

Many Darfur rebels are based in Chad and come from the same ethnic group as President Deby. Chadian rebels in Sudan reached the capital N'Djamena in 2006 and 2008 in attacks that President Deby said constituted a state of war between the two countries.

But Chad's conflict did not begin with the instability in Darfur. President Deby came to power 18 years ago at the head of a rebellion based in Sudan. He suspended the constitution and promised to create a multi-party democracy, but soon cracked down on political opponents when troops loyal to the former government began attacking from Niger.

Amnesty international accused Deby forces of human rights violations against civilians in retaliation for rebel attacks. Chad's trade-union federation was banned because of a general strike.

Deby's elections in 1996 and 2001 were both surrounded by allegations of vote fraud, with several members of the state electoral commission resigning in protest. Accusations of ethnic favoritism added to tensions over President Deby's use of more than $1 billion of annual oil revenue.

When the president changed the constitution to run for a third term three years ago, significant portions of Chad's army deserted.

Years of instability have left much of the country ungoverned as N'Djamena concentrates more on suppressing rebellion than on providing essential social services.

The associate policy and communications director at the Africa Action advocacy group, Michael Stulman, says the Obama administration could best address needs in Chad by creating a new U.S. Department of Global Development.

"This would be a serious change, and it needs to be headed by a cabinet-level secretary. It would address long-term development needs, and an institutional change such as this would really address the root causes of poverty in Chad. It would give the attention deserved to issues such as health care, education, agriculture, infrastructure development, and especially climate change," said Stulman.

With more than 80 precent of Chad's population relying on sub-subsistence farming and livestock, Stulman says conflicts over water use contribute to food insecurity. The U.S. Famine Early Warning System says much of Chad's eastern border region with Sudan is short of food with poor roads limiting assistance to those in need.

While much is expected of President-elect Obama, both at home and abroad, Refugees International's Erin Weir says America's first half-Kenyan president will have to approach foreign policy in Africa beyond the Bush administration's focus on fighting terrorism.

"Ultimately, I think it is going to come down to policy. How much attention that the president and his staff devote to issues in Africa. How much he is able to engage African political leaders, African civil society in a constructive way. And also in addressing Africa and African issues as issues to be resolved in and of themselves and not just as an extension of the war on terror," said Weir.

In Chad, the coalition of aid groups says that means improving conditions for civilians and broadening electoral reforms to include civil society and armed political groups. 

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