If you did not know much about Chad, a country in the middle of Africa, it most likely it caught your eye on 26 November when its President, Idriss Déby, landed in Israel for an unannounced visit to the Zionist state. The visit was shrouded in secrecy until Déby’s plane touched down at Ben Gurion Airport. His closest aides had no idea that he was heading to Tel Aviv until the last minute. It reminds me of November 1977, when Egypt’s then President Anwar Sadat made his surprise trip to Israel.
Sadat justified his move by the fact that Egypt and Israel were at war with each other and such a visit, he believed, helped to make peace. Déby, on the other hand, has been in power since December 1990, Chad is not at war with Israel and the two countries are thousands of miles apart; so what motivated him to embark on such an endeavour at this time? Or, indeed, what stopped him from making such a visit before now?
Israeli journalist Herb Keinon answered this question by explaining that, “Chad severed ties with Israel in 1972 after coming under pressure from Libya.” Reuters reported that Dore Gold, the Director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry in 2016, explained after his own visit to Chad why the government in N’Djamena cut ties with Israel over four decades earlier: “[his Chadian hosts] told him that they cut off ties 44 years prior under Libyan pressure, a factor removed with the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi [in 2011].”
Indeed Libya under Gaddafi was the fiercest opponent of Israeli expansion in Africa. As early as 1972, just three years after taking power, Gaddafi forced the then Chadian President, François Tombalbaye, to sever ties with Tel Aviv. Gaddafi believed strongly that any Israeli diplomatic expansion into Africa undermined the continent’s pro-Palestinian position. The late Libyan leader considered Israel to be an enemy best kept as far away as possible from Libya and Africa.
Libya has a history of ties with Chad going back to Italy’s invasion and occupation of Libya in 1911, which saw hundreds of Libyans seeking safety in Chad; their descendants still live in Libya’s southern neighbour. Gaddafi capitalised on this to strengthen ties between this community of exiles and their home country. He also sought to prevent Chad from becoming a threat to Libya’s security, which is why Tripoli was involved in toppling Chadian regimes considered unfriendly, particularly between 1972 and 1990.
Idriss Déby himself became President of Chad in December 1990, with Libyan political and military support. Gaddafi invested Libya’s oil money in Chad; the North African state owns two banks there and some luxury hotels, and built dozens of schools, mosques and medical facilities, as well as communication and agriculture infrastructure.
The late Libyan leader also used his political clout in Africa to keep African countries away from western influence, knowing too well that it would only benefit Israel as many western capitals would encourage them to embrace and help Tel Aviv to infiltrate the continent even more. In this context, Libya founded the African Union in 1999, for Pan-African cooperation. Tripoli also founded the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), bringing 24 Sub-Saharan African counties closer to neighbouring North African Arab states to share investment, free trade, security and foreign policy coordination.
This put Libya, before 2011, in direct competition with western powers in Africa. One of Tripoli’s long term objectives was to launch a golden dinar, backed by its own huge financial reserves, as a currency for African states to replace the CFA franc which is backed by the French treasury. This was one of the reasons behind French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attack on Libya to topple the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
After Gaddafi was killed in 2011, many of his long term African initiatives were, under French pressure, abandoned. CEN-SAD, for example, is being replaced by the smaller Group of 5 Sahel (G5S) made up of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Ironically, though, the members of G5S are the weakest in Africa and are focusing on security by allowing France and the United States to establish military bases in Mali and Niger. This would have been unthinkable if Gaddafi was still around.
Having the best military among the G5S countries, Chad’s Idriss Déby has become even more influential in Africa. This makes his link with Israel even more dangerous.
As the leading armed forces within G5S, Chad’s army is responsible for fighting terrorism in the Sahel region. Déby and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania are seeking to promote G5S as a trusted partner in Africa. In this context, visiting Israel is an important step to unlock further diplomatic and military support.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it his objective since 2016 to visit as many Muslim majority countries as possible. It would not be surprising to see some sort of rapprochement between Israel and Mali, Mauritania or Niger, or all three. Déby’s ice breaking visit to Tel Aviv has helped open the door for such rapprochement in Africa which, once upon a time, was a no-go area for Israel.
Apart from diplomatic gains, Israel is also interested in using Chad and its neighbours as stopovers for flights to South America, saving time and cost. A flight from Tel Aviv to Brazil, for example, will be around four hours shorter if central African airspace can be used. At the moment, such flights take around 17 hours, with at least one stopover in Europe or North America for refuelling.
Déby is facing more security challenges from his own people as armed rebel groups become more organised and stronger thanks to the safe bases they have in southern Libya. Young people in Chad’s Sahel region of Bahr El-Ghazal and Kanem in particular are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the authority in N’Djamena. The President’s security apparatus has been using discriminatory and heavy-handed tactics in the region under the pretext of fighting Boko Haram and other terror groups which infiltrated this vital area after Libya was destroyed by NATO in 2011.
The Chadian President is likely to seek Israeli help to keep himself in power. France, his main backer, “encouraged him to visit Israel,” according to Aqreen Saleh, the former Libyan ambassador to Chad who knows Déby personally. Saleh insists that “security for [Déby’s] regime is the main driver behind the visit to Israel,” not least because, over the past five years, the government in N’Djamena has been challenged by the rebel groups operating from southern Libya.
However, going to Israel is likely to backfire, particularly among Chad’s Muslim majority population. Historically, and especially since Chad gained independence, it has been Muslims who have risen against and toppled the central government.
Before 2011, thousands of Chadians depended on Libya for employment opportunities. Now they are heading to Libya to join rebel groups or work as mercenaries fighting for different Libyan factions, compounding Déby’s problems.
Idriss Déby needs arms and military equipment to fight the threat from the rebels operating out of Libya and Israel is only too happy to supply them to him. In the absence of any strong Arab leadership in Africa post-Gaddafi and the destruction of Libya, more African leaders are likely to embrace apartheid Israel at the expense of African support for the Palestinians and links with the Arab world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.