Was Trump actually right to ban Chad?

Was Trump actually right to ban Chad?

President Donald Trump’s travel ban list of primarily Muslim-majority countries has been a continuing source of tension, both domestically and internationally. While most of the latest additions to the list (Venezuela, North Korea) are not surprising, the inclusion of the North African nation of Chad has raised eyebrows. Many have criticised the Trump administration for the surprise inclusion of Chad - an important regional partner for Washington - yet there are many facets to this story which warrant closer inspection.

By imposing an indefinite ban on almost all Chadian citizens without connections to the U.S (effective October 18th), Trump has thrown the Chadian government into confusion, with the regime expressing “its incomprehension in the face of the official reasons behind this decision.” The White House’s stated rationale for including Chad in the travel ban is the assertion that the country has not shared public safety and terrorism information.

This claim in turn surprised regional experts who have routinely pointed to Chad’s cooperation with American interests in Central Africa. With long-standing and comprehensive security ties with the United States, as well as European powers such as France, Chad has integrated itself into several security frameworks. While terror groups such as Boko Haram, ISIS West Africa and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operate in Chad, they have far smaller presences than in neighbouring countries (such as Nigeria) which have been excluded from the travel ban list.

Chad banned despite counter-terror credentials

Regional security experts have pointed to Chad’s role as the anvil to Nigeria’s hammer in the latter’s north-eastern offensives against Boko Haram. Former U.S ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell has praised Chad, stating that “pound for pound, the Chadian military is one of the toughest around, particularly in West Africa.” While Trump may dismiss the opinions of the diplomatic service, his propensity to surround himself with generals would not have inoculated him from criticism on this move. Indeed, alongside a statement from the African Union describing its perplexed attitude, the former head of the U.S military’s Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham described Trump’s move as “puzzling”.

trump-travel-ban-countries-map-chad

Given that America has invested significant time and resources in building its relationship with Chad, this sudden policy change is a definite surprise. Alongside singing Chad’s praises for its anti-terrorism efforts, the State Department recently spent $300 million on a new embassy in the country: government’s do not spend that kind of money in nations they are about to blacklist.

To highlight the extent of America’s involvement with Chad, readers should note that in March 2017, Chad joined U.S forces in the annual counter-terrorism exercise Flintlock 2017. Chad is also the only continental force to partake in the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership, funded by Washington. Chad also currently provides peacekeepers to Mali, itself destabilized by terrorist groups.

Chad has also been included in the Sahel G5, a new multi-national institution aimed at promoting development and countering terrorism in the Sahel region. Furthermore, Chad is also home to the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, France’s regional counter-terrorism mission. Throw in the fact that the son of Chadian leader Idriss Déby graduated from West Point in 2015 and the evidence of a significant American connection runs deep.

 U.S military personnel train with Chadian soldiers - Source: US Army Africa Flickr

U.S military personnel train with Chadian soldiers - Source: US Army Africa Flickr

With such credentials, why would the Trump administration suddenly turn Chad into a pariah? Some, such as Geoff Porter, president of North Africa Risk Consulting have argued that “one explanation for why the Trump administration added Chad is incompetence.” Others have highlighted Chad’s spat with Exxon Mobil. Chad is claiming that Exxon Mobil has not met its tax obligations, with the company facing a fine to the tune of $74 billion, as well as $819 million in overdue royalties for oil production in Chad. The fact that current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the CEO and President of Exxon Mobil at the time of the dispute, leads some to interpret Chad’s ban as a way to put pressure on the African nation to drop its lawsuit.

The case for banning Chad

While Chad has cooperated with American efforts, it is important to note that the country is far from being an open democracy or a bastion of freedom. President Idriss Déby was swept into power by a rebellion in 1990 and has hung on to power ever since. Having survived several rebellions against his own rule, Déby rules one of Africa’s poorest countries. The discovery of oil has given the regime a much needed injection of cash, yet Déby has worked to dismantle international agreements safeguarding that Chad’s oil wealth is wisely spent.

Back in 1999, Déby signed the Oil Governance Law, which allocated 80 percent of oil revenues to predetermined sectors such as healthcare and education. 10 percent was earmarked for a future generations fund, five percent to the oil producing region and only five percent would flow directly into state coffers. It was under these stipulations that the World Bank agreed to fund a pipeline to the coast to get landlocked Chad’s oil to market.

 President of Chad Idriss Déby

President of Chad Idriss Déby

As the oil money rolled in buoyed by high oil prices, Déby dismantled the future generations fund in 2006 and added defence to the list of predetermined sectors: Déby went on to roll back all World Bank measures and gain full control over oil revenue spending. At the same time, Déby triggered a constitutional crisis by changing legislation to allow him to run for a third term in 2005. On March 14th, 2006 Déby survived a failed coup attempt, which led to the defection of senior staff including his nephews Timane and Tom Erdimi.

These rebels in turn launched a campaign against the Déby regime between 2006 and 2008, almost overthrowing the government. Fortunately for Déby, control over oil production allowed him to go on a military shopping spree, with military spending growing from $67 million in 2005 to an all time high of $670 million (or eight percent of GDP) in 2009. While Déby may have weathered armed resistance to his rule, he has nevertheless fallen victim to the global slump in oil prices in recent years.

A failure to diversify the Chadian economy caused the budget to collapse in tandem with oil prices. This in turn led to increased protests, prompting the regime to clamp down of civil liberties in order to stifle dissent. Despite this track record, Déby has proven a savvy marketer, capitalizing on European fears about African migrants to wrangle funds ostensibly earmarked to stop the flow of migrants from the Sahel reaching Europe. Déby has also turned his country’s anti-terrorism efforts into a selling point, with the president undertaking trips to appeal to donors in early September. Pressure from France, which itself is heavily invested in the area in turn prompted other European nations and the IMF to provide aid to Chad.

Dropping Sudan pokes holes in Trump’s logic

Presented with this list of Chad’s shortcomings one may reasonably assume that the country warrants inclusion in the travel ban, the result of a principled stand against a shady government. This might have been the case had the very same missive that blacklisted Chad not also removed Sudan from the list.

Removing Sudan, but adding Chad is the real conundrum. The reasoning for excluding Sudan was that it had cooperated in cutting ties with North Korea and provided banking information on North Korean individuals and front companies. This is part of Trump’s efforts to isolate North Korea and cut off sources of hard currency. That being said, Sudan is only one of many of North Korea’s African connections, and any government willing to cooperate with Pyongyang ought to remain suspect in any case.

 Any better than Déby? President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir

Any better than Déby? President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir

North Korea is not the only dubious entry in Khartoum’s contact book, as Sudan also hosted Osama bin Laden for several years before expelling him at America’s request in 1996. Sudan’s leader, Omar al-Bashir remains a wanted man; the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity. Bashir’s despotism has also fuelled the deadly Darfur conflict, which has displaced millions. Omar al-Bashir’s iron rule was also a key factor in the creation of Africa’s newest state - South Sudan - in 2011, as the largely Christian south was oppressed by the central government.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that while the CIA shares information with Sudanese security agencies, Sudan remains one of only three countries named on the State Department’s own list of state sponsors of terrorism (Chad is not on this list). Soon after the announcement of Chad’s travel ban, Bashir sent a verbal message to Déby via a visiting delegation on the prospects of cooperation. In another twist, Sudan actually sponsored the 2006-08 rebellion against the Déby regime in the first place.

Déby and Bashir are both prime examples of African strongmen, yet the decision to include Chad but not Sudan in Trump’s travel ban remains highly incongruous. The U.S has a long history of dealing with disreputable regimes in order to advance its agenda, which in turn contextualizes Washington’s cooperation with Chad. Moreover, since radical groups like Boko Haram and ISIS pose equal risks to America and Chad there are ample common interests to cement a working relationship.

Any claim that the exclusion of Chad is based on principled arguments concerning human rights falls flat in the face of Sudan’s treatment. Moreover, the bizarre contractions between the White House, State Department and military’s friend lists preclude any semblance of coherent strategy on the issue. One does not spend hundreds of millions of dollars to establish a counter-terrorism partnership - a move that brooks no opposition from top Republicans or the party’s base - only to seriously jeopardize it while letting an arguable worse regime off the hook.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.