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28 Jan, 2024 16:16

That’s so Chad: Another African country looking to ditch Paris for Moscow

The historic Moscow meeting between the president of Chad and Vladimir Putin helped outlines new contours of Russia and Africa’s future
That’s so Chad: Another African country looking to ditch Paris for Moscow

In many ways, the Russia-Africa Summit that held in July 2023 is going on to this day. Since that event, the leaders of three African countries – South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and, this week, Chad – have visited Moscow. This does not include other high-level African delegations – for example, just a few days earlier, a delegation from Niger, headed by the Prime Minister, visited Moscow. These visits are happening in light of the growing trade turnover between Russia and Africa, as well as other structural changes in Moscow’s ‘Africa policy.’

Chad and Russia

The visit by President of Chad Mahamat Deby is quite significant. This is one of his first foreign visits after the relative stabilization of the political situation there last month. The central authorities and one of the main opposition groups, Les Transformateurs, had managed to reach a consensus and formed an inclusive government, in the process launching a transitional period. A constitutional referendum has also been held.

Secondly, Chad is a relatively new partner for Russia in Africa. During negotiations, it was mentioned that this was the first visit of the President of Chad to Moscow since 1968 (Chad gained independence in 1960) – and that’s not a coincidence. Up to this point, contacts between Russia and Chad on both the political and economical levels had been limited to one-time deals in the field of military-technical cooperation. 

In recent years, Russia has been increasingly interacting with “non-traditional” partners in Africa – ie, those countries with which the USSR did not develop an active partnership for various reasons (including political and ideological ones), and where the 'Soviet legacy' was not as strong as in Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Angola, and so on.

Thirdly, Chad is located in an important geographical zone. It is a link between West Africa and Sudan, and then the Horn of Africa; and between North Africa and Tropical Africa – in fact, ancient trade routes pass through the territory of Chad. This 'crossroads' location comes with certain opportunities, but also carries risks since the country’s security directly depends on the situation in neighboring countries and regions.

A question of security

Currently, there’s a lot of unrest around Chad. To the west lies Niger, where a coup d’état took place last July and where terrorist groups remain active. To the southwest, in the Lake Chad basin, are the headquarters of Boko Haram – one of the deadliest terrorist groups. To its north Chad is bordered by Libya and, to the south, by the Central African Republic (CAR). In these countries, internal conflicts are currently frozen but can resume at any moment. Finally, to its east lies Sudan, where a full-scale civil war began last April. This conflict may spread to Darfur, a region in eastern Sudan on the border with Chad. Incidentally, Russia managed to establish rather close security contacts with almost all of Chad’s neighbors, so regional security was an important topic during the negotiations.

Trade and economy

The key topics, however, were trade and economy, as well as the framework for strengthening and developing economic ties. As President Vladimir Putin said, “A rather large set of documents is being prepared that will allow [us] to strengthen the legal framework.” So far, economic relations between Russia and Chad have been minimal, even by the standards of Russia-Africa cooperation. Chad holds one of the lowest places in terms of trade turnover with Russia –  on the list of African countries, it ranked tenth from last in 2021, with $2 million. There are several reasons for this. First of all, logistics is complicated, so it is difficult to import Russian goods into Chad. Secondly, trade complementarity is quite limited – Chad imports a small amount of petroleum products and wheat (Russia’s main export product to Africa) and exports mainly oil and gold (which account for 96% of its exports in value terms).

However, N'Djamena may be interested in importing fertilizers from Russia to boost the efficiency of its own agricultural sector (e.g. for growing sorghum and millet). Certain solutions in the service sector may also be in demand, such as personnel training and skills transfer in the fields of public administration and digitalization. In 2024, the number of scholarships given to students from Chad who plan to study in Russian universities has been doubled to 300. Such long-term investments in the training of the country’s personnel, which will yield results within 20 years, indicate Russia’s systematic work in Africa. 

The French factor

France reacted painfully to the visit of the President of Chad to Moscow. Traditionally, the French political elite views their former West African colonies as ‘zone pré carré’ – a zone of their exclusive interests.

Until recently, France had relied on the Senegal-Chad “axis” – the five countries known as G5 Sahel – as its stronghold in the region. Now, after a series of foreign-policy failures in the Sahel region – in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger – France’s only remaining “flanks” are Senegal (in the west) and Chad (in the east). In fact, most of the French troops located in West Africa are stationed in Chad. 

According to media reports, approximately 1,000 French soldiers are stationed, in the capital N’Djamena and in the cities of Faya Largeau and Abeche. Chad replaced Niger as France’s main regional outpost after French troops from Burkina Faso and Mali had been transferred to Niger (Mali was the main French outpost prior to Niger).

France believes that the “hand of Moscow” is responsible for the series of painful defeats that it's suffered in West Africa and, admittedly, Russian authorities like to publicly discuss France’s sore points. 

Despite these political discussions, however, the ousting of France from the Sahel region was not a result of Moscow’s proactive foreign policy, but rather of the systemic mistakes made by Paris in the region.

Russia is pursuing a rather flexible policy in Africa – French military bases in Senegal and Chad or US bases in Niger do not prevent Russia from establishing political dialogue with these countries or from developing trade and economic ties.

While Chad currently does not intend to get rid of the French troops on its soil, the need for them may gradually disappear once Chad’s foreign relations diversify to include China, Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, etc., once the internal political situation stabilizes and the region establishes effective security mechanisms. 

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