By Jérôme Tubiana & Claudio Gramizzi
Since 2011, Chad, Niger, and Sudan have attempted to control their northern borders, in particular to prevent their rebel movements from finding support in Libya.
In April and May 2018, the three governments, together with Tripoli’s GNA, met to discuss border security issues, first in Niamey and then in N’Djaména.
The talks reflected some of the parties’ like-mindedness—with Sudan and the GNA clearly aligned, and Chad and Niger sharing interests in the western Sahel—but they were also shaped by each party’s open pursuit of its own immediate goals. In particular, Chad and Sudan focused on weakening their respective rebels in Libya.
In May 2018 in N’Djaména, the four parties signed a cooperation agreement on security, modelled on the 2010 Chad–Sudan deal. The agreement includes a right of pursuit into neighbours’ territories.
It also calls on the four countries’ judicial authorities to sign another agreement to facilitate extraditions, which they did in August 2018 in Khartoum.
This provision was initially requested by Chad to create a legal basis for the extradition of its rebels. A Chadian rebel leader was handed over to N’Djaména by Niger in 2017, and another one by Sudan in 2018.
Joint border forces
Sudan and most of its neighbours have a history of supporting each other’s rebels. Khartoum reconciled with Ethiopia during the 1998–2000 Ethiopia–Eritrea war, however, and with Eritrea in 2006. In 2010, Khartoum and N’Djaména ended their five-year proxy war with a deal whose main achievement was the establishment of a joint border force.
Sudan then tried to replicate this model with other neighbours, including Qaddafi’s Libya, but the Khartoum–Tripoli talks faltered due to a mutual lack of trust. After Qaddafi’s fall, Sudan’s interest in controlling the border grew, but identifying a Libyan partner for a joint border force had become more difficult.
Libya’s National Transitional Council entrusted some border control to Tubu militias, which soon found themselves embroiled in a conflict with Kufra’s Zwaya Arab community, notably for the control of the road towards Sudan.
All the while, Khartoum favoured partnering with the Zwaya. The preference was not based on a common ideology: neither the Zwaya nor the Tubu had shown an affinity for Sudan’s historical allies in northern Libya, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather, Khartoum appears to have backed the Zwaya because it intended to apply the same Arabist approach it had used to enlist Darfur Arabs into ‘janjaweed’ militias.
Moreover, it aimed to exploit the links between Zwaya traders and Darfur Arabs—including known militia leaders who were selling camels to Libya.
Sudan thus viewed some Zwaya militias as potential border monitors. In late 2014, at a time when the HoR-appointed government of Abdullah al-Thinni in Beyda enjoyed international recognition, the Sudanese army began to form a joint border force with Zwaya troops that were on the payroll of al-Thinni’s defence ministry.
By early 2015, however, tensions between Haftar and Khartoum had brought the cooperation to an end. Still, Sudan had been able to use the short-lived presence of the ‘joint force’ to justify sending arms to Kufra. That support may partly explain how the Zwaya militias retook control, during 2015, of the routes between Kufra and Sudan—to the detriment of the Tubu.
In mid-2018, the Sudanese government claimed that its intelligence agents had released an Egyptian intelligence patrol in Libya. In so doing, Khartoum acknowledged that Sudanese troops had been on a secret mission in north-eastern Libya.
Rumours held that a Chadian armed group, possibly drug traffickers, had captured the Egyptians, yet other sources indicated that no Chadians were involved and that the Egyptians had been captured by the very Sudanese forces that pretended to be their liberators.
The Rapid Support Forces and the Border Guards
In 2016, Sudan deployed 400 vehicles of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—its newest paramilitary force, which recruited largely among Darfur Arabs—to the border with Libya.
It claimed the move was designed to support the European Union’s policy of blocking migrants from the Horn of Africa, including from Sudan.
In reality, the deployment was a way to crack down on Darfur rebels who were moving between northern Darfur and southern Libya, as evidenced by RSF activities in May–June 2017.
A few months earlier, in late 2016, the RSF had clashed with Tubu militias south of Kufra and had unsuccessfully attempted to exchange Tubu prisoners for Darfur rebels who were allegedly hosted by the Tubu.
The RSF is also allegedly involved in human trafficking; arms trafficking—providing Libya with arms Khartoum had delivered to the RSF; and drug trafficking—supplying Libya with hashish from the tri-border area between the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, and Sudan.
Sudanese government and other sources maintain that RSF trafficking activities—and its militia operations in general—largely escape Khartoum’s control.
Khartoum has also failed to stop Libyan armed groups from recruiting current and former members of Sudanese militias as mercenaries. Arab combatants from the Chad–Sudan border, including former rebels from Chad, appear to have moved back and forth between the RSF in Sudan and the LNA in Libya, in spite of Sudan’s hostility towards Haftar.
The LNA reportedly offered USD 3,000 to any ‘janjaweed’ for joining; meanwhile, a representative of the anti-Haftar side in Khartoum reportedly sought to recruit several thousand combatants by offering militia leader Musa Hilal a similar amount per fighter.
Ibrahim Jadhran was also said to recruit among Darfur Arabs, including Musa Hilal’s followers. In August 2017, the RSF arrested seven Mahamid Arab tribesmen associated with Musa Hilal as they arrived from Libya.
Sudan’s vice president, Hassabo Abderrahman, claimed that they had been recruiting fighters for Haftar, but observers suggest they were ordinary traffickers, migrant smugglers, and gold miners.
Hassabo also accused Hilal of planning to send 1,000 combatants to Libya in exchange for logistical support against Khartoum—a charge that government officials have since rejected.
The arrest and the subsequent allegations were made in the context of growing tensions between Musa Hilal and Khartoum, as well as between Hilal and his rival Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo ‘Hemmeti’, whose rise as RSF leader since 2013 has been strongly supported by his Mahariya Arab kinsman Hassabo.
In mid-2017, the government announced its intention to integrate Hilal’s Border Guards into the RSF— thereby placing them under Hemmeti’s control—and to disarm other ‘irregular’ forces and civilians.
The disarmament campaign was also designed to confiscate or regularize vehicles that had been smuggled into Darfur, notably from Libya, where many were reportedly stolen. Hilal and his partisans understood Khartoum’s decisions as direct attacks on their authority.
To show opposition to this agenda and his aides’ arrest, Hilal gathered thousands of loyal militiamen in his Misteriha stronghold in North Darfur on 12 August 2017. The protest spread to Libya when another Hilal aide, Zakaria Musa ‘Ad-Dush’, posted on social media an offer of USD 1,000 for any RSF member who would defect to join him in Libya.
In what was certainly an overstatement, he claimed that half of the RSF troops had already joined him. Like Hemmeti, Ad-Dush had been a camel smuggler between Darfur and Libya before war erupted in Darfur; in 2003, he had become a commander of Musa Hilal’s Border Guard.
Yet while Hemmeti had only been a rebel for a few months before returning to the government fold in 2008, Ad-Dush had defected to the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in 2009 and stated he was ready to testify against Hilal before the International Criminal Court.
In 2011, he was in Libya at the same time as JEM chairman Khalil Ibrahim but appears to have acted autonomously. Like other former ‘janjaweed’, he may have fought on Qaddafi’s side and may thus have been able to acquire arms.
He is known to have telephoned from Tripoli to inform his associates in the Kabkabiya region of North Darfur that he had obtained weapons stockpiles and was seeking ways to bring them back to Darfur.
As Hilal increasingly distanced himself from the government, AdDush appears to have rejoined his former boss. He reportedly made money by trafficking between Libya and Sudan and by aligning himself with Haftar; as a result, his declarations of support for Hilal may inadvertently have substantiated the accusation of collusion between Hilal and Haftar.
In September 2017, the RSF again intercepted a group of Hilal’s associates who were returning from Libya, this time killing 17 of them. Hilal’s associates said they were just ‘traders’ and gold miners, while the RSF accused them of being ‘human traffickers’; a government official later indicated that they were ‘migrant smugglers, cars and arms traffickers’.
Finally, in November 2017, Hilal himself, together with many men, was arrested by the RSF in Misteriha, after which Hemmeti accused him of involvement ‘in a foreign conspiracy against Sudan’. Since then, Musa Hilal’s followers have moved to Libya, reportedly to establish an Arab rebel movement against Khartoum under Ad-Dush— with the support of Haftar and Egypt.
In February 2018, some of them, this time on their way to Libya, reportedly fought against the RSF in North Darfur.
Another crucial issue for Khartoum at the Libyan border is monitoring the return of up to several hundred Sudanese IS combatants who fled Sirte in 2016. Khartoum reportedly deflated their numbers, arguing that ‘only seventy individuals […] have travelled or attempted to travel to Libya and Syria combined’; Libyan sources indicate that at least 100 Sudanese travelled to Libya alone.
Meanwhile, a Sudanese official indicated that more than 400 had returned to Sudan. According to a reformed jihadi, Sudanese members of jihadist groups in Libya and Mali belong to three distinct categories:
(a) former ‘janjaweed’, who may be more interested in looting than religion;
(b) former members of mujahideen (holy warrior) paramilitary forces formed by the Sudanese security apparatus to fight in South Sudan, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan, who may still be loyal—or at least not hostile—to Khartoum; and
(c) ordinary Salafists, who see the Khartoum regime as having betrayed its original Islamist ideology.
The two latter categories largely comprise educated young men from the Sudanese capital, from the middle and even upper classes, including sons of religious leaders and regime dignitaries.
Given their backgrounds, these returnees are not treated like Darfur rebels, many of whom who are executed in the field. Instead, former IS members are reportedly imprisoned in Khartoum and required to undergo a deradicalization programme.
N’Djaména’s main preoccupation in southern Libya, much like Khartoum’s, has been the presence of its own rebels. Idriss Déby had been eager to maintain good relations with the Tubu, so as to prevent new insurgencies.
In mid-2018, however, a first rebel raid on the Chadian side of the Kouri Bougoudi area in Tibesti prompted N’Djaména to target the Tubu, including via aerial bombings on civilian areas in Tibesti, rather than the (non-Tubu) rebels, whom Chadian troops had merely chased across the border following the incident.
Chad is also worried about possible links between jihadist groups in southern Libya and Boko Haram. Jihadis in southern Libya allegedly supported Boko Haram’s attacks in N’Djaména in February 2015.77
In January 2017, Chad officially closed its border with Libya, alleging a risk of infiltration by terrorist groups. With respect to the current conflict in Libya, N’Djaména has professed a preference for Haftar, whose links to Chad date back four decades.
The Libyan general had been in charge of Qaddafi’s occupying forces in Chad until 1987, when the Chadian army captured him and overran the Libyan base of Wadi Doum in Ennedi. Haftar’s captors treated him well, and he soon took command of the Libyan rebels in Chad—with US support.
In 1990, when Déby ousted and replaced Chad’s president, Hissène Habré, with Libyan support, the CIA rescued Haftar to prevent him from being handed over to Qaddafi. Haftar has maintained links with veterans of the Habré regime who had hosted him in N’Djaména; some of them are still in rebellion against the Chadian government.
Many Chadian Tubu have lived in exile in Libya since Qaddafi’s various interventions in Chad. The Libyan leader had begun to send troops to occupy the Aozou Strip— the northernmost part of Chad, which runs along the Libyan border—in 1973; he expanded the occupation throughout Chad’s northern half during the 1980s; and he backed successive rebel movements in the Tibesti region.
The most recent Tubu rebellion took the form of the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad (MDJT), which lasted from 1997 to 2010. When the Libyan revolution began in 2011, a number of MDJT veterans and supporters in Libya joined revolutionary battalions and, subsequently, Tubu militias that were fighting Arab and Tuareg forces.
Since then, some former MDJT fighters—including Omar Togoïmi, a brother of the late MDJT leader, Youssouf Togoïmi— have become commanders of Tubu forces in Sebha.
A former MDJT faction leader, Gihinni Gendey, joined Allatchi Mahadi’s katiba and was charged with controlling a checkpoint in the cross-border gold-mining area of Kouri Bougoudi.
Jérôme Tubiana holds a PhD in African studies and has extensive experience as an independent researcher specializing in Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan over the past 20 years.
Claudio Gramizzi is the head of Operations for West Africa with Conflict Armament Research, for which he has undertaken research since 2014. Between 2007 and 2011, he served as arms consultant and arms expert on UN Security Council groups of experts on Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.