Change in Chad

December 08, 1990

Idress Deby says he captured the capital of Ndjamena and sent President Hissene Habre packing in order to bring multiparty democracy to Chad. Although Mr. Habre and the United States and France said that Mr. Deby was armed to some extent by Libya, which he and Libya deny, he is the general who with French help defeated the Libyans three years ago.

Nobody can fault Mr. Deby's speedy repatriation of 2,000 Libyan prisoners of war. But the world should hold Mr. Deby to his promise. The French, who declined to save Mr. Habre with their Sparrowhawk fighter planes, should particularly see to that.

This is a case where foreign intervention kept civil war going for years. The French, with U.S. support, intervened to prevent Libya from taking over Chad or re-installing its puppet. And it is a case where, when the Libyans and the West backed out, Libya's guy swept right in. Except he denies being Libya's guy, and he certainly wasn't three years ago, when he was Mr. Habre's guy.

The change in French policy is being hailed in Paris as a signal of reduced involvement in Africa, or of reduced willingness to prop up a dictator. And yet it is clear that Mr. Deby obtained an understanding with the French. The ousted president is in Cameroon exile nursing a grievance against his former friends. The French are still in Ndjamena and the Libyans are not. Wherever Mr. Deby got his arms, he out-generaled the government, whose larger army melted before his thrusts. He won a fair fight.

Chad is a barren, under-populated country with Arabic culture in the north and central African culture in the south and arid space between. Libya continues to claim its northern strip for real or imagined mineral wealth. There was nothing sacred about the ousted government nor is anything necessarily encouraging about the new one.

President Deby (who says he has no ambition to be president) promises to do the right things and not be a stooge of Libya's Muammar el-Kadafi. He should be held to that. U.S. policy is dialogue between the U.S. ambassador and the new strong man coupled with a mild denial that this constitutes recognition. Militarily, the revolution won. Politically, its purpose awaits definition.

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