Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Mess

Continuing his farewell tour before he finally buggers off into political retirement, President Chirac is hosting a Franco-African summit in Cannes. Among the guests is the foreign minister of Chad, who doesn't seem too optimistic of any progress on the question of his country's on-off-sort-of-war with Sudan next door. While the mass slaughter in Sudan's Darfur province has been pretty widely publicised (though not nearly widely enough - and next-to-sod-all has been done about it) over the last few years, the potential for the killing to extend elsewhere is something everyone in the West needs to keep much closer tabs on.

It goes like this. Darfur is the big bit in the west of Sudan that borders Chad. A Muslim militia force backed by the Sudanese government has been fighting black African anti-government rebels there. That's led to the deaths of a UN-estimated 400,000 civilians since 2003. Millions more have become refugees, many heading to Chad. And so the violence has followed, with Chad accusing Sudan of trying to invade to topple its government. Sudan claims Chad is supporting those rebels back in Darfur. In recent months, the fighting has absorbed the similar civil war in the Central African Republic, which as you'll guess by the name also neighbours this whole area.

The French know it's pretty much up to them to take the lead in preventing things getting even worse. The UN is predictably powerless, and, despite its plans to put more of its military in Africa, there's no appetite in the US for it to get involved. There's no strong regional power, so the French as the former colonial masters of Chad and the CAR are the best option. It's a pattern established by their own involvement in the civil war in the Ivory Coast, and the British operation in its former colony of Sierra Leone.

If the talks get nowhere, which is just about certain, France ought to deploy smallish forces to shore up the governments in Chad and the CAR. Although that won't stop the killing in Darfur, it would make the conflict much less likely to take a stronger grip in those countries. But with an election looming in France there's no way that'll happen for the time being, if at all. Hoping for the best hasn't proved an effective strategy so far. It still looks like the only strategy the West is prepared to follow.

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