Review: “France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa” – Nathaniel K. Powell

In “France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa,” Nathaniel K. Powell meticulously examines France’s multiple military interventions in Chad between Chadian independence in 1960 and Hissène Habré’s seizure of power in 1982.

Powell argues that France’s military interventions in Chad, its support to competing armed factions and ruthless dictatorial regimes, not only failed to maintain France’s neocolonial order in Chad but contributed to its downfall (in the form of the collapse of the Chadian state in 1979). To save the widely unpopular and ruthless regime of François Tombalbaye (1960-75) against multiple armed rebellions, France militarily intervened twice, most notably in Operation Limousin. When Tombalbaye’s regime was determined to be a lost cause, France then supported the military junta that ousted him, led by Félix Malloum (1975-78). To save the regime of Malloum against the still ongoing rebellions, now supported by Libya, France launched Opération Tacaud. When Malloum’s regime was determined to be a lost cause (he was forced to flee after rebel forces sacked N’Djamena), France half-supported the Government of National Unity (GUNT), a loose coalition of competing rebel factions, namely those led by Hissène Habré and the GUNT’s nominal president Goukouni Oueddei.

The GUNT didn’t last long: it was plagued by intense rivalries and clashes between member rebel factions. Moreover, France was widely perceived as favouring Habré’s anti-Libyan forces, which alienated other GUNT leaders. Only Libya strongly and consistently backed the GUNT against Habré’s forces, but fearing Libyan expansionism, France pressured Oueddei to expel the Libyans from Chad. Thus, with minimal outside support, the GUNT was no match for Habré’s forces, and in 1982, Habré seized the capital and toppled the GUNT. But Habré’s regime failed to resuscitate France’s neocolonial order in Chad, despite receiving extensive financial and military support from both the U.S. and France. Habré was one of post-colonial Africa’s most brutal dictators. His regime faced numerous rebellions (most notably by Idriss Deby), and an international tribunal convicted Habré of human right’s abuses, including rape, sexual slavery, and ordering the killing of 40,000 people.

Although the book is titled “France’s Wars in Chad,” the book is actually about far more than Chad. A more fitting title would be “French Neocolonialism in Africa,” since the book isn’t exclusively about Chad. Indeed, Powell provides an excellent analysis of Operation Barracuda (1979), the French military intervention in the then-Central African Empire to overthrow the regime of Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Powell also examined France’s relations with other African countries, such as Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Zaire, etc.

This was a fantastic scholarly work. Other books I have read about Chad, such as “The Roots of Violence: A History of War in Chad” by M. J. Azevedo, and “The Trial of Hissène Habré: How the People of Chad Brought a Tyrant to Justice” by Celeste Hicks, simply cannot compare to Powell’s.

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