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Forgotten Conflicts: The Libyan-Chadian War

By Zachary Lynn

The much contested Aouzou Strip. Map by wikimedia user 'Mohammedbas ' and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

There are countless wars and battles that are still remembered in the public’s collective awareness such as World War 2, Korea, Vietnam or the Russian War in Afghanistan. Even wars from another century such as the 30 years war or the Crimean War can be well known. Many wars though are fought outside of the widespread awareness of the public. But they still have their own stories that should be told.

This article is about one of those wars, the obscure conflict over the Aouzou Strip. Libya and Chad would vie for many years over this mineral rich region of desert and the conflict would become at times a proxy war involving powers such as France and Saudi Arabia. While the series of battles known as the Toyota War gets the most attention, that was merely one phase of a 9 year long conflict in Central Africa.

The decolonization of Africa had left many questions about where the borders were supposed to be in in Africa, with borders essentially put in place by various European Colonial Powers. The Aouzou Strip had been considered part of French Africa but was handed over to the Italian Empire in 1935 as part of a policy of appeasement towards Mussolini. When the short-lived Kingdom of Libya emerged in 1951 from the Italian Empire as an independent state it signed a treaty with France in 1955 renouncing the Aouzou Strip and so when Chad became independent in 1960, it included that small strip of desert. This was something that later Libyan government's would resent.

The war would kick off due to both Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s ambitions to the South of him and the destabilising factor of the Chadian Civil War which broke out soon after independence .The existence of contradictory European colonial territorial treaties from 1955, 1935 and 1899 about the status of the strip allowed for competing claims but the reality was that the conflict only happened because the strip was believed to be rich in Uranium deposits. The whole region has no more then 10,000 people, with 1,300 of them living around the Oasis town of Aouzou and so would normally not be worth fighting for but the hoped for mineral riches changed that equation.

Chad’s civil war began as fighting between Christian President Francios Tombalbaye and the FROLINAT organization, a Muslim dominated anti-government insurgency force. Libya was supporting FROLINAT against President Tombalbaye, and in 1970 they were caught attempting to organise a coup. In response, Tombalbaye would break all relations with Libya and invite any sort of Libyan opposition he could find into Chad. Doubling down on the spite, he would then proceed to lay claim to the Libyan region of Fezzan on fairly flimsy logic, ultimately justifying it as being no different to Libya’s own flimsy claim to the Aouzou Strip. To editorialize, I agree with the idea that such claims are mostly about a desire for more land rather than legal principles, but I also don’t run any nation's foreign ministry so here we are.

However, France and Nigeria would place pressure on the two nations to work things out. At a secret meeting of which the exact details are largely conjecture, it is believed that Libya agreed to pay Chad 40 million British pounds for the Azouzou strip. It is certain that after that meeting Libyan forces advanced into the region, and set up a fortified air force base to protect their new land and also that an account was made by Libya to invest the money owed into Chad. However, despite claims that Tombalbaye agreed to this, the only evidence ever brought forth is a possibly forged letter in which Tombalbaye acknowledges the Libyan claims to the region. Libya, during UN mediation, was never able to show any other documentation that could have legalized the occupation. Historians believe this is the point that Gaddafi had decided that his goal was the establishment of a client state in Chad, or even annexation. Then he could move deeper into Central Africa.

President François Tombalbaye of Chad. Taken during a visit to Israel, October 1959.

President Tombalbaye was removed by a coup d’état in 1975 by General Noël Milarew Odingar and the, previously jailed, military officer, General Felix Malloum became President. Malloum quickly made common cause with the Islamic Militia commander Hessan Habre, who'd split with FROLINAT over the question of accepting Libyan Support, and the pair resolved to fight Libya. Malloum would also approach both the UN and the Arab Community for support against Libya, especially as Libya doubled down on supporting FROLINAT against the Government in the Chadian Capital of N’djamena. This seemed a decent bet for the Libyans as the Chadian Army at the time was poorly armed, mostly equipped with rifles, machine guns and some left over colonial era light armor while the FROLINAT forces had modern small arms and were supported by Libyan Tanks and Helicopter Gunships.

FROLINAT would advance against the Chadian Army and captured the city of Faya-Largeau in 1978. It had been defended by 5,000 troops, but while they outnumbered FROLINAT, FROLINAT had an Armor advantage and so the town fell, and the joint Rebel/Libyan army continued to move South. Moreover, 2,500 Chadians were taken prisoner and the Chadian Army had effectively been decimated. It was at the battle of Ati, about 300 miles North of the Chadian Capital that the FROLINAT advance was finally halted. And not by the forces of Chad, but rather by French Foreign Legion forces, and the presence of the French Airforce, whom the Libyans refused to engage out of fear of escalating the conflict.

The presence of both French and Libyan troops created a military stalemate that would lead to something that in some ways almost resembles game of thrones with AK-47s. Malloum, Habré, and Goukouni, the leader of FROLINAT, became the three key Chadian players in the region. After the Libyan and FROLINAT defeat at Ati, Malloum and Habré both had significant forces in N’djamena. Goukouni also still had sizable forces in Faya-Largeau, however his relationship with the Libyan troops had collapsed after he'd refused to adopt the Green Book. Gaddafi switched his support instead to a minor faction led by Ahmat Acyl. The tension predictably escalated into violence, first Acyl attacked and was defeated by Goukouni, then the Battle of N’Djamena erupted between the forces of Malloum and Habré. In the midst of this chaos Goukani's FROLINAT entered the City to fight on the side of the Muslim Habré against the Christian Malloum. Having forced Malloum to retreat to the South, Goukani and Habré would then be faced with an attempted Acyl/Libyan advance from the North.

With the country increasingly falling into anarchy and regional warlords emerging Nigeria would host several more peace conferences in the aftermath. There it was agreed that Malloum would resign, and Goukouni would become President, with Hessan Habré serving as Defense Minister, Acyl as Foreign Minister and, Malloum loyalist, Kamougué as Vice President. This Unity Government would last…not long.

The treaty stated that the remaining French troops were to be replaced with African Union troops and, amid this transition, Habre's militia would renew their fight against Acyl's and Goukouni's militias, and finally in 1981 Goukouni asked for Gaddafi's assistance to defeat him. Libyan Troops were airlifted closer to N’djamena, and, faced with the Libyan Army, Habre was evicted from the Capital. He fled to Sudan but promised he would be back. While this was a common threat during civil wars, Habre would actually come back sooner then even he expected.

In late 1981, Goukouni and Gaddafi issued a joint communication stating a common goal of unity between Libya and Chad. This was met with something approaching horror by the rest of the world and even most of the Chadian Government and it is likely that Goukouni was effectively forced into the communique. And indeed, it was walked back under international pressure. Still, pressure mounted and despite Gaddafi claiming that his troops were in the country to keep the peace, he agreed to a withdrawal from all of Chas except the Aouzou Strip. More African Peacekeepers were promised to fill the void.

Nobody planned on Habre. Habre’s own militia, the FAN, had received support and training from Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the CIA during it's exile and was now a formidable force. He saw his chance and, upon the withdrawal of the Libyans, raced across the border with this army, taking both the important city of Abeche and the capital within months. Goukouni fled into exile and Vice President Kamougué also fled after Libyan help didn’t materialize. Hessan Habre declared he was now President of Chad, less then two years since he had left. Habre began rolling North to reclaim his country, and while at first, Libya was hesitant to intervene, it would soon end up supporting Goukouni in rebuilding a militia to retake N’Djamena from Habre. At another battle at Faya Largeou, Habre was defeated and so called to France for help. France at this point was doing the international diplomatic equivalent of a forlorn sigh, and essentially drew a line in the sand. Chad was split along the 50th parallel between Habre and Goukouni in 1984, and the next few years would be relatively quiet as Habre would work to rebuild his army and plan for a new offensive. There is potential in the counter factual of a permanently partitioned Chad but it was not to be, by 1987, Goukouni’s forces had largely deserted, and Libya had lost much of its legitimacy.

In both 1986 and 87 Habre, with French support, launched invasions of the North, with him now being able to reframe the civil war as being a fight against foreign invasion. In contrast to the defeated army of 1978, the Chadian Army of 1987 consisted of 10,000 well trained, patriotic and motivated soldiers. They had also been supplied with 400 brand new Toyota pickup trucks and Milan Anti-Tank Missiles by France. The Chadians at this time had also learned that the Pickup trucks would not set off a Libyan Landmine, if they were moving at over 100 kilometres per hour when they drove over them. The Libyans, while numbering 8000 men, 300 tanks and other forces in the strip, were poorly motivated and led.

The decisive battle of Fada in January 1987 saw the Chadians use their speed and knowledge of the area to flank and destroy the Libyan Armor at their communications base at Fada. This climatic battle would result in only around 50 Chadians killed compared to 800 Libyans and dozens of the Libyan tanks were destroyed. The Libyan Airforce would engage in bombing raids, but the Chadians would frequently hide their vehicles in the extensive desert where the Libyans couldn’t find them. As well, their aircraft frequently just didn’t fly as there remained a fear that the French airforce, which had attacked Libyan airfields in 1986, would shoot them down if they did. Despite a Libyan Victory in the far North, the Chadians would be able to raid into Libya itself for the first time, destroying the key airbase of Maatan-as-Sarra.

At this point, France stepped in to mediate a ceasefire, before Habre dragged them into an invasion of Libya itself. Gaddafi had effectively been humiliated. The fact that Chad had crushed the Libyans and caused a reasonable chunk of the army to flee had ruined his ability to be seen as a major military power. The US had provided Chad with Stinger missiles so the Libyan Airforce was now an empty threat. Gaddafi retained control over the Azouzou strip, however regardless of how much the Libyans couldn’t stand Habre they now had to recognize him as President. The Azouzou strip was then sent to the International Court of justice for mediation. Habre himself was overthrown by one of his field commanders, Idriss Deby, in 1990, his eight years in power having been marked by human rights abuses on a massive scale.

Could the green flag of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya have flown over all of Chad?

In 1994, the Azouzou strip was voted to be returned to Chad by 15-1. Libya complied and the conflict ended. There is a lot of alternate history potential in this war, despite it being an area rarely touched. Several of the French Interventions were during political elections in France and slightly different public perception could have ensured France didn’t get involved. Libya very well could have occupied and annexed Chad if France hadn’t been involved. Buoyed by success in Chad, could Libya have pushed into Niger or the Central African Republic? That seems possible, as neither country is known for being stable or even largely functional. Of course, such an Empire would have been disturbingly unstable, and could have led to a much more ugly fall of Libya.

On the other hand, Chad is rich in uranium. While it has not been found in Azouzou, it is present in the South. Could Gaddafi with a ready supply of Uranium have built nuclear weapons. That is certainly an alarming thought. With Gaddafi as a more serious threat to regional peace, could Egypt have eventually become involved? Or even the United States under a President who took Gaddafi’s machinations seriously.

On a more extreme bent, could Gaddafi annexing Chad break the international taboo on annexing territories in the world in war time? An unofficial moratorium on such things has existed from the Second World War. Could we see the moratorium collapse as nations decided it is time to roll out against a chosen enemy, so long as the powers support it?

Maybe. Just maybe.


Zachary Lynn is the Author of Three Days in Yangon published by Sea Lion Press


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