Two weeks ago the president of Chad, Hissene Habre, was irked at the French for not consulting him before they announced to the world that they were pulling 3,000 troops out of his country.
The French withdrawal, to be accompanied by a pullout of Libyans who had been supporting rebels in northern Chad, was seen in the Chadian capital of Ndjamena as a betrayal. Habre fumed that the Libyans could not be trusted. He rebuffed France's initial choice of withdrawal observers.
But irked or not, betrayed or not, Habre flew to Paris Thursday to discuss the French-Libyan withdrawal and the future of his vast Central African nation.
Chad's problems -- a 20-year-old civil war, a three-year drought, increasing famine and hordes of hungry and homeless people -- far outstrip its meager resources. Habre's first official trip to France is stark evidence that despite Chadian resentment the president is in no position to pick his nation's friends.
Habre's government needs to muster good will, abroad and at home, to resuscitate Chad's economy and stem the widespread famine that already has sent thousands of haggard peasants and desert nomads streaming toward the capital in search of food and water. Besides France, diplomats in Chad say that Algeria and United States are likely targets for a diplomatic offensive in search of aid.
In Paris, Habre is expected to find out if the French-Libyan accord contained any secret clauses requiring France to stop him from seizing control of northern Chad. Habre, who was born in Faya Largeau, an oasis town in the north, has long wanted to reclaim the region from Libyan-supported rebels.
The Chadian Army is now in a position to "beat the pants off" the northern rebels, according to a diplomat in Chad. France and Zaire have provided training that has transformed Habre's soldiers from an irregular, if ferocious, guerrilla force into a "competent classical army," said a French Army officer.
Since their arrival in August of last year, the French have trained units of 400 Chadian soldiers every two to four months at a base south of Ndjamena. The French also have trained the 800-man presidential guard and retrained 900 experienced fighters, creating a special crack force of 500 "cadres" equipped with light machine guns, 20-mm cannons, wire-guided missiles and armor-piercing artillery.
Agence France-Presse reported that sources in Chad said Habre also wanted explanations from France about why its withdrawal agreement did not require Libyan evacuation of the disputed Aouzou Strip, a mineral-rich area of northern Chad annexed by Libya in 1975.
Habre met Thursday in Nice, France, with the leader of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, who has stationed 2,000 Zairian troops in Chad in support of the government. AFP reported that Habre and Mobutu discussed the future of those troops, which Zaire reportedly wants to bring home. Habre is to meet Friday with French President Francois Mitterrand and attend a summit with Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Mobutu and Mitterrand.
[The French government is still waiting for concrete evidence that Libyans have begun leaving Chad, AFP reported. The French withdrawal, after starting last week as required by the withdrawal agreement, is proceeding slowly.]
Even if Habre's forces were to crush rebels in northern Chad and do so without triggering a Libyan reprisal, the military victory would do little to prevent a looming economic disaster.
Much of Chad, north of the capital, is a roadless empty desert, relieved only by a few oases and nomadic herds of camels, goats and cattle. Southern Chad, with its fertile savannahs, normally feeds the nation's estimated 4.9 million people. But there is drought and violence in the south.
Chad's southern regions have been closed to foreign visitors since early September because of rebel activity and the Habre's governments own violent reprisals. Habre has been unable to control his Army in the south. According to many reports, whole villages have been burned and some of the area's best farmers have fled the country.
One refugee from the south, interviewed in bordering Cameroon, corroborated reports reaching Ndjamena about one Army reprisal two week ago. "There was a massacre of 300 people in Deli a southern town ," the refugee said. "Many of those who were executed were opposition guerrillas, who had negotiated their surrender, and were to rejoin the national Army. When they surrendered their arms at the appointed place, the Army opened fire on them."
Sources in Ndjamena confirmed Libyan support for southern rebels, but said there is evidence of Libyan arms drops in the area.
The ultimate stability of Chad will depend on Habre obtaining cooperation from the south. A modest first step has been taken by severe punishment of the military officers responsible for antiguerrilla reprisals. But Habre also needs to open the area up to international aid. Fearing violence, the Red Cross was forced to pull its relief personnel out of southern Chad in early September, leaving behind 4,500 tons of emergency food, which remains undistributed.
Refugees who have not fled Chad are moving to the capital. Ndjamena has been overrun by competing armies three time in recent years. Living conditions, even before the invasion of refugees, were deplorable. Now the city invites comparisons to Beirut and Saigon. Beirut because of the bombed-out look. No building is untouched by the scars of small-arms fire. Saigon because of the air of urgency and impending catastrophe.
French troops have spent several million dollars in the capital in the past 13 months, fostering the birth of a honky-tonk service industry. Last week the taxi drivers, vendors and prostitutes were anxiously soliciting passers-by, hoping to pocket a few more francs before the French leave town and a new, uncertain era begins.