The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
The road to Aouzou, a village in northern Chad’s mountainous Tibesti region, is dotted with red-and-white-painted stones, which signal the presence of land mines. Everyone in Aouzou, most of whom belong to the Tubu tribe, has had a relative killed by one, including Senoussi Koki, the administrative head of Aouzou, who lost a brother in 1998. The mines were planted by Libyan troops, Koki explained, after Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi seized the strip of land on which the village sits. Qaddafi occupied the area from 1973 until 1994, when the International Court of Justice ruled that the strip belonged to Chad.
Now that at least some of the mines are marked, they are less of a danger to those in Aouzou. But another scourge from Libya is the lawlessness that has seized the country since Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011. One consequence of toppling Qaddafi is that southern Libya and areas in Chad just across the border have turned into an attractive playground for cross-border fortune hunters from all over the region. They come mostly in search of gold, but some of them also traffic in drugs and weapons.
On a cold November evening in 2015, I met with a few Aouzou residents. “You have seen Aouzou. Would you hope to live here?” said Adoum, a young man who, like all of the strip’s Tubu, lost his Libyan citizenship in 1994 after the land returned to Chad and who speaks of the Qaddafi era with some nostalgia. He had just returned from a trip to Libya. His car was loaded with much-needed food. There is no market here, so Aouzouans travel the 300 miles north to the asphalted roads and shops of Fezzan, a southern province in Libya. The other option would be a 900-mile journey on dirt roads, a five-day drive, to Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. “It was better under Qaddafi,” said Adoum. “We had water and electricity. The Libyans built a hospital and a big school hosting kids from all over Tibesti.” Koki remembers studying in school along with some 600 pupils. Today, the same building hosts only 40 students, including 30 in primary and ten in secondary. The secondary students are only girls, because boys drop out to work in the gold mines.
Since 2012, everyone in Aouzou has started looking for gold, even Koki and other officials. In recent years, gold was discovered all over the Tubu territory, which along with the Tibesti region in Chad includes parts of southern Libya and northern Niger. Those living in Aouzou choose not to mine near their own village but go farther out into Tibesti and southern Libya, because in Aouzou “there are too many scraps of metal from the war for detectors to work well,” said Koki.
Throughout Tubu history, conflict and statelessness have been the norm rather than the exception. French colonizers arrived in Chad in 1900 and spent around 35 years in Tibesti. After they left the country in 1965, Chad’s northern region suffered from 30 years of successive rebellions, with no more than two decades under the control of N’Djamena. Like many Aouzouans, Adoum had been a rebel combatant. “I never laid down arms,” he told me half-jokingly. “I’m still a rebel.”
During the successive wars in Tibesti, many Tubu from the Aouzou strip left for southern Libya’s oases and joined the indigenous Tubu communities there. In 2011, less than a year after the end of the Tibesti conflicts and at the start of the Arab Spring, Libyan Tubu formed militias to topple Qaddafi. At that time, they took control of the Libyan border with Chad and Niger, establishing checkpoints on the roads and taxing smugglers and gold miners. Now, thanks to Qaddafi’s fall and the statelessness that ensued, crossing into Libya has become much easier. Miners in Chad and Libya alike depend on Libyan supplies—food, fuel, metal detectors, and mercury to separate gold from sand—all paid in gold. Weapons are smuggled, too, and some miners come armed to work. On the gold mines, former Tubu rebels had to compete with Chadian military men as well as Darfurian combatants from Sudan. When I visited Tibesti, several fights had already broken out between the different groups rushing to find gold, and the Chadian army was trying to stop the mining. Yet tension was still high. “We remain ready to defend ourselves,” Adoum said in Aouzou.
That winter, I met with Mohammed, a Darfurian rebel I had first met in 2013 in Sudan. At that time, Mohammed and his friends were working at Jebel Amir, a huge gold mine that had also become a theater of war for Arab militias known as the Janjawid.
Between 2013 and early 2014, they moved on to Tibesti to mine the gold there, but the war only followed Mohammed and his two companions, Moneim and Abdelaziz. In mid-2013, the men heard that there was also gold farther west near the Nigerien-Algerian border. So they drove into Niger. Moneim recalled, “When you look for gold, everything is directed toward one goal: fill your pockets.”
By September 2014, Moneim had found several pounds of gold in Niger. He used some of his money to buy a car and, with nine other men, decided to return to Chad. But as he and his men approached the foothills of the Tibesti Mountains, they were ambushed by armed Tubu whose bullets killed two of Moneim’s passengers. The miners retreated and phoned a Darfurian friend in Libya, who gave them the GPS coordinates of an arms cache he had made nearby. This friend had buried his weapons there to avoid confiscation by the Nigerien or French forces that patrol northeastern Niger, but since he now lived in Libya, he was no longer in need of them: Qaddafi’s stockpile had turned into an open weapons market for all kinds of armed groups, including Darfurian rebels. Moneim and his men found the cache, unearthed a machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and fought their way back to Chad. “We destroyed everything on our way,” said Moneim. “Some of us who had lost their relatives were angry and burned houses and trees.”
Clashes between the Tubu and gold miners in Tibesti are growing. Some young armed Tubu cannot resist the temptation of ambushing or fleecing successful diggers, and others are looking for gold themselves. But most of those living in Tibesti simply wanted to chase the miners away. Their presence had become unbearable: thousands of them were digging in scarce camel pastures, crowding the rare water wells, and pouring mercury in the valleys.
People in Aouzou and elsewhere in Tibesti told me that since the Chadian government had initially failed to react to this invasion, the Tubu decided to respond themselves and reactivated their wangada, traditional guards of the land, usually in charge of protecting timber, palm trees, and pastures. New recruits, unlike the old guards who were armed with sticks and spears, were actually former rebels or demobilized soldiers and were equipped with cars, satellite phones, and guns. They formed an unofficial militia. What they did not know is that the miners also included well-armed combatants: Chadian soldiers who took leave or defected to look for gold, as well as seasoned Chadian and Sudanese rebels like Moneim and his comrades.
In Kouri Bougoudi, a large mine that straddles the border between Chad and Libya, a Chadian military commander I spoke with estimated that the miners numbered 40,000 on the Chadian side alone. They lived in hastily built slums in the desert and relied on food and water trucked in from Libya. To counter the influx, in mid-2015, a newly formed wangada committee asked them to leave, then cut their supply road from Libya. After clashes left men on both sides dead, the Tubu gathered dozens of men, enough to fill 30 vehicles, and attacked the main settlement on the Chadian side. Mohammed, who had been digging in Kouri Bougoudi for nine months, said that he had grabbed his gun and helped repel the Tubu. But 67 miners died, he said, before the Chadian army came and evacuated the survivors.
Many miners instead crossed the border to Libya, where there is less resistance to them from both authorities and locals. Libyan Tubu do not stop them because they benefit from the trade and also because they are preoccupied by bitter conflicts with other local desert communities for control of land, resources, and cross-border smuggling routes.
In November, I traveled to the site, an area called Ogui, where the Chadian Tubu had fought Moneim and his men for the first time. Sidi Kallemay, a local Tubu chief, drove me across the ruined houses left by Moneim’s angry comrades. He showed me his burned palm trees and broken water pump. He did not look so angry, though. He said he had enough money to rebuild Ogui and contribute to the diya (“blood price”) that he must pay to the miners’ families after a Chadian government investigation had concluded that the Tubu had killed 14 miners in Ogui. I had an idea of his relative prosperity when we reached his house, an unusually large concrete building hidden in the hills. It was nicknamed “Dubai,” but the only visible signs of wealth were the small car park, some neon signs, and a large television screen playing Bollywood films and, later, Captain America.
When I asked him whether his wealth was from gold or some other lucrative venture, he laughed and said he made a living selling camels. I had heard a different story: that for some time, he had been transporting South American cocaine between Niger and Libya, just one section of the long trans-Saharan drug route that runs from the West African coast to the Mediterranean. Before 2011, ungoverned parts of Niger and Chad, including the southern and northern foothills of the Tibesti Mountains, offered discreet passage to the traffickers. Now that Qaddafi is gone, southern Libya provides an even better route. With their desert survival skills, Tubu drivers, guides, and armed escorts are just one link in the long trafficking chain. Sometimes, they even kidnap traffickers and hold them for ransom.
Kallemay had become somewhat famous for his trafficking activities after getting wounded in a dispute over a drug deal in Libya in early 2015. But now he was looking for respectability, particularly since the government in N’Djamena had decided to appoint him as a district chief. Ten of the young men watching television in his home were his guards, who now received government salaries. A Tubu, not from Chad but from southern Libya, entered the room and interrupted our talk with bad news. French soldiers stationed in northern Niger had just arrested some of “the kids,” young smuggling relatives or friends. Kallemay responded, “If there’s nothing illegal, they will leave them.” This time they were only smuggling migrants to Europe, so they would supposedly be all right.
Since 2014, the 3,000-strong French military force for the Sahel, called Operation Barkhane, or “Sand Dune,” has sought to police the flow of Libyan arms from an outpost in Madama, in northeastern Niger. U.S. soldiers are also watching the region and they have been since 2007, under Operation Enduring Freedom—Trans Sahara, a counterterrorism and anti-trafficking partnership with governments in the Sahel and Sahara. The Libyan upheaval has made the operation more difficult: Qaddafi’s weapons have spread to Islamist groups and rebels all over the Sahel. Patrols around Libya’s borders have captured only a few shipments, and their presence has simply forced traffickers to look for alternative routes.
As I was interviewing some of the remaining gold miners by the roadside, a convoy with a Chadian army escort passed us. It was a U.S. delegation that had come to invite northern Chad officials to a seminar on security, promising water pumps in return for information. “We need water, and they want intelligence on the Islamic State and on drug trafficking,” one of the Chadians told me.
Before I left Chad, Moneim and his friends told me how some of their comrades had left the Chadian side of the Kouri Bougoudi mine for the Libyan one and had managed to ambush Tubu drug traffickers. Through phone calls with the network’s sponsors in Europe, they had released the convoy for a ransom of several million dollars. Moneim said, “Now everybody looks out for his own life.”
Moneim and his friends were preparing to leave northern Chad for central Chad, where more gold had been recently discovered. They didn’t know the way there and had only the GPS coordinates of a clandestine mine. I told them that I had heard the Chadian army was chasing the diggers and opening fire on them. Moneim explained that they were driving a car belonging to a relative of Chadian President Idriss Déby, which might spare them some trouble. He didn’t look too confident, though, and added, “We know 100 percent we’re going to face problems, but we have to go. There is no other choice. Our families are still living in refugee camps. We have children to feed. And this gold is a challenge, it is something like adventure.”
In Aouzou, the Tubu explained to me how the gold has brought conflict but, of course, also wealth. “If, by the grace of God, gold had not appeared, we wouldn’t even have food,” Adoum told me. Many found enough gold to buy televisions, cars, and sometimes weapons. But Adoum worried: “If things continue as they are, we’ll end taking up arms as well.” And since one would hardly cross the border into Libya without an AK-47, everyone already has one stashed away.