Chad and Nigeria have the most powerful militaries in their respective regions. Chads military holds primacy in the CEMAC Zone (Central African Economic Zone).
Nigeria’s military, despite its shortcomings remains the undisputed military power in the ECOWAS Zone (Economic Community of West African States).
Cameroon is outranked by Chad despite being the economic engine of the CEMAC Zone. Ranked 20th in Africa in 2016, in the Global Fire Power Index, which lists on a yearly basis the most powerful armies in the world. However Chads influence as a military power is gaining strength in West Africa. It has the second largest standing army in West Africa after Nigeria, with an active duty force of 35,000.
Chad is also the regions second biggest military spender, with $537 million. When the going gets tough against jihadists in western Africa, it’s the Chadians who usually get the call.
Soldiers from this Muslim majority nation have played a critical role alongside France in combating Islamist militants in northern Mali since 2013. And last year, a sweep by Chadian expeditionary forces liberated major areas held by Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger, where local militaries struggle to contain the regional affiliate of Islamic State.
“Boko Haram is scared of the Chadian army because we simply never give them a chance,” said Col. Sogour Idiman, deputy commander of Chad’s vaunted special forces.
Fighting is what we Chadians know how to do best, and we have now developed a myth of our invincibility in wars. Boko Haram knows that with us, it’s dealing with people who will not cede any ground,” said Ali Abdel-Rhamane Haggar, rector of the University of N’Djamena and former adviser to Chad’s President Idriss Deby.
Governed by Mr. Deby for the past quarter-century, Chad, a former French colony of 12 million people where Arabic is the lingua franca, is no paragon of democracy or good government. As recently as 2008, its own riverside capital was almost overrun by insurgents contesting Mr. Deby’s authoritarian regime. The country’s military has been accused of human-rights abuses and Transparency International has ranked Chad as the world’s 22nd most corrupt nation out of 174.
But Chad under Mr. Deby has also been a staunch foe of Islamic radicalism, something that has made him increasingly useful for the West’s efforts to stabilize the turbulent region. Both France and the U.S. provide military aid to Chad, while Mr. Deby, a former general, has invested a significant part of the nation’s oil wealth in modernizing its military, including an air force that can strike Boko Haram positions.
“The Chadians have a real combat capacity that is undeniable,” said Col. Louis Pena, chief of staff of Operation Barkhane, the French military’s N’Djamena-based counterinsurgency effort that operates across West Africa. “A large part of the Chadian army is well equipped and well trained. They charge into the rumble and have no fear. It’s one of the countries and armies on which we rely very strongly.”
The Chadians proved their mettle in the campaign against Boko Haram last year. The Islamic State affiliate, which began as a dissident group in Nigeria’s Borno state around 2002, had by then spread across the region, seizing cities and helping itself to tanks and artillery pieces at looted Nigerian military bases. Its encroachment into northern Cameroon, in particular, threatened Chad’s main outlet to the outside world.
Punching through Cameroon and Niger into Boko Haram’s heartland, the Chadians quickly seized large tracts of Nigeria that Nigeria’s own army had not been able to reconquer.
“Our commanders go ahead of the soldiers, and can the troopers stay behind if their commander is out front?” said Col. Mahamat Mai, who served 10 months with the Chadian expeditionary force in Cameroon and Nigeria last year.
Some of these victories proved short-lived. While Chad could seize ground from Boko Haram, it doesn’t have the capacity to hold it for long. In Nigeria, once the Chadians withdrew, Boko Haram often simply came back.
And a new multi-national force against Boko Haram that is supposed to fill this void has been hamstrung by internal bickering.
It’s also unclear how sustainable Chad’s regional military role will be as oil prices collapse. Many Western officials say they are concerned that the recent oil slump could prove deeply destabilizing for Chad, making the country’s military might no longer affordable and possibly leading to another domestic insurgency.
“The Chadians are seasoned fighters because they have been at war all their lives. That’s not like our Cameroonian troops who come from a country that was always at peace,” said Souley Mane, a Muslim leader in Cameroon and a history professor at the University of Yaounde.
“But if you have an army like Chad’s, you also have to keep it busy. Otherwise, there is a risk it may turn against you.”
In the Chadian army if its a truck, if it can move, it qualifies for a 35mm anti-aircraft cannon.
In the Nigerian army by contrast the most you get is a Browning M2 12.7mm.