Border Conflict in Africa: Part 3 — Aouzou Strip

Abudigana Al-Tahir


In August 1987, the armed forces of Chad swept across vast stretches of desert in a series of rapid attacks that shattered an occupying Libyan army and drove it from the northern third of Chad.

This operation briefly captured the Aouzou Strip, an obscure piece of territory in the northernmost of Chad, but Libyan forces recaptured it shortly afterward in a campaign marked by unusually heavy and intense fighting.

Although the two states agreed to a cease-fire the following month, they have continued to dispute title to the territory, and in September 1990, they brought the matter to the International Court of Justice (I.C.J. or Court).

Courtesy of the Yale Journal of International Law

The Aouzou Strip runs along the border between Libya and Chad for a distance of some six hundred miles, varying in width between fifty and ninety miles. Although roughly the size of Scotland, it has a population of only a few thousand and contains some of the most barren land on the face of the earth.

Reason for Conflict

Why, then, have Chad and Libya fought so bitterly for its possession? Some commentators have suggested that the two countries seek to control the area’s reportedly vast mineral wealth, particularly the uranium deposits believed to lie there.

Although that explanation may capture some of the reasons for the dispute, it is incomplete.

If the dispute concerned only access to resources, Libya and Chad might have negotiated a settlement. Furthermore, Libya has displayed an interest in the area since its independence, before geologists even suspected the possibility of mineral deposits in the region.

A better explanation for the persistence of the dispute looks to the parties’ beliefs. Each state genuinely believes that it owns the Aouzou Strip.

The predecessors of Libya and Chad in the area put forth competing claims to the Aouzou Strip at least as early as 1890, and those claims reverberate in the arguments of Libya and Chad today.

Each side strongly feels that the disputed land forms, and throughout history has formed, an integral part of its national territory and its national identity. This makes the dispute a matter of principle not a matter of land.

Due to each state linking the territory to its national identity, neither state is willing compromise its claim.

Chad, as a former French colony and thus the successor of France, claimed right to the area through a combination of French occupation and a series of international treaties that recognize France’s rights to the area. France administered the Aouzou Strip as part of French Equatorial Africa, the colonial entity from which Chad emerged on its independence in 1960.

Chad also invoked a 1955 treaty between France and Libya in which Libya accepted the boundary Chad now claims. Consequently, the boundary that Chad claims is the boundary to which it acceded at its independence.

Libya however, asserts the right to the Aouzou Strip as a result of the historical interaction between the people of the area and Libya. In particular, the Libyans feel that since the Ottoman period and even before it, the Aouzou Strip area had been joined with Libya in one cohesive entity-the Islamic state.

This state created political structures that addressed the physical realities of the North African background. Because the great distances involved made effective political control of the interior difficult, the system based sovereignty on the recognition of “some overriding hegemony, based on religious or cultural associations.” and that the crucial feature of the pre-colonial situation was that political authority was expressed through communal links. The intensity of that authority depended on tradition, geographic location, and political relationships

The Conflict

The conflict raged between 1978 and 1987 and was fought between Libyan and allied Chadian forces against Chadian groups supported by France, with the occasional involvement of other foreign countries and factions.

Libya had been involved in Chad’s internal affairs before 1978 and even before Muammar Gaddafi’s rise to power in Libya in 1969, beginning with the extension of the Chadian Civil War to northern Chad in 1968.

The conflict was marked by a series of four separate Libyan interventions in Chad, taking place in 1978, 1979, 1980–1981, and 1983–1987. On all of these occasions, Gaddafi had the support of several factions participating in the civil war, while Libya’s opponents found the support of the French government, which intervened militarily to support the Chadian government in 1978, 1983, and 1986.

An air-to-air right side view of a Soviet MiG-23 Flogger aircraft, The same model used by the Libyan forces.

Gaddafi initially intended to annex the Aouzou Strip, the northernmost part of Chad, which he claimed as part of Libya on the grounds of an unratified treaty of the colonial period. In 1972 his goals became, in the evaluation of historian Mario Azevedo, the creation of a client state in Libya’s “underbelly”, an Islamic republic modeled after his Jamahiriya, that would maintain close ties with Libya, and secure his control over the Aouzou Strip; expulsion of the French from the region; and use of Chad as a base to expand his influence in Central Africa.

The pattern of the war made itself transparent in 1978, with the Libyans providing armor, artillery, and air support and their Chadian allies the infantry, which assumed the bulk of the scouting and fighting.

This pattern was radically changed in 1986, towards the end of the war, when most Chadian forces united in opposing the Libyan occupation of northern Chad with a degree of unity that had never been seen before in Chad.

This deprived the Libyan forces of their habitual infantry, exactly when they found themselves confronting a mobile army, well equipped now by the United States, Zaire, and France with anti-tank and anti-air missiles, thus canceling the Libyan superiority in firepower.

What followed was the Toyota War, in which the Libyan forces were routed and expelled from Chad, putting an end to the conflict.

Which takes its name from the Toyota pickup trucks used, primarily the Toyota Hilux and the Toyota Land Cruiser, to provide mobility for the Chadian troops as they fought against the Libyans, and as Logistics vehicles.

The 1987 war resulted in a heavy defeat for Libya, which, according to American sources, lost one-tenth of its army, with 7,500 men killed and US$1.5 billion worth of military equipment destroyed or captured. Chadian losses were 1,000 men killed.


While there were numerous infringements of the ceasefire, the occurrences were generally minor. The two governments immediately started complex diplomatic maneuvers to bring world opinion on their side in the case,  and as was broadly anticipated, the conflict was continued. However, the two sides were cautious to leave the door open for a peaceful arrangement.

The latter course was promoted by France and most African states, whereas the Reagan Administration saw a resumption of the struggle as the best chance to unseat Gaddafi. Steadily, relations among the two nations improved, with Gaddafi giving signs that he wanted to normalize relations with the Chadian government, to the point of recognizing that the war had been a mistake.

In May 1988, the Libyan leader declared he would recognize Habré as the legitimate president of Chad “as a gift to Africa”; this led on 3 October to the resumption of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The following year, on 31 August 1989, Chadian and Libyan representatives met in Algiers to negotiate the Framework Agreement on the Peaceful Settlement of the Territorial Dispute, by which Gaddafi agreed to discuss with Habré the Aouzou Strip and to bring the issue to the ICJ for a binding ruling if bilateral talks failed.

After a year of inconclusive talks, the sides submitted the dispute to the ICJ in September 1990.

The Aouzou dispute was concluded for good on 3 February 1994, when the judges of the ICJ by a majority of 16 to 1 decided that the Aouzou Strip belonged to Chad.

The court’s judgement was implemented without delay, the two parties signing an agreement as early as 4 April concerning the practical modalities for the implementation of the judgement.

Monitored by international observers, the withdrawal of Libyan troops from the Strip began on 15 April and was completed by 10 May. The formal and final transfer of the Strip from Libya to Chad took place on 30 May, when the sides signed a joint declaration stating that the Libyan withdrawal had been effected.

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