Less than a week to go, and the excitement is growing by the day. Packed the backpacks, unpacked them again, and then repacked them. We haven’t forgotten anything, mosquito nets, suncream, hat, flip-flops, swimsuit. And that whilst it is freezing, here, at night. Good feeling.
Let’s focus on where we are going to first, Chad.
Chad is a bit of an oddball in this trip. It is actually not generally considered part of West Africa, which may well have to do with its colonial history. Although the French did ultimately move into Chad as a result of their military expansion campaign, initiated in Senegal, they only reached this far to ensure the connection between their three territories, those in North Africa, West Africa and Central Africa. And indeed, all these come together in Chad, conveniently bending south around then British Nigeria and German Cameroon. Yet it took them a while, and it cost them. They first penetrated into Chad in 1891, but only declared the territory ‘pacified’ in 1911. And the northern part of Chad was only conquered as late as 1914.
In the process they had decided that Chad should be part of the Federation of French Equatorial African, which stretched further south towards the Congo, bordering the Belgian-ruled Congo Free State. Which meant that it received its independence in 1960, after this Federation was dissolved, resulting in not only Chad, but also the countries Gabon, Central African Republic and Congo (Brazzaville).
And then there was independence
Its subsequent history is kind of a recurring song we will hear more often in the next weeks, describing other countries: it is a familiar story of a first time president, from the south, tension between the south and the northern Muslim factions, leading to increasingly erratic, and violent oppression by the president, followed by a military coup in 1975, further friction, and then full-blown civil war in 1979, between no less than 11 different groups. Unusually, other African nations decided to intervene, first Nigeria and then under auspice of the OAS (Organisation of African States), to broker a deal, which, however, collapsed within a few months. In 1980 the next civil war broke out, with a rather unsavoury role for Libya, which attempted to influence the fragile government to assimilate the two countries, and helpfully mobilised its military to ‘assist’. This led to international outcry, withdrawal of the Libyans, and Minister of Defense Habre’s forces to take over power.
Miraculously, Habre then became president, a position he consolidated by massacring and torturing his opponents, another familiar song in Africa. He also kept on battling Libyan forces, which, of course, had not really withdrawn. And which, with French military support, he managed to expel in 1987, in what became known as the ‘Toyota War’, for the use of Toyota pickup trucks as fighting vehicles. Three years later Habre was overthrown by one of his own generals, Idriss Deby – not surprisingly, from a different ethnic background. Who managed to stabilise the country, despite his own organisation, the Patriotic Salvation Movement, facing initial violent opposition from, amongst others, the Movement for Democracy and Development and the National Revival Committee for Peace and Democracy. Despite further clashes with the Armed Forces for a Federal Republic, the Democratic Front for Renewal, and the Chadian Movement for Justice and Democracy – where do they get these names from?! – Deby held on the presidency, through flawed and opposition-banned multi-party elections and all, until he died in 2021. And then? His son took over. Of course. Mind you, just as interim president. Oh, and as head of the armed forces, too.
Deby pere will not be prosecuted anymore, but the good news is that ex-president Habre was convicted of human-rights abuses, including rape, sexual slavery, and ordering the killing of 40,000 people, and sentenced to life in prison. At least some justice done, even though it took to 2016 to get there.
And where did all this leave the country today?
Not that the politics since independence have done the country any good. Chad is the seventh-poorest nation in the world, with over 40% of its population living below the poverty line. In the fertile southernmost corner farmers grow sorghum and millet, in the much drier savannah lands of the Sahel cattle is being raised commercially, and further north, in the Sahara, there is very little agriculture, except for the occasional oasis supporting dates. For a long time cotton dominated the export, but this has now been overtaken by oil, being produced since 2003, and now representing threequarters of the export revenues. Of which I doubt the average Chadian sees anything, Chad generally being recognised as a pretty corrupt country. Not surprisingly, lots of tensions exist, between religious factions, between ethnic groups, between farmers and cattle raisers, over land and water resources, or just because of economic hardship, lack of opportunities for young, cronyism, human rights abuse, political instability, you name it. Boko Haram carries out incursions into Chad, from Nigeria, and Islamic State-related Jihadist terrorist organisations operate further to the west and the north. Furthermore, Chad borders the Central African Republic, and the Darfur region of Sudan, two areas where local politics have generated lots of cross-border refugees. And although Chad likes to profile itself as a stable bastion in the region, the government itself doesn’t seem to exercise much control over large parts of the country, let alone the problems it is facing, in terms of security, basic services. The question: fragile state? Or on its way to a failed state?
I don’t claim to assess this in the next few days, visiting this country for the first time. The first objective is to stay alive! Don’t get kidnapped!