Dominated historically by slave-trading Arab Muslims from the northern regions, Chad is primarily an agricultural nation with over 80% of the population living at subsistence level. Its recent history was shaped when the French began taking an interest in central and western Africa in the 1900s. By 1913 the country was fully colonised: sadly the new rulers didn’t really know what to do with their conquest, and investment all but dried up after a few years, leaving much of the territory almost entirely undeveloped.
When independence was granted in 1960, a southerner became Chad’s first head of state. Unfortunately, President François Tombalbaye was not the best choice. By arresting opposition leaders and banning political parties, he provoked a series of conspiracies in the Muslim north, the violent repression of which quickly escalated into full-blown guerrilla war. For the next quarter of a century, Chadian politics was defined by armed struggles, shifting alliances, coups and private armies, overseen and often exacerbated by France and Libya, who took a keen interest in the area. In addition, the Sahel drought of the 1970s and early 1980s destroyed centuries-old patterns of existence and cultivation, causing large-scale migration to urban centres.
In 1975 Tombalbaye was assassinated, and succeeded by General Malloum, a fellow southerner. Over US$1 million in cash was found in Tombalbaye’s residence, along with plans to proclaim himself emperor.
The Government of National Unity was then formed by Malloum and Hissène Habré (a former northern rebel commander); it was a tenuous alliance between two men who shared little more than mutual distrust. The resulting internal power struggle in 1979 pitted north against south, and Muslim against Christian or animist, all colliding with destructive force in the capital, where thousands of civilians were massacred. Eventually Malloum fled the country, and Goukouni Oueddei – the son of a tribal chieftain from northwestern Chad and an arch-enemy of Habré – took over.
In 1980 Libyan forces supporting Oueddei briefly occupied N’Djaména. The French army drove them northwards, leaving Habré as the nominal ruler of Chad. A stalemate ensued with the country divided in half, with neither France nor Libya willing to risk an all-out confrontation.
In 1987, both foreign powers agreed to withdraw their forces; however, Libya, whose forces had occupied northern Chad and the uranium-rich Aouzou Strip since 1977, reneged and attacked Habré’s army. Armed with little more than swords and machine guns, the Chadian forces pushed the better-equipped Libyans across the border.
In 1990 Idriss Deby, a northern Muslim warlord in self-imposed exile in Sudan, swept back into Chad with a private army of 2000 soldiers and Libyan backing. Habré fled to Senegal (The ‘African Pinochet’, as Human Rights Watch calls him, is currently facing trial in Dakar to answer for his widespread use of torture and political murder), leaving Deby with a clear run to N’Djaména and the presidency of his war-ravaged country, which Deby consolidated by winning the first-ever presidential elections in 1996. While this ballot was widely regarded as rigged, the parliamentary elections a year later were considered much fairer. In 1998 a new rebellion broke out in the north, led by the Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJT) under Deby’s former minister Youssouf Togoimi.
Although Chad has enjoyed relative peace and close relations with Libya over the past few years (despite regular guerrilla raids in the Tibesti region of northern Chad), politically, little has changed. To nobody’s surprise, Deby won the May 2001 presidential elections by a comfortable margin, although results from a quarter of the polling stations had to be cancelled because of ‘irregularities’.
In 2004 Chad became an oil exporter. The World Bank helped fund the 1000km-long pipeline crossing Cameroon to the coast only after Chad agreed to dedicate 80% of oil income to reducing poverty. Even before Deby broke this agreement at the start of 2006, there was virtually no change for average citizens in what Transparency International ranks as the world’s most corrupt country.
But the World Bank is not Deby’s biggest worry. Several rebel groups based in and surely supported by Sudan, and some led by members of Deby’s family and former senior army officers, have their eyes on N’Djaména. They almost got it in April 2006 after launching an unsuccessful attack on the capital. The government was helped by the incompetence of the rebels, who had to ask directions when they arrived and ended up at the empty Palais du Peuple (the parliament) instead of the Palais du President.
Three weeks after the failed coup and one year after the constitutional two-term presidential limit was overturned, Deby won a presidential election boycotted by the opposition and most citizens. Power in Chad has always changed hands by the bullet, not the ballot, and most observers expect a rebel takeover sooner rather than later. While most Chadians would welcome this, there is concern that the rebel alliance will falter after taking control, bringing 1979-style anarchy, or perhaps worse. Already-emerging coordination between Chadian rebels and Sudan’s Janjaweed, the militia behind the genocide in Darfur, have created 50, 000 Chadian refugees in their own country.