Dominated historically by slave-trading Arab Muslims from the northern regions, the recent history of Chad 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.

Independence & Tombalbaye

When independence was granted in 1960, a southerner became Chad's first head of state. But by arresting opposition leaders and banning political parties, President François Tombalbaye 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 Félix Malloum, a fellow southerner. Over US$1 million in cash was found in Tombalbaye's residence, along with plans to proclaim himself emperor.

North against South

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.

Idriss Déby

In 1990 Idriss Déby, 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 leaving Déby with a clear run to N'Djaména and the presidency of his war-ravaged country, which Déby 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 Déby's former minister Youssouf Togoïmi.

To nobody's surprise, Déby 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.

Three weeks after a failed 2006 coup and one year after the constitutional two-term presidential limit was overturned, Déby won a presidential election boycotted by the opposition and most citizens. In the April 2011 presidential election, also boycotted by the opposition, Déby was again declared winner.

The fact that Déby's government has not already fallen has much to do with the presence of the French. While the French have never admitted to actual involvement in repelling the rebel attacks of 2006 and 2008, it was reported in the French media that in the 2008 attack France provided logistical support to the government, funnelled weapons to the government via Libya, offered to evacuate Déby to France and sent special forces in to fight the rebels.

Best Friends Forever?

Chad and Sudan have long been uneasy neighbours, and things took a turn for the worse in 2003 when unrest in Sudan's Darfur region began to spill across the border, along with hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees. Chad and Sudan then began accusing each other of backing and harbouring rebels, and the dispute led to the severing of relations in 2006. In the years immediately following this cutting of ties, the Sudanese government was accused of supporting Chadian rebels, who at one point came within a bullet's breeze of seizing N'djaména. Chad was in turn accused of supporting rebels in Sudan. In 2010, however, the two countries agreed to normalise relations and withdraw support for rebel groups operating in each other's territories.