N’djamena, Chad – June 1 – 8, 2008: The country’s government moved quickly to cover up the scars from the Feb. 2 and 3 fighting when Sudanese backed rebels almost conquered the city if not for President Deby getting a little help from his French friends. The bullet holes have been repaired and painted over, windows replaced and roads repaired. Only a few buildings still show signs of the fighting such as the Supreme Court and the Parliament.
The Chadians are a euphemistic people. They call the battle “les évenements” or the events.
The only things which look like a war zone in the city had nothing to do with the war. Along the long arteries of N’djamena are kilometers of rubble where the government bulldozed in three short day in March thousands of homes people built without authorization on land which belongs to the government and/or which the government say belongs to it. Only a church and a few mosques were left standing.
The people were given two week’s notice to move but move where. The war in the East and the hope for jobs with easy money has bloated the population of the capital by hundreds of thousands to a whopping one million people out of a total population of six million.
Uniformed Chadian soldiers are everywhere and well armed. Some people told me the whole Chadian army is deployed here but those who would know better say the real army is in the East near Sudan. They also say not everybody in uniform is a soldier. The European EUFOR forces are now deploying there too with the mission of protecting refugees from Darfur and internally displaced Chadians.
EUFOR along with the UN have brought in a lot of money, which could easily lead to a lop-sided economy. The Meridien hotel where I am staying is this week full of Spanish officers being briefed before joining their troops in the field.
Despite the relative calm, there is every sign this is not a peaceful place. The familiar sounds of French fighters roaring over the city as they head out to patrol the desert and the ballet of helicopter gun-ships and troop carriers fill the air and send the birds flying.
And as always, rumors are the source of worrying information for the populace. D. says they have lost trace of “three hundred rebel Technicals” (the decapitated Toyota four-wheel-drives mounted with heavy machineguns and recoilless rifles and which allow them to dash across the desert hundreds of kilometers in no time at all). “They are expecting an attack in the East in the coming days before the rains get to heavy.”
French reporter Ferdia H. says the Chadian rebels were reported to have sent an envoy to Gabon last week to tell the French they were going to attack again, probably telling the French “don’t worry. We’re not after you. You can just sit back and watch.” Who knows?
Yes, it is the rainy season here. “It rained last week!” So much for the rainy season in N’Djamena. Even the Chadians are complaining it is too hot. This helps me bear the 45 degrees and more. I am not alone. But an Arab woman warned me it is just an excuse for the Chadians to avoid work. “When it rains, they can’t work either. Everything is an excuse for them not to work.” But with all the (re-)construction going on around town, somebody is working and from I can see they are Black.
The rainy season is important. It prevents the Chadians from fighting the kind of high-speed mounted tactics they use. Their technicals get stuck, slowed down, forced into vulnerable bottlenecks. So, if the rebels feel lucky, they have to attack now. If they don’t, there will be a few months of calm.
Rebels is a big word. In fact, in pure Chadian tradition, President Deby is fighting against a movement led by his former ministers, officers and aids and who are members of his ethnic group; basically, they are members of the same family. After all, Deby himself took power, with French help, from his good friend and mentor Hissene Habré now on trial for crimes against humanity in Senegal.
It is also true if it were not for the Foreign troops, especially the French, the Sudanese backed rebels would oust Deby right away. So much for the Democratic process in the country, the power of elections and the rule of law.
Education is a big problem. I am told they don`t even know how many teachers there are in Chad. Somebody said six or seven thousand.
Seventy percent of the oil revenue was to go to education, health and infrastructure. According to a high ranking diplomatic source it is 57%. The ambassador says you can see how much the Chadian government is getting in oil revenue on the Exxon-Mobil web site. But that will not tell you what they do with the money. Wars are expensive.
Local journalists complain they have no access to information and that they are victims of government censors. People however seem to be more worried about soaring food prices.
There is no shortage of food. The markets are full of fruit and vegetables from the South and meat is in abundance. There are goats, pigs and cattle all around N’Jamena brought down to the Chari River to water. The government this week decided to free some of its strategic food stocks and sell corn, sorgho and rice to civil servants at a low fixed price: 7000 cfa (a little over $12) for five kilos of corn. That is a lot of money in a country where civil servants with a University education make about $5 a day.
Water is a problem. Lake Chad and the Chari have shrunk to a fraction (20%) of what they were forty years ago. There is a plan to dig a canal from the Oubangui on the other side of the Central African Republic to replenish Lake Chad.
In the city there is little potable water and the public pumps are over crowded. Sewage lies stagnant in the clogged drainage ditches along the streets. Public warnings have been issued about the high risk of Cholera during the rainy season when the ditches will overflow into the streets and some homes.
In certain sections of town workers are shoveling the sewage and garbage out of the ditches into the streets in a bid to unclog them. Electricity is a luxury and irregular. Most businesses use generators and for the local papers and radio stations this is a burden. One station told me they use 20 liters a day.
Reporters have been targeted by the regime. One I spoke to had been jailed for 68 days, had his car and house shot up and was forced to go into temporary exile after “the events”. He is back because, he says, “if we give in, all the sacrifices would be in vain”.
All newspapers have to go to the official censor before publication and the censor does not hesitate to ban papers and articles. You can be shut down and jailed for sapping “the morale of the Army” and hurting the integrity of the head of state.
Most of the reporters I spoke to said the rebels left them alone during “the events” and that their offices were destroyed and looted by the government forces after the rebels withdrew.
It was hard to find people who like President Deby, especially if they come from the more Christian South where the oil is. But this does not mean they like the Sudanese backed rebels either. Chad is a sun-baked, poor and illiterate war zone which will remain that way for a while to come, much to the relief of NGOs and the Press who make their bread and butter out of these kinds of places.