Moundou Blues

Moundou, Chad, June 7 – 12: A Chadian was stopped by a corrupt Ivorian policeman who told him « I’m going to give you problems. » The Chadian responded “and I will give you solutions.”

When President Idriss Deby in January told his security forces to impose a draconian ban on the use of charcoal in Chad in a bid to fight desertification, he did nothing to help people find alternative means for cooking. Deby responded to his critics by saying Chadians are people who find solutions to everything. He insisted nobody is starving in the country.

But how do people living on less than two dollars a day find the only alternatives which are the different gasses bought in steel bottles and which also means buying the stove that goes with it? Not a problem for the authorities. All my sources, reporters, diplomats and analysts say trigger-happy ‘soldiers’* and police do not hesitate to shoot anybody they find burning wood to make charcoal. That first January day they burned fourteen cars in N’djamena that were carrying charcoal. No trial needed.

The initial investment for the bottle of gas and small burner is 60 Euros in Moundou and more expensive in isolated regions. A refill costs eight-and-a-half Euros. The problem is even those with the money cannot find refills. One reporter in my program has been without gas for ten days. Here in the South where the Christians eat pork, the lack of fuel could mean less cooking time, which in turn could mean pork related illnesses. So far, nobody has raised this question with me. Another problem is poor people without fuel or little fuel, may by-pass boiling their water. Typhoid is already on the rise in Moundou.

On Tuesday, the Mixed Brigade for the Protection of the Environment (basically illiterate thugs in uniform) descended on Moundou’s Gueldjen market and seized all the charcoal they found in vendors’ stalls. They then raided the homes around the markets and confiscated people’s Ganoun, the wire mesh container the charcoal is burned in. When the Delegate of the Quarter tired to intervene, they beat him to a pulp.

Chad is arid and desertification is a big problem. Lake Chad, once Africa’s biggest lake, nay, an inland sea, has lost more than 80% of its volume over the past forty years and could well disappear entirely in the near future. The Churi River is but a trickle at Ndjamena and this is supposed to be the rainy season. *

Moundou is not a desert. It has more vegetation than a Savannah but it is far from dense forest. It is an agricultural region producing fruit, notably mangos and bananas, vegetables from potatoes, carrots, and cucumbers to green beans and onions, peanuts and cotton. The hump-backed Zebu and Kouri cows, sheep, goats and black pigs roam open range eating the trash on the riverbanks and in the red-dirt streets of the city.

But even Moundou is in trouble. “The rainy season has arrived weeks later than it should,” says Joe, a local political analyst. “People should be planting now but the rains have only just arrived. There will be famine.”

Moundou is near the region of Chad’s great oil reserves yet power goes out all the time and businesses have to resort to generators (few homes have electricity). The power plants are fired by costly fuel and gasoline is expensive, about .90 Euro cents a liter. Chad has no refinery, so they must import their fuel at a much higher price than they export their oil. Chad’s oil is pumped through a pipeline to ships at the coast of Cameroon. There is no transparence in the business. Nobody here can tell me how many barrels a day are exported. There is a group whose job it is to release figures but all agree there is no way to verify. Chad is at war and one thing is sure: the war Deby is fighting against his tribal cousins from the North is eating up oil-dollars just as fast as they are pumped.

Although the South is overwhelmingly Christian and Animist and the country itself could well be majority Christian, war-lording nomadic Muslim tribes from the North have been ruthlessly imposing power since the Civil War in 1979, which they won with Libyan intervention. They have also kept the country in a permanent state of war as one Northern tribe tries to oust the other from N’djamena. At present, eight groups sit in neighboring Sudan. Their last incursion five weeks ago ended disastrously for them. Although there are no eyewitness accounts of the fighting, it is believed the French once again saved Deby. “French fighters were taking off from N’djamena every thirty minutes during the fighting,” says Daniel, a Chadian advisor to a Western Embassy.

Pete, a 50-year-old American civilian contractor for military projects says that in Abeche “Russian built Migs, probably flown by Ukrainian pilots, were taking off fully loaded and coming back empty.”

Identity by Exclusion

Ethnicity and religion are very important to Chad. They represent identity through exclusion. Those in positions of power in the Christian South come from the Muslim North. If someone from the South is by chance in a position of power, he can only maintain it by respecting the will of those from the North. This means few laws on the books meant to protect people’s rights are enforced even though there are some very good laws on the books.

Recently the courts ordered Muslim nomad herders from the North to leave the land in Laï they were granted for a month to graze their herds so that the Christian and Animist farmers who live there could start planting. The police did not enforce the court decision. The result was eleven people killed in fighting between the two groups. The government paid compensation to the herders for their dead but no money went to the farmers for theirs. The Governor told the press not to report on the events. Court decisions continue to be ignored by the police in cases concerning herders to the detriment of the farmers and there has been further violence.

My sources say 23 people died earlier this year in the Sarh region in such violence and the Northern-herder / Southern-farmer conflict has spilled blood right here in the streets of Moundou.

Julien Béasunda, who founded the Chadian Association for Non-Violence, says the authorities told him to handle the problems himself. He says more herders are arriving as they try to escape the fighting in the North.

Other sources say the Northern herders are being egged on by some in power who see the Southerners as a threat (see below). Julien’s task is almost impossible.

Doctor Sem Béasnal runs an Evangelist agricultural school here. He told me they estimate the population of Western Logone at roughly 800 thousand people for 8,500 square kilometers. “That’s 100 people per square kilometer! The highest in the country,” the Pastor says. Many locals are proud of this. The fact is the land could not support much more than that. The arrival of the herders is a major strain.

Chadian law respects local ethnic traditions but the Constitution also stipulates that these customs cannot be imposed on zones of other ethnic traditions. Of course, farmers and herders know nothing of Constitutions and laws while the press is prevented from informing the public. Violence and repression are the vicious circle of ignorance.

Moundou the Rebel

The government is even more worried about Moundou because the people here waged large and bloody rebellions on several occasions in the 1980s and 1990s. Locals still brag of the stiff resistance their soldiers put up against the Libyans and Northerners in 1979-1980. Ethnic conflict can easily spill over into something much bigger. Free flow of information could weaken a government with no real legitimate mandate outside of that from Paris. Examples of recent French intervention are the fighting in February 2008 when Sudanese backed rebels reached the Presidential Palace in N’djamena or last month when they were stopped dead in their tracks just this side of the Sudanese border. French logic on Deby seems to be ‘better the devil you know’. The armed opposition comes from Deby`s ethnic groups and many are members of his own clan and they have one program: power, honor and vengeance.

These are all well-known facts. Even the Americans have been here training Chadian troops “where we try to concentrate on the human rights aspects as well,” one officer told me. This person thinks a battalion the US trained was involved in the fighting last month and believes this is why there were “more prisoners taken and fewer civilians killed”.

While Deby`s clan army fights the other clans, the civilians are left to cope as well as they can. In Chad a weapon is easy to come by. A new AK-47 costs 425 Euros (450 000 CFA francs) in the Moundou region. Bullets are sold like onions by size-weight called a CORO and a box of 7.62 mm bullets weighing “about two kilos 250 grams” costs from 15 to 23 Euros. The Moundou hospital says they still get many cases of arrow and spear wounds too.

The Road, Oil and Guns

But President Deby has done something for the region. A beautiful two-lane asphalt road from Ndjamena reached Moundou, 500 kilometers South, two years ago and is presently being built to Sarh another 300 kilometers away. This means perishable produce can now reach the capital within a day. This is very important for a hot country with no chain of refrigeration. Obviously, some of the road had to be built with oil money even though a European Ambassador told me the EU financed over 80% of the road and strongly hinted he feels oil money is used for not much more than buying weapons.

Which brings us back to the road. The road from Moundou to Ngaoundéré less than 400 kilometers West in Cameroon is paved. Ngaoundéré is a major railhead for produce brought into the port of Douala. You can be sure much of the supplies Deby needs come to N’djamena via the train and then the road. The same goes for equipment needed in the oil fields further South. So, maybe the construction was not an altruistic measure to open the South but it has given a boost to the local economy.

According to Dr. Danadji Issac, Rector of the two-year-old University here, some 80% of the 835 million CFA francs spent to construct the three buildings for its 2100 students came from oil money. They plan to expand over the next few years to meet demand. Last year they could only accept 1000 out of the 3000 applications they received.

Even the University does not escape the wrath of the Mixed Brigade. This week they raided the school cafeteria, a small Quonset hut in the field, to seize charcoal. The Deputy Rector, Dr. Saboun Mahamat Rachid was arrested and beaten for an hour within his University. Perhaps he was lucky because he comes from Abeche in the North. Three women at the humble motel where I am staying were arrested and beaten by the Mixed Brigade in January and they still suffer from pain.

Moundou Mosquitoes and Highway Robbers

News briefs from Moundou:
– On Tuesday, the police found the body of an abandoned infant aged around one month and partially eaten by pigs. They are actively searching for the mother.
– On Tuesday, a Clandoman (the name given to the small motorcycle taxi drivers) had his taxi seized by police for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. When he complained there is no sign indicating one-way-do-not-enter, the police basically told him ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’.
– Malaria is rampant in the region. Typhoid is up and Cholera is down but both are prevalent and the rainy season is making it worse. Fields and yards are full of stagnant water. Poor water purification and lack of sewage treatment mean illness will increase the next three months.
– There have been no reported cases of Swine Flu in Chad.
– Even the ill cannot escape the census. Agents entered the hospital this week to take the pedigree of the patients, even those on their deathbeds.
– A man who defecated on the Logone riverbank was accosted by four ‘bandits’ posing as police and ‘summoned’ for indecent exposure. He did not have the 6000 CFA to pay for his fictitious fine so the robbers took his cell-phone and two cassettes instead.

Two elements in these briefs deserve more attention: the census and the bandits. Chad has no idea what its real population is. A comprehensive census is under way. It will take a long time for the results to be known. The country is poorly supplied in the proper computer equipment and “then they will have to doctor the results to favor the North,” says Daniel.

Everybody speaks of the “Coupeurs des Routes”, the highway robbers who apparently are everywhere. Some say they are Peuls (an ethnic group further West which stretches all the way down from Senegal) and others say they are demobilized ‘soldiers’ ** who have not found their place in society. At any rate they are armed and dangerous and people are advised to stop on the roads and not to travel at night.

I think this is true. A driver for a Western diplomatic mission said he had to keep his unemployed thirty year-old son at home. “He cannot go into the Army,” the driver said. “So, he could only become a Coupeur des Routes. Those are the only two choices young men have.”

I asked Fidel why the police don’t try to get the robbers. “Of course they try,” he said. I looked at him curiously and asked why don’t they just shoot them? “The bullets don’t come out of the guns,” Fidel said. “It’s an African mystery.” ***

* At the bginning of June, the water in the river is almost stagnant with sandbars sticking out all over.  At the end of the rainly season, the river seems full but hardly what it once was and incapable of replenishing the lake.

** I have a hard time calling anything with a weapon in this region a soldier. They are just thugs; illiterate and mean.

*** Some names have been changed to protect my sources from the government thugs, others are ananymous and vague to avoid identification.