Chad: Elections to nowhere

Ndjamena: Dec. 6 – 12, 2009:  Lake Chad is drying up faster then feared and water reserves are dwindling with famine predicted in the north in 2010 due to a short rainy season and over grazing; the 2009 census shows that the population of Chad has doubled in just 15 years although it was widely criticized when the authorities rigged the figures to favor the Muslims of the north to the detriment of the Christians in the south; 80% of the population is illiterate; the war in the east continues — but hey, lets hold elections!


There are two seasons in Chad: the rainy season and the war season.  We are now entering the war season and diplomatic sources report bloody skirmishes in the east.  But apparently this is also to be election season.  President Idriss Deby caught the elite by surprise when he announced on December 5 that there will be a legislative ballot in 2010 and presidential polls in 2011.

The elections promise to be a fiasco and not only because there are more than 110 parties in the running, or because of insecurity, or a fraudulent census.

 Although the voter registration drive is not scheduled until February, the first week after the announcement, Chadian TV (government run) ran thirty minute news programs on everything good President Deby and his government have done for Chad since 2001.  Among these things are the 2000 kilometers of paved road built thanks to oil money and an effort to stop the advancing desert.  Both are important and both are sources of conflict.

There is still little transparency in revenues on the oil (approx. 158,000 bbl/day), found in the Christian south and extracted by American companies which pipe it to the sea in Cameroon despite World Bank promises of accountability when they backed the program.  Chad began exporting its oil in 2003.  Much of that money has been used to buy arms (see my Chad June 2009 blog entry) and keep the clan-based Muslim dominated elite government in power.

Planting trees and beating people who gather wood in the bush to burn is a reality.  This did not prevent the government from cutting down all the trees in front of the Ndjamena Cathedral a couple of months ago.  Apparently Deby wants the Bishop to move.  His yellow concrete Church with tin roof blocks the field of fire for the Presidential guard who in both 2006 and 2008 had to fight for their lives against rebel drives which reached the capital.

 To inaugurate the election season, Deby is paving the four main streets in Abeche using Chinese builders.  Yet, the open air sewers and the streets of Ndjamena are full of stagnant, vile and poisonous black slime left over from the rains or added to daily by the inhabitants.


Women sell whatever they can from bean-beignets to fruit on the sides of the road, children run everywhere and the men sit on their prayer mats in deep discussion which they only interrupt to face the Mecca at the appropriate times for good conscience.  The innumerable small motor bikes, driven recklessly by people who never took a driver’s Ed class, zip in and out of traffic.  I stopped counting accidents.

A typical case was one I saw Thursday where a man drove full speed into an intersection and crashed into a taxi.  He hit hard and was surely broken.  The bystanders ran to the semi conscious man and stood him on his feet, probably increasing the damage and refused to lay him down even though they discovered he could not stand.  Forget about ambulance services.  Not to worry.  Nobody has insurance any way.

During my short visit to the national radio, I saw two injured journalists, one still limping and the other on crutches; both told me they had had motorbike accidents.   So, it is not just those 80% illiterate who seem to be oblivious to their personal safety.


Everywhere you go in Ndjamena are men in uniform and rarely the same uniform.  All the world’s combat camouflage fatigues must be on show on the streets of the capital and footwear is also heteroclite.  Often, the top of the uniform does not match the bottom.  And wearing a uniform is no guarantee they are soldiers. Here and there, SUVs, usually Toyotas, with their tops sawed off and stocks of rockets, rifles and grenades behind the front seats whiz by with slim looking fighters. Even their turbans, wrapped down around the neck and face to block dust, are camouflaged.  Those in the military are from northern and eastern Muslim tribes and clans loyal to Idriss Deby.

Western security officials point out that banditry is the biggest danger and that the biggest bandits are soldiers.  M., a Western Embassy Security Officer, says “the Red Berets (Presidential Guard) will even hold up cars with diplomatic plates at night.”

Rule of law in Chad is one-sided. I., who has to go through the Chadian courts and work inspectors to lay off a Chadian working for his NGO says “a soldier will rape and murder and never fear getting anywhere near a court house.” 

Foreigners have to obey the laws on the books which the authorities ignore without fear of prosecution.  It is all part of the game of milking the do-gooders for all they are worth and they are worth a lot.  The international community rents houses for which there would be no market without them.  They buy local produce and go to market and pay duties to the government coffers bringing in Billions of dollars.  Yet 80% of the population lives below the poverty line which is the same percentage as the number engaged in the agricultural sector.

There are over 4,300 UN Peace Keepers in Chad with all the support staff that go with a large mission.  There are dozens of NGOs with multi-million dollar budgets.  The French military has 1,200 men, mirage jets and support and have been making and breaking Chadian governments since Operation Epervier began in 1987.  The French Air Force is reported to have taken part in the fighting last May where Deby scored a major victory (see my Chad, June 2009 blog report). This did not help Paris land the oil concessions in the south which went to the American Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Petronas. 

As a matter of fact France may be about to phase-out its military presence in Chad. A UN Official told me that at over a billion euros a year “the French can no longer afford Epervier.”  He says that is the main reason UN troops are here. “Besides, they have nothing to defend here,” he said.

What is more, this same official says Deby wants the foreigners out now.  I asked the official whether Deby was that stupid given all the money they bring in and the military protection they afford.  “Yes,” he said, “They are that stupid.”  More likely, Deby feels he would be a lot richer off his oil without the ‘nasty’ international community.

It is true the international community tend to interfere in Deby’s way of running things.  They demand things like an end to corruption, greater investment in education and women’s rights, more transparency and against all logic – elections!


Even if people understood elections, which they don’t, and received free and fair information, which they won’t, it is probable they will have more existential problems on their minds.

Chad’s Minister of Herding warns there will be famine and says herders will have to cull in the north and center of the country.  Doctor Moctar Moussa says people will be affected and says “herders will have to learn to fend for themselves.”  He says “the welfare state no longer exists.”

On Monday night, the streets of Eastern Ndjamena, near the new bridge across the Churi river, are packed with hundreds upon hundreds of Zebu brought in for trucking to Nigeria.  The dust is thick and traffic comes to a standstill.  The herders are on foot in the traditional jellaba and turban and constantly smacking the animals’ backs with sticks while the real money makers on horseback survey the arrivals.  It is a true Dodge City on the Churi.  The numerous small herds are circled around old tires with hey in the center. If predictions are accurate, the Monday night arrivals will be smaller and fewer in the months to come.

The late rains are partly to blame.  But what of the galloping population growth?  How can the country support twice as many people, nearly 12 million, in only 15 years with dwindling water supplies?

Yet, I could engage nobody on the discussion of family planning in a country where polygamy is current and families with 30 to 50 children not rare.  David, a Christian from the south, says “nobody will respect you if you have only one wife.”  One of my drivers has nine children.  “Is that too many?” he asks.  I did not ask him if his children go to school.  Chances are the seven girls do not, while the two boys may. 

Worse is the famine will push more northern Muslim herders onto the lands of Christian farmers in the south and this will lead to more confrontation and deaths.  I discovered last June that this conflict was already hurting agricultural production and the north depends on the south for its food.

Because the Army and police are composed of Deby loyalist Muslims, none of the court decision ordering herders off farmers’ lands is implemented. (see Chad, June 2009, blog entry)

It may be best to leave Chad to its own misery until the country grows up enough to deal with its problems but this is unlikely to happen as long as the country remains a buffer zone to Sudan and the Darfur conflict and especially as long as the war on terrorism is interested in fighting Sallafist Islamic fundamentalist insurgents, not to mention the oil.  Western sources say “terrorists”must be active in Chad as they are present in the neighboring countries, especially Mali and Niger.  Yet, there is no intelligence on their activities.

Every time I come to Ndjamena, I see more and more women in the Hijab face covering veil.  Radios and the TV broadcast in classical Arabic, which nobody but a fraction of the University educated elite can understand, under pressure from Imams.  One Muslim radio I visited, Al Bayane, is said to receive its financing from a Wahabist radical group in the US (source: Chadian advisor to Western embassy).  I can confirm that the Muslim private radio stations I visited have transmitters twice as powerful as the others I visited and twice as powerful as what Mahamat Hissein, Minister of Communications, said is authorized.

These radios carry a lot of clout but I was told Deby is getting tired of broadcasting in classical Arabic.  Perhaps he is prepared to admit it is more important for people to understand his message rather than be rocked by Allah’s.  In the 2006 elections, Deby banned private radios from broadcasting election news because the non-Koranic radios tended to be hostile to his rule and broadcast in languages people understand, notably Sara and Chadian Arabic.

The private radios and newspapers I visited are waiting to be told what they will be allowed to cover.  They fear more repression. As a leader of the Chadian House of Media said, “journalists are systematically taken for opponents.”  And in Chad, any opponent can easily be accused as a rebel sympathizer.