Hope for Africa's "Dark Heart"?


Last year, 17 African countries marked 50 years of independence. The Mantle and Project Africa's joint series, African Revolutions, highlights this milestone with a series of live events and online publications examining each of these countries.

Nestled in the heart of Africa, neighbor to Sudan and the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), Chad has often been overshadowed by its neighbors and overlooked by the international community. Other than concern in the 1980s over its potential involvement in the creation of a “greater Islamic State,” those on the outside have spent little time worrying about how peace might be brought to this war torn region.1 As far as many in the West are concerned, Chad is simply the country next to Sudan, a country plagued by violence and corruption, but internationally insignificant. Its only significance seems to lie in how it affects conflict in neighboring countries. Yet, while fairly invisible to the rest of the world, Chad is known throughout Africa as “The Dead Heart of Africa”—a sad illustration of what can happen when independence is not followed by legitimate governance and stability. The country and its people have struggled throughout the past 50 years to establish a stable and peaceful government, and continue to struggle today.

As is evidenced by The Mantle’s African Revolutions project,2 there were a great number of African countries who gained their independence from colonial rule in 1960, many from France. While some countries did so through violent overthrow of French rule, Chad’s independence came about more calmly. While gaining independence in a non-violent manner is always preferable, it is possible that in doing so the people of Chad were not forced to come together to fight against a common enemy. There was no need to forge a strong, Chadian identity. Furthermore, there was never a complete separation from France. Saleh Kebzabo, head of opposition in the National Assembly of Chad, explains that "each and every government that came to power post independence has had the support of the French military to help crush the rebellion.”3 Thus, in the aftermath of independence, what was left was a fragile and divided country still dependent on its former colonial power. Rather than thriving in its new-found independence, Chad found itself in a continual state of unrest. This ongoing battle for identity and an established government rule has left the people of Chad floundering and desperate for peace.

If one were to create a timeline of peace and conflict in Chad, it would have very little to say about peace, and much to say about the reality of the combination of a weak government and violent opposition to it. Any glimmer of hope in the country was soon extinguished by rebel warfare, military coups, human rights violations, or rampant poverty and hunger. Looking back over the past few decades, it is impossible for one’s heart not to break for the people of Chad. Chad’s unrelenting crises since gaining independence involve violent struggle for control over the government, oil, human rights concerns, and finally a relentless interconnectedness with neighboring countries. Present within each of these themes is the story of a people continuing to fight for the independence they once thought they had been given.

For an “independent” country, Chad has had to deal quite frequently with the reality of international interference of both the welcome and unwelcome sort. Most prominent has been the involvement of neighboring Libya, which first intervened militarily in 1975. This was amid the coup that resulted in the death of then president François Tombalbeye. Not surprisingly, other international involvement has come from those like France, the United States, and the Organization for African Unity (later replaced by the African Union). Additionally, rebel groups from neighboring countries (such as Sudan) have continually crossed into Chad, wreaking havoc and inserting themselves into the ongoing warfare amongst Chadian rebel groups. In fact, prior to the 2008 attack on the capital city, N’Djamena, Chadian rebel groups prepared for battle within the Darfur region of Sudan. Additionally, much of their equipment was supplied by the Sudanese government.4

Complicating matters in Chad is the reality that regional borders are quite fluid. Tribes, such as the Zaghawa, exist in both Chad and Sudan. As such, it is often difficult to separate the conflicts. The connection between Sudan and Chad as well as the Central African Republic has not gone unnoticed. The level of peace or violence in one of these countries is often directly tied to that of the others. It has been argued that they are so interconnected that rather than existing separately, they come together to create a “system of conflict.”5 This “system of conflict” has only further contributed to the region’s inability to establish peace and stability.

President Tombalbeye called on France to help him quiet the violent opposition to his controversial presidency. Instrumental in his overthrow was Libya’s support of the opposition. Tombalbeye was later replaced by another southern Christian, Colonel Felix Malloum, who was also unable to hold onto power amidst the incredibly unstable climate in Chad. With growing tensions in the country, the situation broke out into full on civil war in 1979 between Malloum’s government forces and the Armed Forces of the North (FAN), led by Malloum’s own Prime Minister Hissene Habré.6 At the end of the war, Hissene Habrérose to power, ousting temporary president Goukouni Weddeye and launching the people of Chad on a brutal downward spiral.

Hissene Habré, a well-educated, former rebel leader,stands as the most notable of Chadian presidents when it comes to human rights violations. Under his reign, there was great fear not only for the safety of civilians, but also for human rights workers. He is well known for targeting and arresting aid workers and non-violent opposition leaders, who were later tortured and often killed in prison. This practice has become embedded in the governmental system and has continued to be a concern of human rights activists and the international community.

It was a practice of Habré’s to fold rebel groups into his national army, making a quasi-guerrilla military for himself. Rampant in this group was the use of child soldiers, as both rebel groups and the national military have been known to go into the refugee camps and abduct children into their ranks. Though, this practice was not a practice specific to Habré’s rule. According to a 2010 report of the Secretary General, “recruitment and use of children, in particular in eastern Chad … continued in 2009.”7 Additionally, tribal and religious violence has been an ongoing problem in Chad. Habrédid what he could to worsen the situation. His regime was responsible for countless attacks against numerous tribes throughout the country. Now wanted for crimes against humanity, Habréis currently living in exile in Senegal. Many in Africa, including the African Rally for the Defense of Human Rights, are calling for Senegal to arrest and try him as a matter of universal jurisdiction.8

The human rights concerns in Chad in the last fifty years should not be understated. While Chad has not seen the genocide of neighboring countries, tribal warfare and violence against refugees has been considerable.

Yet, in the midst of its tumultuous history, there remains hope in Chad. For even as the country has struggled through years of violence and instability, it has served as a safe haven for those escaping genocide. The eastern region of Chad is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighboring countries. In particular, there are a multitude of Internally Displaced Persons (I.D.P.) camps inhabited by those escaping the genocide in Darfur. This violent country has, ironically, become a safe haven for many. Refugees not only from Sudan, but from the C.A.R., Cameroon, as well as internally displaced Chadians inhabit the country’s eastern region. While this region has long been patrolled by the United Nations Mission to Chad, patrols have recently been turned over to President Idriss Deby’s military and police forces. Although many are concerned about a turnover so close to a potential outbreak of war in Sudan, President Deby is confident that they can continue to protect the refugees in Chad.

Though the situation is imperfect, and there is often violence against the refugees, there remains a glimmer of hope in the situation. In fact, it is one of many glimmers of hope in Chad’s current environment. Even more exciting was the signing in June 2010 of the “N’Djaména Declaration,” with 150 delegates from neighboring countries committing to bring an end to the ongoing use of child soldiers in conflict. According to Dr. Marzio Babille, Unicef Representative in Chad, “this is a new beginning in Africa, a firm step towards giving all children in the region the dignity of a childhood they’ve so often been deprived of by decades of conflict.”9 With elections coming up in May 2011, the country is slowly, yet surely, on its way to building the legitimate government it has so desired. While there are setbacks, and corruption remains, there continues to be progress away from violence and toward legitimacy. According to the International Crisis Group, “the Chad government is trying to reassert state authority after five years of internal disputes, change the way it runs the country and gain public support for a new national pact based on the rejection of armed struggle.”10 This pact could have a great affect on the future of the country. It signals reason for hope, reason to believe that the dead heart of Africa might one day live again. How auspicious that in celebrating fifty years of independence, Chad is finally moving toward actualizing it, and moving toward progress, peace, and stability.

January 18, 2011

Frontispiece and illustration by Sarah D. Schulman

1 Amadu Sesay. “The Limits of Peacekeeping by a Regional Organization: The OAU Peacekeeping Force in Chad,” Conflict Quarterly (Winter, 1999).

2. See http://mantlethought.org/category/keywords/ar-2010.

3. Al Jazeera. “Chad’s Long Road to Independence” Al Jazeera English (Nov. 12, 2010): http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/africa-states-independence/2010/09/201091384729906784.html.

4. Jennifer Giroux, David Lanz, and Damiano Sguaitamatti. “The Tormented Triangle: The Regionalization of Conflict in Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic,” Crisis States Research Center Working Paper No.47 (April, 2009).

5. Ibid.

6. Sesay, 1999.

7. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. “Developments in Chad,” UN.org (April, 2010): http://www.un.org/children/conflict/english/chad.html.

8. Afrique en ligne. “Uganda: ‘It’s Time to Put Hissene Habre on Trial,” Afriquejet.com (July 26, 2010): http://www.afriquejet.com/news/africa-news/uganda:-'it's-time-to-put-hissene-habre-on-trial'-2010072653401.html.

9. Salma Zulfiqar and Hector Calderon. “Chad and Five Other Central African Countries Pledge to End Use of children in Armed Conflict,” Unicef.org (June 11, 2010): http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/chad_53966.html.

10. International Crisis Group. “Chad: Beyond Superficial Stability,” Africa Report No. 162 (August 17, 2010): http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/central-africa/chad/162-chad-beyond-superficial-stability.aspx.

Africa, AR 2010, Humanitarian Aid