27 March 2009

Chad: Everyday Life in N'Djamena - An Eye-Witness Account by Nakar Djindil


Mirjam de Bruijn explores the rise of Chad's global visibility, with a particular focus on the exploitation of the country's oil reserves and the conflict in neighbouring Darfur. Through an intimate account provided by Nakar Djindil, a Chadian academic and nutritionist, de Bruijn examines the impact of conflict and instability upon the livelihoods of Chad's citizens.

As a result of a system of governance enforced through violence and oppression, the health and psychological well-being of Chad's people is perpetually threatened. Having personally witnessed attacks and their aftermath, Djindil affirms the severity of President Idriss Déby's irresponsible and reckless actions. Fear permeates Chadian society, with the country's citizens facing internal displacement due to the demolition of homes and land, as well as inadequate nutrition caused by soaring food prices and minimal access to cooking supplies.

'Everyday life in N'djamena has become unbearable', concludes Nakar Djindil, who returned to the Netherlands on 5 March after a two week visit to see her family in N'djamena, the capital city of Chad. She left Chad two years ago after finalising her doctoral fieldwork concerning the long-term effects of war on Chadian society. Djindil is a nutritionist interested in how people's health is being affected by the ongoing crisis in Chad. Chad, a central African country, is not very well-known in the West or even in other parts of Africa. The nation has, however, received more publicity in the last few years due to conflict in neighbouring Darfur, Sudan. Violence has spilled over into eastern Chad where large refugee camps are operated by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international organisations. Chad has also received global recognition because of its oil. In particular, the World Bank has indicated that the country's investment in this sector - meaning the exploitation of Chadian mineral resources - will turn Chad into a positive example of poverty alleviation.

Chad experienced a long civil war from the late 1960s until its official end in 1990 when the current president, Idriss Déby, gained power and replaced Hissein Habré. This period of civil war resulted in a vastly undeveloped infrastructure and an absence of healthcare for Chad's citizens. Each person's history is coloured by the war (Bruijn and van Dijk 2007, p. 61-98), and the preliminary conclusions of Djindil's work illustrate the long-term effects of this continuous crisis on the health and psychological well-being of Chadians (Djindil 2008).

Although Chad's civil war officially ceased in 1990, violence and oppression continued to play a prominent role in governance. In the first years of his reign, President Déby exploited ethnic rivalries and his regime gave orders to kill those who were seen as opponents. Specific ethnic groups became victims of Déby's regime, and his mode of governance created a general atmosphere of fear. As a result of international pressure, President Déby eventually introduced democracy and decentralisation as part of his governance rhetoric. Indeed, Chad became more decentralised and elections were held; however the outcome remained aligned with the wishes of the ruling elite, the majority of whom belong to President Déby's own ethnic group, the Zaghawa.

The oil exploitation that started in 2002 has been an important turning point for Chadian governance. The involvement of the World Bank and other international organisations has made Chad more visible internationally. Moreover, President Déby has ensured Chadian issues maintain a prominent role within international political agendas. Chad has attracted international attention as a result of the refugee crisis in Darfur, and the country's oil reserves. The oil revenues should have been an important input in Chad's economy, elevating its position within the poverty index list. Nonetheless, Déby forced the World Bank to leave the country, refused to accept any controls on the spending of the oil money (probably justifiably), and bought weapons with the profits in order to protect Chad's young democracy, threatened by rebels who were 'of course supported by the Sudanese government' (van Dijk 2007, p.697-703). The Darfur conflict has resulted in Chad being situated in a state of open civil war again. The rebels' last attack on N'djamena - marking the fourth attack in the past five years - was in February 2008 when the united rebel front entered N'djamena with a huge force, and Déby was only able to escape with the assistance of the French (Bruijn and van Dijk 2007, p. 223-231).

Djindil remembers these periods of attack, and attempts made to overthrow Déby; she lived through them herself while living in Chad, and gleaned information surrounding subsequent conflict through close contact with her family in N'djamena, as was the case in 2008. She left Chad in 2006 after the attack in which 400 people were killed, according to the international media. However, as Djindil proposes, 'How could they know? So many people died inside their houses. It was horrible. It was the worst attack we ever witnessed.' Afterwards, the rebels became divided, and the leadership was in crisis. Apparently they united again and plotted the attack which transpired in February 2008. This last attack was dangerous for President Déby and his supporters. Déby's regime finally won the battle and the president regained his power with the support of the international community. However, following his victory, Déby's attitude changed into one of a dictator. Fearing further attack and potentially doubting his power, oil money was used to buy missiles and helicopters, turning N'djamena into a fort reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

'When I returned to N'djamena this was after a two-year absence, as I said I left in 2006. I did not see the last attack but now I could see the consequences of the many attacks on the character of the president and the way things are working in N'djamena. During the two weeks I spent in N'djamena with my daughter, I experienced the people's fear. People are afraid. It is not at all clear what will happen next. Who will attack? Who will die?'

'One of the first things Déby did after the last attack was to surround N'djamena with a canal. Being three metres wide and deep, it will prevent the rebels, who always come with jeeps and machine guns, from entering the city itself. Then he started demolishing houses in all quarters of town without any compensation, telling the international world that he needed the precious land in town to construct new hospitals and state service buildings. The beautiful Sabangali quarter along the river Chari was demolished. This land is very expensive.'

This all started in March 2008. Houses waiting to be demolished had red crosses painted on their walls, and the people who lived in them had to move to other dilapidated buildings or move out of town.

'How many thousands of people have been forced out of their homes to join the numerous internally displaced persons in Chad who are living without a decent roof over their heads? In addition, life has become incredibly expensive. I left the house with CFA5000 (franc de la communauté financière d'Afrique) to buy food for my baby. It was enough to buy some bananas and fruit. Charcoal is a basic necessity, people cannot afford gas.'

In the summer of 2008 Déby decided that charcoal was to be prohibited because of the environmental degradation it was causing in N'djamena. 'One piece of charcoal to prepare one meal now costs CFA3000. So you see children in the late evening scraping the trees that are left, harvesting dead wood so that the following morning their mothers can prepare tea. And then to think of Déby who cut down the beautiful trees in the commercial street because he considered these as potential hiding places for rebels who from there could attack the presidency! The staple food is millet: and you now spend CFA30,000 for a 100kg sack, and that was only in February! And then those who have a bit, like my parents, their houses are full of poorer family members. My cousin told his wife and two children to stay with my parents. He cannot provide for them. One cannot refuse. So in our house too, just one meal per day is prepared. And to be honest we are lucky that my older brothers have good jobs and can help my parents. At least the family can survive.'

'After the February 2008 attack, many Zaghawa lost hope and thought that this was the end of their hold on power. Many fled but later returned to N'djamena. People did not hesitate about plundering Zaghawa houses, even those of their close neighbours. When Déby's victory was clear, the Zaghawa returned to N'djamena and wanted their houses and property back.'

'My friend witnessed the day her Zaghawa neighbours came back to N'djamena, and how they were abusing and torturing people in order to recover some of their property; they just killed a young man who did not return what he was accused of having taken. They also tried to plunder my friend's house but she escaped. Now you find those luxury goods from Zaghawa houses on the streets of N'djamena and at small markets for those who can afford to buy things.'

'The attack in February 2008 served as a good argument for Déby to implement his dreams: recovering land that he wanted by destroying the homes of poor people and conducting a systematic search for weapons in all homes in N'djamena. These searches were organised by armed soldiers who behaved as if the people's houses were a battleground. They were violent and rude but people had to respect them because they had weapons. They organised house-to-house searches for weapons, and forced or broke down doors if the owners were not present. Everybody is still afraid that they will come. They take everything that is a weapon, also knives. And yes, they seem to have found weapons everywhere. You know people are waiting for the rebels. They will receive them with open arms if they come. But as Déby has built defences around the city I doubt if they will ever succeed.'

'...and do you know that beautiful villas are being constructed in Sabangali? Who will live there? ... This is happening while the promised hospitals are more necessary than ever as the hospitals in N'djamena are not functioning; people die there all the time. People do not even go to them because you can't be sure that you will leave them alive, you don't dare to put your life in the hospital's hands. I witnessed the death of a three-month-old baby who in fact had nothing seriously wrong with him but was operated on all the same. The doctor said he had to operate to see what was really wrong with the baby (it was very expensive) and then the child died. The parents are still mourning him; it happened on the last day I was there. And when I left N'djamena two weeks ago I did not have the chance to give them my condolences. So many people die in N'djamena, young and old, from AIDS but from other illnesses too, and also from depression. Life is simply unbearable there!'

* Mirjam de Bruijn is an anthropologist and professor of Contemporary History and Anthropology of West and Central Africa at the Faculty of Arts at Leiden University. She has carried out fieldwork in Cameroon, Chad and Mali.

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.


Bruijn, M. de and Dijk, H. van. (2007) 'The multiple experiences of civil war in the Guéra region of Chad 1965-1990', Sociologus, vol. 57, Jahrgang, Heft 1, pp. 61-98

Nakar paper: Mexico (Djindil 2008)

Djindil, N. and Bruijn, M. de. (2008) 'How do the silent victims of humanitarian crisis negotiate their livelihood security? A case study among post-humanitarian migrants in two cities in Chad', paper presented at the conference on humanitarian aid in Groningen, February 2009

Dijk, H. van. (2007) 'Briefing: Political deadlock in Chad', African Affairs, vol. 106/425, pp. 697-703

Bruijn, M. de and Dijk, H. van. (2007) Chad, Africa Yearbook 2006, Leiden, Brill, pp. 215-223

Bruijn, M. de and Dijk, H. van. (2008) Chad, Africa Yearbook 2007, Leiden, Brill, pp. 223-231

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