A forsaken people

The Indigenous people of the Tibetsi mountain range that straddles northern Chad and Libya have been neglected and stigmatized by the elites who control and favor development of the south.

The Tibesti Mountains east of Bardaï. Public domain image, credit Michael Kerling.

Lasting nearly a decade, the repercussions of the Chadian-Libyan conflict continue to be felt strongly by the Toubou people of northern Chad. The war itself took place in four phases of Libyan intervention in Chad, in 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1983, with the latter two phases lasting two and four years, respectively. The Libyan government’s fight against French military forces occupying northern Chad through Operations Manta and Épervier in the 1980s was supplemented by the 1986 bombing of Libya by the Reagan-led US government in 1986 which killed dozens of Libyan civilians.

Located along the Tibesti mountain range, the states of Tibesti, Borkou, and Ennedi-Ouest were affected heavily between 1978 and 1987, during which the Libyan government engaged in a number of irredentist military campaigns in order to gain control of the country and install its own regime. During these attempted land grabs, many Toubou people were caught in the crossfire near the Aouzou strip, a strategic area of land on the Libyan border. Disenfranchisement of the people of Tibesti has not been limited to this conflict alone, however; the mountain dwellers of northern Chad have faced immense neglect over the past decades with the Chadian central government, based in the southern Chad capital city of N’Djamena, withholding infrastructural funding for the aforementioned northern regions.

The Front de libération nationale du Tchad, an Islamic socialist organization born out of a political convergence between leftist Chadian National Union and the Union Générale des Fils du Tchad, was founded by Marxist thinker Ibrahim Abatcha in 1966 and was active in following decades with the aim of eradicating neocolonialism and domestic imperialism. Abatcha, who was killed two years later by Chadian military forces, viewed the political climate of Chad following national independence as heavily predicated on regional supremacy of the south, and along with many of his contemporaries, was a critic of Chad’s first postcolonial administration under the authoritarian rule of François Tombalbaye, whose Africanization policies favored the Christian and animist south. In the present day, Chad remains unequal for its northern citizens and reiterates that Chadian independence from the French in August of 1960 was not an eradication of hierarchy, but rather a transition of power from the French to Chad’s ethnic Sara majority.

While the federal government did gain control of the Aouzou strip in later years, Chadian President Idriss Déby, who died last week at age 68 following wounds sustained after a clash with rebel groups, had done little since to assist in the rebuilding of Indigenous communities in northern Chad despite himself hailing from a Zaghawa family from an Ennedi village in northern Chad. Employment opportunities are difficult to come by, schools are severely underfunded and hospitals are often not equipped with necessary medical technology. With the exception of Bardaï, the capital cities of these northern regions are located several hundreds of kilometers south of the Tibesti Mountains. Although scarce regional airports exist, flights are often expensive and inaccessible to residents, while railways and roads are virtually nonexistent. Most work, such as harvesting dates, legumes, natron and mountain salt, is relegated to the informal sector. Bardaï, the oasis town that served as the location from which Chad’s revolutionary radio was broadcast, has not had its dilapidated water pumps serviced in several months.

In the meanwhile, N’Djamena has seen rapid industrial growth since Chadian independence, with flourishing projects to improve wastewater systems and a 32-megawatt solar power construction project being very recently funded by the African Development Bank. The growth of the capital city has also been stimulated by its petroleum industry, with about 260,000 barrels of crude oil being sourced daily from southern Chad’s Doba Basin, a large region of hundreds of oil wells operated by Exxonmobil near the country’s border with the Central African Republic. As Chad is landlocked, a pipeline running from the Doba Basin through N’Djamena to the Cameroonian port city of Kribi transports these oil exports. Originally  touted as a means to lift Chadians out of poverty and fund state welfare programs for its citizenry, profits from Chad’s petroleum industry have largely been siphoned off to members of the Déby administration and its supporters or used to purchase weaponry for regional conflicts.

Additionally, the end of the Chadian Civil War saw an abrupt halt to news coverage of areas north of the country’s main highway; rebuilding was viewed by vast numbers of Chad’s sub-Saharan population as unworthy of discursive consideration with urban development and the Boko Haram crisis around Lake Chad constituting the majority of news pegs since. The little reporting that has spotlighted the Aouzou strip area has portrayed its residents as uncivilized, barbaric, or dangerous, drawing parallels to widespread portrayals of Indigenous people by governments around the world.

Déby’s presidency stemmed from a coup in 1989 against the autocratic and brutal regime of Toubou politician Hissène Habré when Déby, who was an army commander at the time, carried out attacks into Chad from the eastern Sudanese Darfur region with support from the Libyan government. By the following year, Déby and his forces had entered the N’Djamena metropolitan area and effectively ousted Habré, situating Déby in his stead ever since. Corruption is rife in Chad’s elite circles and particularly Déby’s government, which as noted by writer Ésaïe Toïngar in his 2014 book on the political implications of the civil war, has pushed for the mining of blood diamonds in war-torn regions of central Africa, removed democratically elected leaders in neighboring countries and called for ethnic violence against his own people in Tibesti, Borkou, and Ennedi-Ouest.

Such perpetual regional wars have decimated Tibesti’s tourism sector, which once served as its primary source of revenue, thereby necessitating smuggling and mercenary work by its Toubou and Tuareg populations. Anti-Déby rebel groups like the Conseil de commandement militaire pour le salut de la République, for instance, claims to have 4,500 militia members, of which the majority comprises Toubou people with the smaller Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad, operating from southwestern Libya’s Fezzan region being about one-quarter its size.

These rebel groups were born out of a combination of resentment due to decades of neglect by Chad’s south, exploitation by Libyan military forces and a means to earn money in an otherwise economically barren hinterland. Proponents of the “war on terror” ideology are quick to typify these rebel groups as terrorist outfits without examining the circumstances that fuel them. Southern Chad and Libya have forsaken the people of Tibesti, both socially and economically, in the name of national security and wartime profit. In the wake of Deby’s death, the future of these vulnerable populations remains unclear.

About the Author

Visvajit Sriramrajan is a journalist who reports on ethnopolitical affairs in Asia, revolutionary decoloniality and amplifying marginalized voices. He also writes about the intersection between public policy and indigenous rights.

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