Chad and la peur: a painful path

N’Djaména livelihood

I returned  from Chad on 1 March 2015, where I had shared life with the N’Djamenakois—a daily life that is fed by hidden emotions that have to do with anger and the wish to live a decent life, one that is so blatantly denied to the population. I did not stay in one of the more official hotels but in a small auberge in the Chagoua quarter. Chagoua is one of the popular quarters, where mainly southerners live. It is also one of the quarters where the distribution of electricity and water is not high on the priority list of the authorities. I shared this daily plight in the auberge, though the owner had a generator and thus I was privileged. A few years ago, Chagoua’s main roads were asphalted, but inside the quarter it is still the same dusty roads, dilapidated houses, and heaps of garbage in the streets. The best business is in selling beer. The bars are numerous and they are frequented from early morning. Many young people with diplomas do not have a job and have been eagerly waiting (for months) to be integrated into the labour market. They depend on their family’s care and are unable to start their own independent lives. Those who still attend school see the empty future their elder siblings have. Where can they find hope for a future? Their parents lived through the various wars and oppressive regimes in Chad and have lost all energy to fight the situation—or probably they are trapped in fear. Too many people have disappeared. There have been too many attacks on demonstrating youth and too many unthinkable acts by the government. A tiny minority has become increasingly wealthy. Life here is about poverty, uncertainty, and a lack of the basic conditions of living (such as a consistent supply of water and electricity) one would expect in an oil-producing country.

From Mirjam de Bruijn, The streets speak in Africa!

There are various reasons why Chadian society is such a difficult place for Voices, not only Counter Voices but simply Voices—the Voices that should be heard but most of the time are hidden or repressed by regimes of power. La peur, ‘the fear’, still reigns after all these years and is still strong enough to keep voices down.

To understand where this fear comes from, we have to understand the difficult path of Chad as an independent country. This is a history that lies hidden primarily in the heads of the people, because there are hardly any archives to testify to the traumatic episodes that shaped it. The archives were destroyed during the numerous periods of turmoil that have ravaged Chad. Those archives that have survived destruction are in France, not readily accessible to Chadian historians. So we have to listen to people’s stories, stories that disclose the history that the Chadian state and the international community prefer not to hear. In these stories, we hear that French colonial politics did not ask but ordered, forcing people to engage in arduous work on the construction of roads and infrastructure. People remember themselves in those days as being enslaved, tortured, and beaten almost to death if they did not work hard enough. Every Chadian person has had to live with the consequences of this memory.

Violence, oppression, mistrust

After the independence came the time of Tombalbaye, the first president of Chad, who installed a regime of oppression and the elimination of opponents to his rule. He increased taxes, which eventually led to various peasant uprisings. The uprisings in the Guéra in 1965 have been cited as the beginning of civil war in Chad. Towards the end of his regime, Tombalbaye installed a politics of ‘africanization’. This africanization gradually turned into another form of severe repression. Coupled with misgovernment, the further increases in taxes, and even cases of forced displacement, soon fostered discontent all over the country. Tombalbaye was assassinated in 1975. Nevertheless, politics in Chad continued to be violent and oppressive under successive presidents and rebel leaders, of whom Hissène Habré (in power from 1982 to 1990) is now well known internationally, as he was found guilty of crimes against humanity in May 2016. Inevitably, the Chadian population bears the marks of those periods, which were worsened by ecological catastrophes such as the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s.

Who is eavesdropping on whom?

It is alleged that during the regime of Habré, at least 40,000 people were murdered. During his regime, internal control was frightening—who was eavesdropping on whom was utterly fluid. A particularly severe case was that of the Guéra region, where the population was first a part of Habré’s ‘revolution’ and fought for his cause; but later, blinded by his power paranoia, he turned them into his enemies and made them an explicit target. Many people from the Guéra were killed during this period.

Habré’s regime did not end in the chaotic violence we observe in the Central African Republic and Congo today, but instead it resulted in a well-organized state machinery. Although less ugly at first sight, its efficient violence combined with severe oppression and the creation of deep mistrust has left deep scars in Chadian society. Many of the people who were part of that violence machine are still in office today. The international legal proceedings against Hissène Habré have been significant, but they will not help to heal the deep wounds that are still so present, nor help create today’s société tchadienne, which is still dominated by la peur, the fear that prevents citizens from raising their voices.

Hope and democratisation

In 1990 Idriss Déby seized power, staging a coup d’état. He installed a new political regime, in which democratization and decentralization were initially key concepts. However, this new regime did not end the oppression and violence, nor did it lead to a real participation of the population in politics. The wave of ‘modernization’ imposed on Chadian society in the wake of oil money then informed a new discourse on Chad as la vitrine d’Afrique (lit. ‘the window of Africa’)—an expression that celebrated the rapid growth of the city of N’Djaména and its opening to businesses from abroad, first of all oil business and recently the announcement of N’Djaména as the e-hub of Africa. These are mere facades, however, and do not help to solve the problems of a traumatized population living in poverty in 2016. Despite the population’s apparently high rate of mental health problems , psychologists and psychiatrists are scarce in Chad—as are good health services.

President Déby started a rebellion with the aim of establishing a democracy in Chad. And a multi-party system is part of this democracy. And a multi-party system means an opposition and changes of president. This means that Déby overthrew Habré for allowing the existence of an opposition in Chad. Unfortunately, there is still a handful of idiots that think being in the opposition means being an enemy of Chad.

Breeding ground for Voices

Few escape this unreported logic of Chadian society. Some escape better than others. And, of course, there is hope in the counter voices, like those of Croquemort and many others. They are the few ‘Voices’ that can be heard—if we want to listen. Fear does not allow free coalitions, nor does it allow free expression. This is probably why the international legal proceedings against Habré are almost unknown among a large part of the Chadian population. And what if no measures are taken against those who were part of Habré’s regime and still hold their jobs, their positions in the villages? Will their violence ever be judged? Will there be gacaca (‘community justice’) courts in Chad one day?

Now what?

On 8 August 2016, Idriss Déby Itno was installed as president for his fifth term. The electoral victory was celebrated exuberantly and was well attended by international guests, but the outcome of the elections was highly contested by the opposition. The result of this latest election marked another turn of Chadian civil society towards désespoir (‘despair’), the distress and scepticism about the possibility of a democratic Chad and a free participation in political life. Instead, political participation during the electoral campaign was constantly suppressed, and counter voices were ruthlessly silenced.

Photo: Sjoerd Sijsma

Croquemort on “la peur” in Chad

See also:

Marguerite-Odile Kabatchang’s piece on la peur for Yadari Info