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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chad : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chad : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 7 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Located in north-central Africa, Chad borders Libya in the north, Sudan in the east, the Central African Republic in the south, and Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger in the west. The northern part of Chad lies in the Sahara desert, punctuated by its highest mountain range, the Tibesti. Central Chad consists of dry Sahelian plains that are susceptible to drought; the shallow waters of Lake Chad, straddling the country's borders with Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, have shrunk by an estimated 90 per cent since the 1960s. Southern Chad has a tropical climate and vegetation.


Main languages: Sara, Sango, Arabic (official from 1978), Chadian Arabic (Arabic mixed with French and local languages), French (official) 2006, CIA Factbook

Main religions: Islam (51%), Christianity (35%), indigenous beliefs (7%)

Minority groups include Southerners est 4.5 million (45%). (There are no reliable figures). Although numerically Chad's biggest group, they have been dominated by Arab northerners under the presidencies of Hissène Habré and Idriss Déby.

Chad is divisible into three agro-climatic zones. First, the northern 'BET' (Borkou, Ennedi, Tibesti) area of the Sahara, accounting for over a third of Chad's territory, is home to only about 6 per cent of its population. Two nomadic peoples, collectively known as Toubou, make up virtually all its population; Teda people, concentrated near Tibesti in mountainous reaches of the far north; and Daza (in Arabic: Gorane) peoples, concentrated further south and east. The ethnic roots of Hissène Habré, Chad's ruthless strongman from 1979 to 1990, are in a small eastern Gorane sub-group.

Second, the arid Sahelian scrublands of the middle belt account for over half of Chad's territory and somewhat less than half its population. They are home to nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples whose livelihoods depend largely on livestock, as well as sedentary peoples dependent on farming, fishing and trade. Like the peoples of the BET, virtually everyone in this zone is Muslim. In the Ouaddai prefecture bordering Sudan to the east, Zaghawa peoples (between 1 and 2 per cent of Chad's population) have been salient in recent history. Zaghawa make up much of the feared Republican Guard, an army unit answerable to the president, and responsible for much of the brutality and bloodshed of the 1990s. Chad's president since 1990, Idriss Déby, is of the Bidéyat people, who are a sub-clan of the Zaghawa.

A significant proportion of Chad's population (25-30 per cent) adhere to Arab customs and, notwithstanding centuries of intermarriage with African peoples, consider themselves Arabs. About 13 per cent speak Chadian Arabic, a creole of Arabic, French and local languages, as a first language and 40 per cent as a second language; a majority of Chadians comprehend Arabic. In current Chadian politics, the Arabic language issue is a 'high tension line'.

The third zone is the south. Southerners have lacked effective state power, and borne the brunt of much, but by no means all, of the violence and intimidation by armed groups. Other minorities, in the central and northern zones of Chad, have been subject to abuse and predatory practices, but have suffered less than southerners.


Indigenous African kingdoms developed in the territory of today's northern Chad beginning in the ninth century and were increasingly influenced by the arrival of Arabs and Islam. There was little Arab and Muslim penetration of the forested region that is today's southern Chad, where Islam was resisted in response to northern slave raids.

France established Chad's boundaries late in the imperial scramble for Africa, arriving in 1891 and gaining control over the desert peoples of the northern tier only in 1914. Chad was initially ruled as part of French Equatorial Africa, and became a separate French colony in 1920. Most French interest concentrated on colonies to Chad's south, and in Chad the spectrum of interest also ran from greatest in the south to weakest in the north. While France favoured southerners and maintained the heaviest governing structures there, the north served as a pool of labour, but was loosely governed by local proxy.

Like other countries in Africa's Sudano-Sahelian zone, Chad comprises radically different cultures and livelihood systems polarized along a north-south axis. Uneven patterns of impoverishment, a deteriorating economy, crumbling state services marginally supported by foreign aid, ecological stress and military intervention by foreign powers have contributed to ethnic antagonisms. National policies and programmes have had scant regard for the legitimate interests of minorities. Rather, since the early 1960s a succession of authoritarian juntas and warlords have sought to advance interests of particular clans or ethnic groups through violence. From colonial times, French forces have never left.

Chad gained independence in 1960, with southerner François Tombalbaye becoming its first president and quickly establishing a one-party dictatorship. Tombalbaye's brutal reign, backed by France, was particularly severe in the north, sparking a rebellion in 1965 and the formation of the northern Front de Libération Nationale du Tchad (FROLINAT), a miltiant group based in Sudan. As a civil war dragged on into the 1970s and French forces propped up his government, Tobmalbaye aligned himself with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Tombalbaye was killed by his own forces in 1975, giving rise to a military junta under Félix Malloum and Libyan occupation of the northern Aozou Strip – a 100km-wide uranium-rich stretch of Chad along its northern border with Libya. The northern war continued, and in 1978 Malloum cut a deal with the leader of one faction of the splintered FROLINAT, Hissène Habré, a Gorane.

Habré became prime minister but his forces deposed Maboum the next year, sparking a chaotic scramble for power involving 11 warlord factions. Attempts by African mediators to forge a government of national unity faltered amid bouts of conflict, but a Libyan-backed northerner, Goukouni Oueddei maintained a tenuous hold on power until overthrown by Habré's army in June 1982. Habré formed a 'Documentation and Security Directorate' (DSD) to target and execute his opponents, as well as southern ethnic groups seen as hostile to his regime. France, the United States and western-backed Zaire provided Habré with military support, including training for the DSD, in an effort to repel a 1983 Libyan-sponsored assault from the north.

Habré's government fractured along ethnic lines in the late 1980s, with General Idriss Déby forming a rebel group based in the neighbouring Sudanese area of Darfur, home of many Zaghawa, who are closely related to his Bidéyat people. Backed by Libya and unopposed by French troops still stationed in Chad, Déby took the capital of N'Djamena in 1990. In retaliation for Déby's defection, Habré brutally targeted Zaghawa civilians in 1989 before fleeing to Senegal ahead of Déby's forces.

Installed as president by his Mouvement Patriotique de Salut (MPS) in 1991, Déby immediately faced numerous rebellions in the north, west and south. A French-backed national conference in 1993 aimed to bring together newly legalized political parties, civil society groups, the government and the military to pave the way for multi-party democracy and national reconciliation, but Déby refused to make concessions. Several rebellions resumed, matched by brutal heavy-handed government responses. Déby won deeply flawed presidential elections in 1996 and 2001, cut deals with some rebel groups and defeated others, but outbreaks of violence persisted.

In 2003, an estimated 200,000 refugees fleeing mass violence in Darfur, Sudan arrived in Chad, and the two countries' conflicts became increasingly entangled. Khartoum accuses Déby of providing support to Zaghawa rebels in Darfur, while Déby accuses Sudan of recruiting Chadian Arabs into its Janjaweed militias to conduct operations on both sides of the border.

As President Idriss Déby's popular support has waned, he has faced a growing rebellion from within his Zaghawa tribe, with opposing sub-clans seeking their turn in power. Chadian rebels have long been based in western Sudan, but the Darfur conflict has given new impetus to their rebellion, and given new impetus for support from Khartoum. Khartoum originally backed Abdelkérim Mahamat Nour, an ethnic Tama, but he proved more popular with the Sudanese than with Chadian dissidents, and Khartoum shifted its allegiance to Mahamat Nouri, an ethnic Gorane who heads the Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Developpement. Khartoum may like him because not being Zaghawa, he is unlikely to have any influence or ambitions involving the Sudanese side of the border.


Déby amended the constitution in 2005 through a referendum that had scant credibility due to many reports of voting irregularities and media manipulation. The change abolished presidential term limits and replaced the Senate with a body appointed by the president. He won May 2006 elections boycotted by the opposition.

In 2000 the World Bank agreed to finance a pipeline for newly discovered oil in southern Chad, through Cameroon to the Atlantic coast. The deal provided some measures for transparency and targeting of oil revenue to social needs. Income from the pipeline began reaching Chad in 2004, and the mechanisms intended to ensure accountable and responsible spending and investment quickly showed strain. In October 2005 the government announced its wish to increase its control over the oil revenue. The World Bank initially suspended lending to Chad and froze the revenue account, before working out a face-saving compromise. Transparency International's 2006 corruption perceptions index ranked Chad among the eight most corrupt countries in the world. Government elites, cronies and warlords have been the only beneficiaries of the incessant conflict that has made Chad one of the poorest countries in the world.

Déby's regime retains the support of France, whose troops are garrisoned near the Sudanese border, and is a participant in the Pan-Sahel Initiative, through which it receives US military assistance.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In 2007, the security situation in Chad deteriorated sharply, with continuing attacks by rebel groups in the East against the government of Idriss Déby. According to an IRIN report in December 2007, 90 per cent of the Chadian armed forces were tied up in the fighting in the East of the country. The apparent collapse of a 2006 agreement between a key rebel group (FUC) and the government at the end of 2007 placed further pressure on President Deby, who had already resisted a strong attempt to topple his government in April 2006.

An EU peace-keeping force which due to deploy by October 2007, was delayed until 2008, dogged by logistical difficulties. The UN-mandated mission is aimed at protecting civilians, refugees and aid workers from cross-border attacks, as the effects of Darfur conflict threaten to seriously destabilize Chad. The force will be approximately 3,700-strong – the majority of whom will be French. France as a former colonial power, already has a strong military presence in Chad, however, the UFDD rebel group in the East has already signalled its opposition to the peace-keeping force, claiming that the French are already using their military presence in Chad, to support Déby. All the indications are that the EU force will deploy in a worsening security environment, and will have a tough task fulfilling its mandate. There are estimated to the 400,000 refugees and internally displaced people in the region.

Although the main crisis is presently in the East, Chad's inability to fashion a government, inclusive of all sectors of society, is a key factor in its instability. The peoples of the mainly Christian South make up approximately forty-five per cent of the population but have been excluded from political power for over two decades. Under the former president Hissène Habré who hailed from the North, an estimated 40,000 people were said to have been killed, many of them Southerners, (HRW July 2005, Chad: the Victims of Hissene Habre still awaiting Justice). Habré attempted to wipe out the Southern elite, and embarked on a scorched earth rural strategy in a region he viewed as secessionist. In 2006, the African Union mandated Senegal – the country where the ex-president has lived since he was ousted – to try Habré for his alleged crimes, including those relating to torture, murder of political opponents, and ethnic cleansing. However, in 2007, the UN Committee Against Torture criticized the slow progress being made to bring Habré to justice.

The South's sense of grievance has also been intensified by the discovery of oil in the region. There is discontent at extremely high levels of corruption in the Déby regime, and the inequitable distribution of the oil wealth, particularly to the South. In August 2007, Agence-France Presse reported that the leader of the Southern opposition party, the Front des Forces d'Action pour la Republique (FAR) Ngarlejy Yoronger refused to sign an agreement for improved electoral organisation in the run up to the 2009 election. He denounced the proposals as being worthless, while the country was in the grip of a rebellion, and called instead for an inclusive dialogue with all sections of society.

The conflict in the East of the country, has several different dimensions, all over-lapping. There is an internal dimension, related to the autocratic nature of Déby's regime, as well as personal and sub-tribe rivalries. This has driven members of the President's own family, and his own Zaghawa tribe to take up arms. One of the main rebel groups, the RFC, for example, is led by the President's uncle. Another important factor, is ethnic tensions, which spread across borders, and run back decades, if not longer. In simplest terms, the Sudanese government accuses the Chadian authorities of offering support to the Darfur rebels – particularly those from the Zaghawa ethnic group of fighting against Khartoum. Although a minority in Chad (estimated at 1-2 per cent of the population), the Zaghawa form the political elite in the country. By contrast, in Sudan, the Zaghawa are a marginalized group, excluded from political power by the Arab elite concentrated in Khartoum. Chadian Zaghawa have provided vital support, including funds and weaponry, to their Darfur kinsmen, in their struggle against the central government.

On the other side, Déby has accused Khartoum of allowing Chadian rebels to use Darfur as a operational base. In the Chadian context, this fact has special significance – as both Déby, and his predecessor Habre launched their successful coups from rear bases in Darfur. There are several rebel groups ranged against Déby. One of the most important has been the United Front for Change (FUC) – fighters hailing from the Tama ethnic group, which has have a long-standing rivalry with the Zaghawa. This group – led by Mahamet Nour Abdelkarim – almost toppled Déby in 2006. But a Libyan-brokered peace deal saw Nour appointed Defence minister, and a promise to integrate FUC into the main armed forces. However, by late 2007, this deal had unravelled, with ex-FUC fighters taking up arms again, and Nour seeking refuge in the Libyan embassy in N'jamena. The break-down in the FUC agreement, co-incided with the collapse of another Libyan-backed peace initiative between the Chad government, and four rebel groups: the UFDD, the CNT, RFC and UFDD-Fondamental. This lasted just a month. By late 2007, these groups were reported to have embarked on a fresh offensive against the government, with correspondents reporting the fiercest fighting in the East for months.

The turmoil in the East has also become further complicated by the involvement of the Sudanese government-backed Janjawiid militia. Amnesty International (Sowing the seeds of Darfur, June 2006) has documented the cross-border attacks, from this Arabic militia, targetting 'African' tribes along the border. The causes of these attacks are partly criminal – theft of cattle and assets, and partly strategic. As Amnesty notes, the militia attack communities left unguarded when the Chadian army is otherwise engaged with the rebels. The goal is to spread mayhem and insecurity, and thereby increase pressure on Déby. However, there are also disturbing racial over-tones to the attacks, as it is 'African tribes' which are targeted. Amnesty reports victims being racially abused, while being attacked, with comments from Janjawiid attackers such as 'This land is ours' – meaning it belongs to Arabs. The export of the racially-motivated warfare, which is a defining feature of the Darfur conflict, and which has led to accusations of genocide, is an extremely worrying dimension to the growing disorder and insecurity in the East.

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