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Southerners in Chad

  • Profile

    The far south of Chad, despite comprising only a small portion of the country’s territory, is much more densely populated than other parts of the country, such as the desert areas of the north. Ethno-linguistic groupings in the south include: Sara, a cultural cluster of twelve major clans, who together constitute the largest ethnic group in the country at just over 30 per cent of Chad’s population; Toubouri and Massa (or Banana), with about 5 per cent; Mboum/Laka, with 3–4 per cent; and, Moundang, with 2–3 per cent. The last three groupings live in the western-most areas of Mayo-KebbiLogone Orientale and Tandjile. 

    Islam has never penetrated the southern prefectures, where centuries of slave-raiding from the Islamic emirates make it unwelcome. Christians are found virtually only in the south. Chad is a secular state, and although Muslim chauvinism is surfacing strongly, no regime has placed restrictions on religious freedoms. The Sara language is used as a medium of instruction in lower and upper primary school levels, as is Arabic and French. Primary school enrolment, although higher than in the north, is low, especially for girls. Most Chadian girls, both south and north, undergo genital mutilation. However, southern women – especially Roman Catholics – show considerably higher incidences of mutilation than Muslim (northern) women. 

    Southerners’ schooling credentials have put them at an advantage for waged employment, but they are not as prominent in commerce, where men from the middle Sahelian regions, and non-Chadians, predominate. 

    Most southerners are settled farmers. Virtually all cultivable land, a mere two per cent of Chadian territory, is in the far south. 

    Historical context

    Southerners have traditionally been exploited for their labour. French interests from the 1930s onwards forced people to grow cotton under the exactions of French-appointed ‘traditional’ chiefs. Through missions, commoditization, and the growth of towns and state services, a thin stratum of clerks, policemen, teachers, soldiers and health workers emerged. During World War II, French recruitment of soldiers made Sara people ‘the great military reservoir of French Equatorial Africa’. 

    The post-colonial government recruited most of its administrators among southerners. In 1975, a little over a quarter of all southerners could read and write French, while only a small fraction of northerners could do so. Chad’s first president was from the south, as were most members of his cabinet, army, and officialdom. 

    Rising prices of inputs and unstable prices of produce (especially cotton), and elimination of many waged jobs have forced down living standards. Drought in Chad’s central Sahelian rangelands have sent livestock herders further south in search of pasture, thus worsening competition for land, and probably fuelling inter-ethnic conflict. 

    Southerners’ hegemony began to be challenged soon after independence in 1960, especially as the government began actively discriminating against Muslim northerners. By the 1990s they retained posts in the civil service and the army, but had been effectively sidelined from political power.  

    Opposition to the northern-dominated government was centred in the southernmost prefecture of Logone Occidentale and neighbouring Logone Orientale, and this was intensified when oil was discovered in the region. Major bloodshed began in 1979, when killings of southerners in the capital city N’Djamena led to reprisal killings of 5,000–10,000 mainly Muslim Arabs resident in the south. From around 1984, armed insurgency led by southern warlords set in motion a violent spiral of reprisal and counter-reprisal. During the 1980s Habré embarked on a scorched earth rural strategy in a region he viewed as secessionist, first targeting, among others, the Sara ethnic group and subsequently Hadjerai, Chadian Arabs and ZaghawaIn all, some 40,000 people are said to have died during the Habré regime, while in the period under Déby from 1990 up to mid-1995 more than 2,000 were killed by government forces, who have also burned villages and otherwise terrorized civilians. Rebel forces were also implicated in murder and intimidation, some of it deliberately aimed at Muslims from the north. 

    Violence sent southerners streaming into neighbouring countries. By the mid-1990s about 43,000 were in Cameroon (refugees from the Habré era) and about 21,000 in the Central African Republic. Chad’s frontiers are porous, and rebel groups have made use of neighbouring countries as rear bases, adding to intergovernmental tensions. Central government and rebels have occasionally reached truces and temporary deals, thus short-circuiting moves – at times a demand of southern rebels – for decentralization of power and a federal system. 

    Southern rebellions subsided in the late 1990s as insurrections in the north drew Déby’s attention and may have made him more willing to negotiate. However, as grievances about lack of participation in government persisted, in 1999 13 southern armed opposition groups formed an alliance, the Coordination des Mouvements Armés et Politiques de l’Opposition (CMAP). CMAP received the support of Gabon and was later based in the Central African Republic. Sporadic fighting continued despite talks between Déby and CMAP in 2001 and 2002. The main southern candidate in the 2001 elections, Ngarlejy Yorongar, had raised concerns with the World Bank about corruption and the equitable distribution to the south of revenue from the Chad–Cameroon oil pipeline, which had been agreed to transport oil from southern reserves. Following the flawed election and southern protests at evident fraud, Yorongar was arrested and tortured. World Bank President James Wolfensohn made a personal appeal for his release. 

    The start of oil production has added to the sense of injustice felt by the southern population. Déby’s promises of instant wealth have not been fulfilled, and since construction of the pipeline to the Cameroon coast was completed, the project employs only a few local people. 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. 

    The opposition, including southerners, boycotted the 2005 referendum that stripped the Constitution of its provision on presidential term limits and scrapped the Senate in favour of a body appointed by the president. Southerners, including the region’s main presidential candidate in 2001, Ngarlejy Yorongar, boycotted the elections that prolonged Déby’s rule in May 2006. Southern rebellions in independent Chad have been fuelled by anger over exclusion from government, and Déby’s tightened grip in 2005 and 2006 exacerbated the situation in the south at a time when war in the north and east threatened to consume the country. In August 2007, Ngarlejy Yoronger, the leader of the southern opposition party, the Front des Forces d’Action pour la République (FAR), refused to sign an agreement for improved electoral organization 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. 

    Another cross-border source of disruption that has increased in ensuing years is the displacement of large numbers of people from neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR).  In 2007 tensions stemming from internal conflicts within the CAR, located to the south of Chad, grew and by the end of the year an estimated 50,000 CAR refugees had sought sanctuary in Cameroon and Chad. Many of those who fled to Chad were pastoralist nomads of the Fulani/Peulh (Mbororo) people who, targeted for their wealth and livestock, had particularly suffered in the prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness and rebellion across northern CAR.  

    Current issues

    In 2012 and 2013 some Chadian nationals were reported to be fighting in the Muslim rebel Séléka forces in the CAR. In return, Christian communities set up or activated existing ‘antibalaka’ (anti-machete) groups to protect their areas from attack and to oust the now ‘ex-Séléka’, particularly its foreign fighters, seen as invaders. Chad officially sent troops in 2013; in some instances in 2014, Chadian and other soldiers among the African Union (AU) peacekeepers were accused of targeted violations against suspected anti-balaka and Chad eventually withdrew from the AU mission. Refugees from the CAR continued to arrive in Chad as of early 2018. 

    Southern Chad, including its refugee populations, has been greatly affected by flooding, worsened by climate change as well as deforestation. Environmental factors as well as demographic changes due to the influx from the CAR continue to exacerbate preexisting intercommunal tensions.

    Updated November 2020

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