Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Sara, Sango, Arabic (official from 1978), Chadian Arabic (Arabic mixed with French and local languages), French (official)
Main religions: Islam (52.1 per cent), Christianity 44.2 per cent (Protestant 23.9 per cent, Roman Catholic 20 per cent, other Christian 0.3 per cent), animist 0.3 per cent, none 2.8 per cent, unspecified 0.7 per cent. Most northerners practise Islam, and most southerners practise Christianity or indigenous religions. However, population patterns are becoming more complex, especially in urban areas. Whereas the Chadian Constitution provides for freedom of religion, the government has proscribed certain Muslim groups on the grounds of extremism.
Chad’s ethnic groups include Sara (Ngambaye/Sara/Madjingaye/Mbaye) 30.5 per cent, Kanembu/Bornu/Buduma 9.8 per cent, Arab 9.7 per cent, Wadai/Maba/Masalit/Mimi 7 per cent, Gorane 5.8 per cent, Masa/Musseye/Musgum 4.9 per cent, Bulala/Medogo/Kuka 3.7 per cent, Marba/Lele/Mesme 3.5 per cent, Mundang 2.7 per cent, Bidiyo/Migaama/Kenga/Dangleat 2.5 per cent, Dadjo/Kibet/Muro 2.4 per cent, Tupuri/Kera 2 per cent, Gabri/Kabalaye/Nanchere/Somrai 2 per cent, Fulani/Peulh/Fulbe/Bodore 1.8 per cent, Karo/Zime/Peve 1.3 per cent, Baguirmi/Barma 1.2 per cent, Zaghawa/Bideyat/Kobe 1.1 per cent, Tama/Assongori/Mararit 1.1 per cent, Mesmedje/Massalat/Kadjakse 0.8 per cent, other Chadian ethnicities 3.4 per cent, Chadians of foreign ethnicities 0.9 per cent, foreign nationals 0.3 per cent, unspecified 1.7 per cent (2014-15 est., CIA World Factbook).
Although believed to be more numerous, Southerners 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. According to the 2009 census, the nomadic population was estimated at 387,815 (3.5 per cent of the population). According to the 2009 census findings, the nomadic population has in recent years had a very low growth rate – a situation that it speculated might be due to sedentarization as a result of drought and declining living standards.
Like the peoples of the BET, virtually everyone in this zone is Muslim. In the Ouaddai prefecture bordering Sudan to the east, Zaghawa peoples (who make up a little over 1 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. The peoples of the mainly Christian south, despite making up nearly half of the population, were in the past excluded from political power. 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, as Habré attempted to wipe out the southern elite, and embarked on a scorched earth rural strategy in a region he viewed as secessionist. The south’s sense of grievance has also been intensified by the discovery of oil in the region. There was discontent at extremely high levels of corruption in the Déby regime, and the inequitable distribution of the oil wealth, particularly to the south.
Updated November 2020
Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, also struggles with deep-seated issues around governance, corruption and inclusion. In particular, the failure to equitably distribute oil revenues has deepened existing social divisions in Chad, including along regional and ethnic lines. The authorities, while embedding their status as allies of the US and France in the fight against terrorism, have also been criticized for disproportionate spending of oil revenues on defence contracts and security.
Chad continues to be greatly affected by mass displacement from violence in neighbouring countries including Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, Central African Republic (CAR) to the south and Nigeria to the west. These conflicts are particularly significant given that ethnic groups in these countries straddle borders and have strong economic, kinship and cultural cross-border ties that at times outweigh national identities. By September 2020, Chad was hosting almost 483,000 refugees, 371,000 of whom are from Sudan and another 95,000 originating from CAR.
The higher levels of Chad’s military hierarchy continue to be dominated by Zaghawa. The authorities, while embedding their status as allies of the US and France in the fight against terrorism, have been criticised for disproportionate spending of oil revenues on defence contracts.
Chad is also greatly affected by environmental pressures including desertification in the Sahel region, the receding of Lake Chad on its western border with Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, and drought and flooding in the east and south. These factors continue to exacerbate pre-existing intercommunal tensions, for instance those between nomadic pastoralists and settled farmers over access to resources. The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at this situation in its 2013 Concluding Observations and called on Chad to take steps to reduce these tensions and avoid inter-ethnic conflict.
Frequently ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, Chad has for years struggled with a range of environmental pressures that have also threatened its nomadic populations. Seasonal southerly migration by pastoralists and their cattle in the Sahel – traditionally in the dry season between October and May – has always caused friction with local sedentary populations reliant on the same pasture and wells used by herders to feed and water their livestock. However, in recent years the impact of climate change has changed patterns in place for many generations, causing new tensions. Over the course of just a decade, landlocked Chad’s dry northern Saharan and central Sahelian zones have spread 150 kilometres south, shrinking fertile farming and grazing areas. Decreasing or more erratic rainfall has forced herders – mostly Mbororo (Fulani, Peulh), Toubou or Gorane – to move south ever earlier in the year, with the result that at times their herds arrive before local farmers have had time to harvest their crops and spoil the yield. They also tend to stay for longer periods or even permanently, further upsetting the delicate balance between Chad’s different ethnicities, lifestyles and livelihoods. These issues intersect with intercommunal tensions between herders and farmers in parts of Chad’s eastern, southern and Lake regions.
In northern Chad, traditional intercommunal tensions between sedentary farming and nomadic pastoralist groups such as Fulani/Peulh, Toubou (Tebu) and Goranes have reportedly increased over the last decade, not just due to growing pressure on scarce resources but also by the formation of ethnicity-based self-defence militias to protect communities against theft and attack by other armed actors. Trans-border ethnic groups such as Toubou have reportedly in recent years increasingly armed. The growth of criminal groups involved in human smuggling and trade in illicit goods across the region and towards the Mediterranean has added to the volatility of the situation.
The legacy of Chad’s protracted ethnic violence, particularly during the rule of former Chadian President Hissène Habré, persists to this day. However, an important milestone occurred in Senegal in February 2013, when a special court was opened to bring Habré to justice on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture from 1982 to 1990, including the systematic targeting of particular ethnic groups such as the Hadjaraï and, later, the Zaghawa. His trial opened in July 2015, and he was found guilty of crimes against humanity in May 2016. He was sentenced to life in prison; the decision was upheld in April 2017.
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.
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 militant 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 Malloum 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, and cut deals with some rebel groups and defeated others, but outbreaks of violence persisted. These were exacerbated by conflicts in neighbouring countries.
The discovery of oil reserves in southern Chad also brought new challenges to a country already struggling with poor governance and factionalism. 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. Government elites, cronies and warlords have been the only beneficiaries of the incessant conflict that has impoverished Chad; besides being one of the poorest countries in the world, Chad is regularly ranked as one of the most corrupt.
In 2006, the African Union (AU) mandated Senegal – the country where the ex-president Habré has lived since he was ousted – to try him 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. It was not until 2013 that a special court was opened to launch proceedings against him, with the trial opened in July 2015 and his sentence to life in prison issued in May 2016, a decision upheld in April 2017.
Eastern Chad: the cross-border impact of the Darfur conflict
Conflict between Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed fighters and opposition militias in neighbouring Darfur, followed by targeted Janjaweed assaults on ethnic Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa villages – later characterised as genocide – led to mass displacement into eastern Chad in 2003 and 2004. In 2003 alone, an estimated 200,000 refugees from Darfur arrived in Chad, and the two countries’ conflicts became increasingly entangled. Khartoum accused Déby of providing support to Zaghawa rebels in Darfur, while Déby accused Sudan of recruiting Chadian Arabs into its Janjaweed militias to conduct operations on both sides of the border.
Sources documented cross-border Janjaweed attacks on ‘African’ tribes along the Chadian border. The causes of these attacks were partly criminal – theft of cattle and assets – and partly strategic, targeting communities left unguarded as the Chadian army was otherwise engaged with rebel groups. Over time, however, tensions in eastern Chad could no longer be blamed solely on the mass refugee flows from Sudan or on cross-border attacks from Janjaweed horsemen; from 2007 the fighting was increasingly between local communities, nonetheless replicating a model familiar from Darfur. What started as a local reaction to Janjaweed attacks became a generalized inter-communal conflict grounded in pre-existing local tensions and pitting ‘black’ toroboro militias – including Dadjo and some Zaghawa – against Arab fighters, with civilian communities on both sides in Chad bearing most of the casualties.
As the conflict escalated, both Chad and Sudan accused each other of supporting rebel cross-border attacks. The conflict had an ethnic dimension: in the simplest terms, the Sudanese government accused the Chadian authorities of offering support to the Darfur rebels – particularly those from the Zaghawa ethnic group – to fight against Khartoum. Although a minority in Chad (estimated at a little over 1 per cent of the population), the Zaghawa formed the political elite in the country. By contrast, in Sudan, the Zaghawa were a marginalized group, excluded from political power by the Arab elite concentrated in Khartoum. Chadian Zaghawa provided vital support, including funds and weaponry, to their Darfur kinsmen in their struggle against the central government.
On the other side, Déby accused Khartoum of allowing Chadian rebels to use Darfur as an operational base. In the Chadian context, this fact has special significance – as both Déby and his predecessor Habré launched their successful coups from rearward bases in Darfur. Khartoum reportedly originally backed Abdelkérim Mahamat Nour, an ethnic Tama, who led the key rebel group, the United Front for Change (FUC) which almost toppled Déby and his Zaghawa-dominated regime in 2006; the two ethnic groups, both present in eastern Chad, had historically mistrusted each other. 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’Djamena. The breakdown in the FUC agreement coincided with the collapse of another Libyan-backed peace initiative between the Chad government and four rebel groups: the UFDD, CNT, RFC and UFDD-Fondamental. This lasted just a month. By late 2007, the security situation had deteriorated sharply, not least as 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. Rebel groups reportedly largely developed along ethnic lines, and the government manipulated pre-existing ethnic rivalries to divide them and to shore up its own position; these practices heightened inter-ethnic tensions in the region, already exacerbated by the various impacts of cross-border conflict and displacement.
The situation in Chad remained highly volatile during 2008 as the conflict with Sudan escalated. The AU attempted to make peace between the two countries, without success. In early August, the Libyan government helped to broker an agreement between the two governments, and in October 2008 representatives from Chad and Sudan met in Tripoli to formally restore diplomatic ties between their nations. Several international missions were deployed in an attempt to help control the situation and protect civilians, and the Chad-Sudan border reopened as relations normalised somewhat.
Southern Chad: the cross-border impact of conflict in the CAR
In 2007 tensions stemming from internal conflicts within the Central African Republic (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 Fulani/Peulh (Mbororo) nomadic pastoralists, targeted for their wealth and livestock, who had particularly suffered in the prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness and rebellion across northern CAR.
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 ‘anti–balaka’ (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 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.
Lake Chad region: the cross-border impact of conflict in Nigeria
In 2015 conflict displaced 2.5 million people in the Lake Chad Basin as Boko Haram expanded its areas of operation from Nigeria further into Chad and Cameroon, at times impacting on relations between ethnic and religious groups in the affected regions. It even staged attacks in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, leading Chad to declare a state of emergency and impose restrictive anti-terror measures in the Lake Chad region. Chad took part in joint offensives with Nigeria to regain control of border areas under Boko Haram dominance and joined the regional Multinational Joint Task Force to combat it, operating in Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. Boko Haram has continued to launch attacks in Chad: one assault attack in March 2020 on an island in Lake Chad killed 92 soldiers.
The ensuing violence has exacerbated existing ethnic and intercommunal tensions. The Kanuri ethnic group from which much of Nigeria’s Boko Haram membership – and much of the civilian population affected by Boko Haram violence across the Lake Chad region – is drawn is also found on the Chadian side of the border. Chad’s Kanuri, like the various clans of its Buduma ethnic group, also with strong cross-border ties and relatively limited sense of national identity, have at times been accused by other groups of collusion with Boko Haram, resulting in stigmatization by security force practices and in official rhetoric.
As President Idriss Déby’s popular support waned, he faced a growing rebellion from within his Zaghawa tribe, with opposing sub-clans seeking their turn in power. 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 that were boycotted by the opposition.
Discrimination against minorities in Chad continued, despite the government’s adoption of a law in 2006 that includes the promotion of tolerance and respect for other cultures as one of the objectives of the educational system. In particular the Fulani/Peulh minority, a nomadic pastoralist cattle-breeding community, have repeatedly been subjected to stereotyping.
Presidential elections in 2011 and 2016 again saw the re-election of Idriss Déby. Peaceful demonstrators protesting his re-election bid in 2016 were reportedly beaten and arbitrarily detained.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
- Association Tchadienne pour la Promotion et la Défense des Droits de l’Homme (ATPDH)
- Association des Femmes Peules Autochtones du Tchad (AFPAT: Association of Indigenous Peulh Women)
Sources and further reading
Amnesty International, ‘Are we citizens of this country?’ Civilians in Chad unprotected from Janjawid attacks, January 2007.
Amnesty International, Contracting Out of Human Rights: The Chad–Cameroon Pipeline Project, September 2005.
Human Rights Watch, ‘They Came Here to Kill Us’: Militia Attacks and Ethnic Targeting of Civilians in Eastern Chad, January 2007.
Human Rights Watch, Chad: The Victims of Hissène Habré Still Awaiting Justice, July 2005.
International Crisis Group, Tchad: vers le retour de la guerre?, June 2006.
International Advisory Group on the Chad-Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project, http://www.gic-iag.org
Centre d’Etude et de Formation pour le Développement, www.cefod.org
Minorities and indigenous peoples in