The five prefectures of the far south account for only about a tenth of Chad’s territory but about 45 per cent of its population. Ethno-linguistic groupings here include: Sara, a cultural cluster of twelve major clans, constituting about 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 prefectures of Mayo-Kebbi, Logone 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, excel.
Most southerners are settled farmers. Virtually all cultivable land, a mere two per cent of Chadian territory, is in the far south.
Southerners have traditionally been exploited for their labour. French interests from the 1930s on 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 the Second World War, 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. From around 1984, armed insurgency led by southern warlords set in motion a violent spiral of reprisal and counter-reprisal. 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. In 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 have also been 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 Armes 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.
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 may exacerbate the situation in the south at a time when war in the north and east threatens to consume the country. The crisis in the north and army defections from his own ethnic group forced Déby to increase his reliance on southern military staff in 2005. This could be seen as an attempt at reconciliation with the south, or perhaps more likely, a sign that the autocratic Déby is becoming increasingly isolated and desperate for fleeting alliances that will keep him in power.
In 2006, the African Union 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.