When President Idriss Déby died on April 19, 2021, most analysts talked about the effect this will have on the stability of Chad and the sub-region, suggesting there may be new wars due to the influence of the Chadian military. An influence that finds its source in oil money.

The former president Idriss Déby opens a valve connecting the landlocked oil-rich country with the southern Atlantic coast of Cameroon via a pipeline 1000 km (660 miles) long. Komé, October 10, 2003. (Photo by DESIREY MINKOH / AFP).
The former president Idriss Déby opens a valve connecting the landlocked oil-rich country with the southern Atlantic coast of Cameroon via a pipeline 1000 km (660 miles) long. Komé, October 10, 2003. (Photo by DESIREY MINKOH / AFP).

As is often the case, we must go back in time and examine both the ancient and modern history of a country in order to understand its current situation. Chad’s history tells us that the people of the Sahelo-Saharan part of the country are traditionally warriors. And if we look further into how the army came into being there, we can see that its relative power compared to the armies of neighboring countries comes partly from oil money.


The Chad of war and warriors

The northern two-thirds of Chad is part of the broader Saharan Desert. The French colonizers had great difficulty in conquering this area and never really managed to pacify it. In Tibesti and Ennedi, there lived — and still live — “warrior ethnic groups” attached to their freedom just as much as the Tuaregs of old Sudan. These peoples, such as the Toubou and the Zaghawa, resisted all authority and were quick to take up arms, as we can read in the book Nomades et commandants (1993).

Jean Chapelle, an ethnologist who was very knowledgeable about the black nomads of the Sahara, also noted the following about Toubou society, thanks to his career in the French Camel Corps in northern Chad:

“Each man, in order to stand up to others, must have enemies, and he finds them. The level of mortal offense is very low: sarcasm, allusion, material or moral damage, or injury to an animal, are enough to bring out the daggers. Toubou customs generate fights like clouds generate lightning.”

The area was no better controlled after independence (1960), and Col. Chapelle himself remained prefect of Faya-Largeau until 1963. By the end of the 1960s, Chadian President François Tombalbaye had to reconcile himself to bringing back former colonial administrators as part of the notorious (and unprecedented) Mission de réorganisation administrative (MRA). This program, implemented between 1969 and 1974, was designed to re-establish State authority in these irredentist territories, but it met little success (cf. Chad, genèse d’un conflit, Christian Bouquet, L’Harmattan, 1982).

In the same way that the Tuaregs extend beyond Mali, the Toubou and Zaghawa have long occupied spaces that overlap borders: the formers consider themselves just at home in southern Libya (Fezzan), and the latter can be found in both Sudanese Darfur and Chadian Ennedi.


In Chad, a war every dry season

The warrior culture of the peoples of northern Chad did not fade away with independence in 1960. On the contrary, these nomadic groups never stopped fighting the central government, which was controlled by the “Southerners” until the 1979 military takeover, when Goukouni Oueddei’s troops (from the North) entered N’Djamena.

Since then, supreme authority has always been in the hands of a warlord from one of the northern ethnic groups. First was Hissène Habré, followed by Idriss Déby (then his son). But warring continued more or less constantly, either to repel next-door Libya, when it sought to conquer the Aozou Strip, or when armed dissident groups tried to march on the capital. That’s to say almost every year, in the dry season.

During this long period of external and domestic wars, the French military often had a ringside seat. It saw an army at work — an army that knew how to fight. And it could not help but admire the Chadian soldiers for what can be considered a form of honor — or, more simply, for their acknowledgement that, in their profession, death is an occupational hazard. And that is something not as easily accepted by soldiers of the other G5 Sahel armies.



The relationship between the Chadian military and oil began in the early 1970s, when Colonel Gaddafi decided to annex the Aozou Strip, a portion of territory of about 100,000 square kilometers that lies north of Tibesti. The Libyan leader claimed that a 1919 agreement granted this piece of desert to Italy. But no treaty had ever been ratified, making the Libyan pretensions unfounded. Gaddafi nonetheless persisted, because he believed there was manganese and oil to be found in the subsoil of the Aozou Strip.

His troops invaded the area in 1973, and Libya annexed it outright in 1976. Official maps of the time show the new border. But the Chadian authorities, sometimes with French military support, made numerous attempts to recapture the territory. They finally succeeded in 1986. The Chadian army could therefore boast that, in addition to having re-established the country’s territorial integrity, it had recaptured an important source of potential wealth from its Libyan neighbor.


A pipeline financed by the World Bank

Prospecting by the French Geological Survey (BRGM) in the 1950s gave good reason to believe that Chad’s subsoil contained oil, especially in the south around Doba, but also in Kanem and Tibesti. But confirmation that the Doba reserves were worth exploiting did not come before 1975, and extraction began only in 1988.



The major petroleum groups had in fact long been reluctant to become involved in Chadian oil fields. The fields in the central/western and northern parts of the country were located in areas of chronic insecurity. Those in the South were less threatened but still “on-shore,” i.e., landlocked and more than 1,000 kilometers from the nearest ocean port.




Then, an unprecedented arrangement was made: the World Bank agreed to finance — using public funds — the pipeline that would allow the private operators Exxon, Chevron, and Petronas to transport their crude oil to the Cameroonian port of Kribi. This would enable shipping to European or American refineries, where the oil could be offered on the market at prices that would not be burdened by the cost of the transport infrastructure.


Promising legislation on oil management

But some kind of serious trade-off for this financial arrangement was needed: otherwise all the civil society organizations would oppose the project because of the World Bank’s “gift” of nearly $500 million to the private sector.

That’s why President Idriss Déby — under pressure — promulgated an “oil revenue management law” in 1999, aimed at making exploitation of black gold in the country part of a virtuous circle. The decrees putting the law into force, signed in 2003 and 2004, established the following distribution rules: for the first five years, 80% of royalties and 85% of dividends would be allocated to spending in the priority sectors of the National Poverty Reduction Strategy (SNRP). These were education, health, rural development, infrastructure, water resources, and the environment. A “fund for future generations” was also created. In addition, 5% of the royalties would be transferred to local authorities, and 15% would go to non-priority expenditures of the public sector.

As G. Magrin and G. van Vliet pointed out : “For the first time, an oil development project was used to support objectives of state capacity building and sustainable development.” The World Bank had also innovated by compensating the occupants of the land where the pipeline was laid, notably by paying 550,000 CFA francs (€840) per mango tree uprooted (cf. Le Pétrole du Tchad. Rêve ou cauchemar pour les populations ?, Martin Pétry and Naygotimiti Bambé, Karthala, 2004). Not only did this principle of compensation raise the question of individual land ownership in the regions concerned, but it also set a precedent for the rest of the continent. Indeed, the colonizers hadn’t thought of this when they built railways…


Priority for army, police and justice system

Unfortunately, the Chadian president reneged on his promises soon after: in December 2005, he pushed through an amending law that included the army, the police, the justice system, and governance as priority sectors. The World Bank took note of this shift in a 2009 report, which pointed out that the original project had failed to achieve its objectives of reducing poverty and improving governance.

Due to a lack of transparency in the use of funds, it has not been possible to put a figure on the proportion of aid diverted from social objectives to the armed forces. However, in 2010 that military spending had risen from €53 million in 2004 to €420 million in 2010. Meanwhile, the growth in Chadian military resources had become visible in the operations Idriss Déby conducted against the rebels who attacked his regime in the years following this deceitful law.

In other words, “thanks” to oil money, Chad now has an army that, while not always having the last word against its domestic enemies, is admired in the Sahelian anti-jihadist theater of operations. This observation is not one of righteousness or morality, but rather of clear realpolitik.

Yet, the misuse of oil revenues is also due to extensive corruption. In September 2020, an ex-minister was jailed on suspicion of misappropriation of public funds, carried out between 2013 and 2016. This case is probably just the tip of the iceberg.


How much oil revenue?

The , published in 2020, begins by pointing out all the difficulties investigators encountered in obtaining the desired data from the Chadian authorities.

In reading the report, we can nonetheless see that Chadian oil production in 2018 did not exceed 127,000 barrels per day, compared to simulations in 2003 based on 140,000 barrels per day. This shortfall was offset by an average price of $59 per barrel, meaning that the oil sector should have provided $676 million. Yet, there’s no sign of this amount in the state budget for the year 2018. Even if it were included, we would have no way of knowing how this resource was redistributed.

So, where has the oil revenue gone? It can probably be found in the pockets of a few dignitaries of the regime, but it was also spent on equipping and training of an army which, for a number of years, has succeeded in containing the jihadist advance in the Sahel. It would no doubt have been better for this revenue to have been redistributed equitably among the Chadian people, as we had hoped when the agreement was signed with the World Bank.

Without a virtuous circle, popular discontent could grow. This will play into the hands of the jihadists, in a country that seemed to be protected from this threat, until now. Hence, there is a risk that the oil revenue will turn against those for whom it was intended.



The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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