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Swarms at the Border: The Dead Heart of Africa

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July 10, 2006

Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust, hatches from the sandy soil of the Sahara in North-West Africa. When the number of hatchlings grows great enough and vegetation is so sparse that the locust nymphs must congregate for food, drastic overcrowding causes the nymphs’ hindquarters to bump against each other repeatedly. In just a few hours, this tactile stimulation sets off a metabolic process: Their coloring transforms from green to yellow and black; their bodies compress. Each nymph releases a pheromone that attracts others to join the crush. The newcomers batter one another in turn, coaxed into a chain reaction of mutation and seduction—until millions upon millions of locusts complete their metamorphosis, and become a swarm. As the locusts move South and East with the wind, they blacken the sky. A single swarm can cover over 400 square miles, with over 200 million locusts massed together per square mile as they fly over southern Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon until they reach the landlocked central African nation of Chad.

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Approximately 80 percent of Chad’s 10 million people live below the international poverty line of a dollar a day, relying on subsistence farming amid scarce resources and seasonal drought. A single locust can eat its own body mass in vegetation in a day, and each day a small swarm of locusts can eat as much food as 2,500 people. Locust swarms can quickly devastate Chad’s already tenuous food supply, compounding the harsh conditions that have led some to call Chad, “the dead heart of Africa.”

Since the outset of the conflict in Darfur, 220,000 people have fled across the border into Chad; two million civilians have been displaced and at least 180,000 have been killed.

The pipeline was meant to change all this. After decades of bloody civil war and economic deprivation since Chad gained independence from France in 1960, geological exploration had uncovered a natural resource that would be immune to locusts or drought: oil. All that was needed was a pipeline to transport that oil to the world’s energy markets.

On June 6th, 2000, the World Bank agreed to support the Chad-Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project. Unusual for an underwriter, the Bank’s tone was near ecstatic. Its press release described the project as “an unprecedented framework to transform oil wealth into direct benefits for the poor, the vulnerable and the environment.”

In part, the pipeline project was intended to allow Chad to escape the “resource curse,” where an abundance of natural resources paradoxically condemns a society to greater poverty, corruption, and political instability. The construction of the pipeline would give the Chadian government—under one-time guerilla leader, now president Idriss Déby—the opportunity to exploit its oil reserves under the condition that revenues be managed for the benefit of Chad’s people—“a first-of-its-kind program to direct new revenues to support economic and social development programs.” The World Bank would underwrite part of the $4.2 billion cost of the pipeline’s construction and loan Chad $37 million to purchase a stake in the extraction consortium, a group of oil companies led by Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Government revenues would accrue directly in an escrow account in London, 80 percent of which was to be “ring-fenced” for the “priority sectors” of health, education, environment, infrastructure and rural development. Another 10 percent of the oil revenues was to go directly into a “future generations” fund to provide the people of Chad long-term financial stability and continuing benefits when the oil eventually ran dry.

President Déby undertook to pass an oil-revenue management law through Chad’s legislative body. Oversight committees were appointed and reports scheduled. As the oil began to flow in July of 2003, experts predicted that the pipeline would yield $2 billion in revenue for Chad over the next 20 years. As the World Bank said, this would be an “unprecedented framework,” a model program that represented “an unparalleled opportunity for creating a much brighter future for Chad.”

It’s scandalous that the international community is helping Déby’s regime to survive.

Today, in the words of one Africa development expert, that model framework has been “gutted.” Military hardware has become a “priority sector” and the future generations fund a thing of the past as Déby has become embroiled in an escalating conflict with the Arabist-supremacist military dictatorship in neighboring Sudan. From their bases in the Darfur region in western Sudan, Chadian rebel groups backed by the Sudanese regime in its capital of Khartoum have launched a series of offenses and coup attempts against Déby. At the same time, more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees from Darfur have crossed into eastern Chad, fleeing a genocidal onslaught by militias collectively known as Janjaweed (literally translated, “man with a gun and a horse”). These militias, backed by Khartoum, stream across the border to massacre Chadian villagers and Darfuri refugees alike.

The chaos has been good for the locusts. A few months ago, reports began to surface of locust swarms forming in Darfur. The new brood threatened to lay waste to Chad’s crops once again. And yet, no Chadian representatives were sent to assess the danger. "We have heard there were locusts near the border," an official at Chad’s Ministry of Agriculture told the Sudan Tribune. "But because of the insecurity we have not been able to go there."

That Idriss Déby’s troubles should center on the Darfur region of Sudan is perhaps ironic. When Déby deposed Hissène Habré in 1990, he himself launched the rebel offensive from Darfur. Chad has suffered a series of bloody civil conflicts since its independence from France over forty years ago. After a deadly and chaotic ten-year war that saw the occupation of its territory by Muammar Qadaffi’s Libya, the open involvement of the French military and clandestine intervention by the United States, Déby’s rise to power had a hopeful aura to it. Qadaffi’s regional meddling seemed to be at an end. Multi-party politics began to flourish. With the discovery of oil, the pipeline project offered Chad the opportunity to rapidly transform its fortunes.

In neighboring Sudan, however, a conflict had begun that would come both to threaten Déby’s rule and put the pipeline project’s ambitious goals in jeopardy. Ruled by the National Islamic Front (NIF)—a military dictatorship led by General Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir that had come to power at almost the same time as Déby—Sudan had been wracked for decades by a civil war between the Arabized Muslim north and Christian animist South.

With global demand for oil soaring a country such as Chad might very well choose to partner with investors from countries that ask fewer questions.

Since seizing power in a coup, the NIF regime had attempted to impose Shariah law on its subjects, revoked the constitution, banned opposition parties, and scrapped previous progress toward peace. Under intense international pressure, however, the regime moved grudgingly toward a power-sharing agreement with the southern rebels. Western rebels, however, were excluded from the power-sharing talks and had for years been persecuted by the Khartoum regime. These black Muslim rebel groups in the western region of Darfur took up arms against the government and attacked Sudanese military installations.

Khartoum in turn unleashed an astonishingly brutal campaign of massacre and rape against the non-Arabized Zaghawa, Masalit, and Fur people of Darfur through the Janjaweed militia. While officially denying any involvement, the NIF provided the Janjaweed with logistical and military support and sent helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers to eradicate Darfuri villages.

As observers from the African Union filed reports of Janjaweed militias burning civilians alive, tens of thousands of refugees streamed across the Chadian border. In May of 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the violence and in July, the United States Congress joined then Secretary of State Colin Powell in declaring the actions of Sudan’s government and its proxy militias, “genocide.”

Chad and Sudan are essentially colonial inventions, with ethnic and tribal groups straddling the border and making up varying proportions of each country’s citizenry. Déby, a member of the same Zaghawa tribe whose members were being massacred in Darfur and whose support had been crucial to his coming to power, came under immense pressure to intervene more forcefully on behalf of his ethnic brethren. But Déby was reluctant to openly confront the NIF. “Déby did not support our movement at all at the outset,” says Tadjadine Bechir Niam, spokesperson for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)—one of the two main rebel groups fighting the Sudanese government in Darfur. “He had his own vision, his own calculations.”

Frustration at Déby’s inaction soon welled up. In May of 2004, several members of his ruling clique—including those in his own family—attempted a coup. Déby survived, but his hold on power was shaken. “After that attempt, Déby actually booted all the Zaghawa tribe from his circle because he didn’t feel he could trust them,” says Ricken Patel, a human rights expert and a fellow at Res Publica—a public interest organization devoted to global democracy and good governance. In their place, he brought in members of the Gorane, the tribe that had backed his predecessor Hissène Habré’s bloody rule. “From a human rights point of view that’s a real tragedy,” says Patel, “because they’re the ones who were the real bastards who had killed and tortured so many Chadians.”

The growing anger at Déby also stemmed from his increasingly autocratic rule. Despite a seeming transition to multi-party politics, Déby had in fact moved to establish one-party rule for his Patriotic Salvation Movement, according to civil society activists. Democratic institutions were eviscerated. The presidential election in 1996 was marred by fraud; opposition groups claimed 2001’s election was a farce. And in June of 2005 Déby created even more outrage among Chadians by amending the constitution so that he could run for a third term as president.

Only a month before the constitutional amendment was passed, the oversight group established by Chad’s own government charged with monitoring the use of oil revenues published a scathing report documenting widespread corruption. Schools had received desks made of scrap wood; massive payments had been made for phantom water towers and millions of dollars handed over to construction companies owned by Déby relatives. In its annual survey, Transparency International declared Chad the most corrupt country in the world alongside Bangladesh, though some development experts close to the pipeline project feel this characterization is unfair and that the greater transparency guaranteed by the project’s monitoring mechanisms is paradoxically making Chad appear more corrupt than other, more secretive countries.

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Déby’s key military officers began defecting to rebel groups. All the while the Darfuri refugee flight into Chad continued, along with a steady stream of Janjaweed incursions. In the same month that his country’s oversight committee had reported extensive corruption in the disbursement of oil revenues, Déby claimed to need greater flexibility in spending revenues. His officials cried poverty, pointing to the refugee crisis, but the World Bank was loath to grant more financial control to a government so clearly guilty of misusing funds in the past.

That September, Chad’s minister for planning told the World Bank at its meeting in Washington D.C. that his government would have to change the revenue law. The bank said no, then softened its position: Chad must explain its fiscal troubles and wait at least until 2006’s upcoming project review. But Déby didn’t wait: In October, Déby announced his intention to amend the Petroleum Reserve Management Law.

Sudan’s Khartoum regime was now supporting the Chadian rebel groups and allowed them to establish heavily armed garrisons near the border—in Darfur no less—so as to keep “a gun to Déby’s head,” to ensure that he didn’t back the JEM and the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), says Ricken Patel. Patel adds that the Chadian rebel militias were “kept on a leash so Déby wouldn’t cross that line.”

But with Darfur in chaos, tensions mounted. “We kept telling Déby that Khartoum was not to be trusted,” says Niam of JEM. “That proved to be true when they launched the rebel offensive and imported the Janjaweed into Chad.”

On December 18th, Chadian rebels staged an attack on the border town of Adré along with other strategic sites. "Sudan wants to export the war in Darfur to us here," General Abakar Yossef Muhamad Itro, Déby’s nephew and the man charged with defending the refugees and the border, told The New York Times. "They want to use the Janjaweed they armed to terrorize Darfur, to terrorize our population. We will not allow it."

Though the Chadian army succeeded in repulsing the invasion, it was forced to withdraw troops from garrisons on the border to fortify Adré, leaving many Sudanese refugees to the mercy of the Janjaweed. As Suliman Baldo, Africa Program Director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) says, “They abandoned the refugees, exposing them to marauding attacks from the Janjaweed and Chadian rebel groups. Déby is not in the business of protection. He is desperate for survival.”

The United States now gets 18 percent of its oil from sub-Saharan Africa. Under intense competition for resources from developing economies ravenous for energy such as China and India, activists and development bureaucrats simply have little leverage to demand fiscal probity or human rights guarantees.

Whatever Déby’s true feelings about the refugees or the crisis in Darfur, his government declared that it was in a “state of belligerence” with Sudan. A few days after that, Chad’s legislature passed the revised Petroleum Reserve Management Law—“security” was made a priority sector; future changes to priority sectors could now be made by decree; and the future generations fund was scrapped. “It’s corruption with a purpose,” says Robert Collins, an expert on African history and professor emeritus at the University of Santa Barbara, California. “What [Déby] wanted was more freedom to buy guns.”

But in Chad, loyalty also has its price, says ICG’s Suliman Baldo: “Yes, Déby wanted to buy arms but he also wanted cash to buy off opponents who had defected and preemptively buy the allegiance of those whose loyalty was in question.”

On January 6, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz declared Chad’s revision of the law a breach of contract and froze all assets from the pipeline project. It also suspended all loans—a total of $125 million in revenues—and a further $124 million in assistance. Chad demanded that revenues be released and deposited in its own central bank, threatening to “close the faucets” and shut down oil production altogether if a new agreement was not reached. The following month, Janjaweed gunmen pushed across the desert into Chad in a new offensive, driving 20,000 Chadians from their homes.

Despite signing a February 8 peace agreement in Tripoli, the ICG reported that Chad and Sudan were in fact engaged in an “escalating proxy war.” Human Rights Watch reported that some Janjaweed raids appeared to be coordinated with those of the Chadian rebels, and others were supported by Sudanese army troops with helicopter gunships. According to a report from globalsecurity.org, captured JEM rebels have been found to have Chadian identification and arms.

On April 13, Chadian rebels invaded Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, seeking to topple Déby. After a pitched battle in the city streets, government forces defeated the rebels with the aid of JEM fighters. Déby promptly severed diplomatic relations with Sudan, accusing it of supporting and training the rebels, and threatened to expel all 200,000 Sudanese refugees if international community did not to do more to stop Khartoum-backed rebels from destabilizing his government.

“Déby had little means to draw the world’s attention to the problems of his regime,” says Suliman Baldo. “He wanted to pretend as if Sudan is totally responsible for the problem when his own corruption and repression was also a factor. He’s responsible as an undemocratic and corrupt ruler. But it’s convenient to throw blame elsewhere. He knew exactly what to do. His threat to expel the refugees was a desperate tactic to gain the world’s attention, and it was successful.”

On April 27th, the World Bank reached an interim deal with the government of Chad. Where before the bank had refused to even consider any changes to the revenue management scheme, it now conceded an increase in unsupervised government spending to 30 percent. Though the bank secured a promise that 70 percent of oil revenues would still be spent on poverty reduction, no agreement was reached on the status of the future generations fund. Loans to Chad were reinstated and Déby’s government will receive a third of the funds in the frozen escrow account until a permanent deal is negotiated. "The interim deal is a face-saving facade at best,” says Scott Pegg, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University and a longtime critic of the pipeline project. “The project got gutted. Déby gutted it and got most of what he wanted.”

“The oil revenue arrangement is degenerating into an elaborate intellectual con game,” says Pegg. “It’s presented as if it’s working when even before the collapse of the arrangement there were fundamental problems in every area…. The failure of this project, with the backing and support that it had, calls into question how the equation can be changed from doing good for governments and companies and their shareholders to do doing good for the people of these countries.”

On May 3, Idriss Déby was elected president for a third term with an official vote tally of 64.67 percent. Opposition groups challenged the results but the international community swiftly accepted them. “This is a regime that is politically dead, relying on military rule to stay alive,” says Suliman Baldo. “It’s scandalous that the international community is helping Déby’s regime to survive.” But, as Baldo points out, everyone is serving their own interests. “The French have a military base that they keep for the protection of their national security interest and strategic interest in Africa. They have been instrumental to Déby’s survival.” The United States also trains Déby’s army in counterterrorism, aiming to deny groups affiliated with Al Qaeda a safe harbor. And Chad is now an oil-producing nation. “The long-term US strategy is to shift a larger share of its energy supply to Africa,” says Baldo. Stability has become of paramount concern. A few weeks after the election, Human Rights Watch reported that it had discovered evidence of a Janjaweed massacre of more than 100 people in a cluster of villages in Eastern Chad. The massacre had taken place at precisely the same time as the Chadian rebel offensive on N’Djamena. Human Rights Watch claimed that Sudanese militias were now moving further and further into Chad, shooting villagers or hacking them to death with machetes and looting their possessions. Since the outset of the conflict in Darfur, 220,000 people have fled across the border into Chad; two million civilians have been displaced and at least 180,000 have been killed.

The future of the revenue management scheme for Chad’s pipeline project is very much in doubt. Many critics say they are not at all surprised that it collapsed, but defenders of the project say the outcome could have been much worse. The construction of the pipeline has in fact brought measurable economic benefits to Chad. As of December 2005, the project had yielded $300 million in revenues for public services and led to GDP per capita almost doubling in each year since the pipeline went into operation, though the extent to which benefits are reaching ordinary Chadians is difficult to determine. And yet extraction was most likely inevitable, say the project’s supporters. Better that it should be undertaken with World Bank support and oversight than without, as has been the case in Sudan, where the wishes of civil society activists have been ignored. The hundreds of millions of dollars the government has spent on its military since extraction began in 2000 represent 60 percent of all oil revenues. And Human Rights Watch accuses Khartoum of terrorizing and murdering farmers throughout Sudan with its military and proxy militias to clear oil-rich areas, and of systematically starving non-Arabized regions of development funds. Led by a Chinese company that faces no consumer pressure or boycott threats, the extraction consortium in Sudan need not concern itself with anything but profit. "The Sudanese government is delighted to have the Chinese,” says Robert Collins. “They do good work and don’t ask any questions. The Sudanese government isn’t interested in human rights and neither is the Chinese government." The dilemma, however, is that with global demand for oil soaring a country such as Chad might very well choose to partner with investors from countries that ask fewer questions. “Many of these companies are not shy or scared to take advantage of these opportunities,” says Scott Pegg. “They don’t care about democracy or human rights as long as the oil is flowing. If Chad wants to shoot 200 people, China’s not going to care.” Robert Collins, a consultant to Chevron in Sudan in the 1970′s, says that many of his former colleagues in the oil business are “terrified” of Chad making just such a move. But Collins himself is skeptical: “I don’t think it’s going to occur. ExxonMobil has put millions into this. Déby’s making money, and ExxonMobil has worked very hard on public relations. ExxonMobil is just too big and powerful. The government might huff and puff a little bit but there’s too much of a financial linking.” The fact remains that the United States now gets 18 percent of its oil from sub-Saharan Africa. Under intense competition for resources from developing economies ravenous for energy such as China and India, activists and development bureaucrats simply have little leverage to demand fiscal probity or human rights guarantees. “When Déby had to, he went along with lots of things he didn’t want because it was the best deal he could get,” says Scott Pegg. “Now that supply is tight and oil prices are high, now that disrupting Chad’s supply can potentially spike prices, he’s trying to shed a lot of those things. And without a fundamental change in the market that’s how these things will play out.” Whatever the details of the final deal between Chad’s government and the World Bank, the chances of restoring greater revenue controls are slim. And however much worse the alternative might have been, the dream of a model framework for “transforming oil wealth into direct benefits for the poor, the vulnerable and the environment” has been dashed. “It gives me no pleasure to be right about this. I wish I was wrong,” says Pegg. “That’s the real tragedy: the people who ought to be benefiting from this really haven’t.”

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