Déby has been president ever since. There is a new bridge across the Chari, and much of the masonry that was pockmarked by rounds from heavy machine guns has been replastered. There have been coup plots, real and rumored, but none so serious that Déby's boatmen had to prepare the river barges. He has kept out of the fighting in Darfur, no mean feat since his Zaghawa kinsmen are among the belligerents. To cap it all, the oil in the south that everyone had known for years was waiting patiently underground for the fighting to stop, has started to flow.
It is no longer risible to talk of a Chadian state. But in the tripod with the World Bank and the oil companies, one leg is still looking distinctly wobbly. It's the one stamped Government of President Idriss Déby. How much weight can it take?
Thérèse Mékombé is a women's rights campaigner who in 1999 supported calls by Chad's NGOs for a two-year moratorium on the oil project on the grounds that nobody was ready for it—neither the government nor civil society nor the southern peasants who would be most affected. The appeal failed, and the next year, after the World Bank gave the project its formal blessing, construction blasted ahead.
Mékombé comes across as a practical, hands-on sort of person when we meet in one of N'Djamena's two international hotels during the baking heat of a January afternoon. She wears a yellow robe and a matching headdress.
I can't help making a positive mental note when I see that she drives a small car. As one of the members of the Collège de Contrôle, the oil revenue oversight committee, she is one of the most influential people in Chad.
"We know what has happened in other oil-producing countries—Nigeria, Congo, and Gabon—and their experience of failure is what motivated us," she says.
"As for the NGOs, they are at least some deterrent to those who seek to profit from our naïveté, our incompetence, our lack of time to prepare for the arrival of oil."
Like a lot of Chadians, Mékombé's education in petroleum matters has been less a fast learning curve than a jump jet's vertical liftoff. But even after all the seminars and foreign field trips, the briefings with oil traders and World Bank economists, some numbers still don't seem to add up. There's always that nagging feeling you might be getting ripped off.
"Oil is a complicated domain. These oil companies are giants and monsters which can crush you," Dobian Assingar, Mékombé's colleague in the collège, tells me during a break from teaching at a packed anticorruption workshop in N'Djamena. Like Mékombé, Assingar, who's a lawyer, emerged from the ranks of prodemocracy NGOs, where distrust of Déby's regime is intense. Real power is perceived as the preserve of the president's family and clan and, more generally, of Muslims from the desert north at the expense of "useful Chad," as the French colonialists used to call the south.
In his courtroom baritone, dressed with the weekend elegance of a Parisian intellectual, Assingar singled out some of the challenges the collège is up against. When the president's older brother, Daoussa Déby, is the director-general of Chad's biggest road construction company, which in turn is bound to bid for some of the most lucrative contracts the oil proceeds are intended to finance, the risk of political pressure is clear.
Assingar says that because the oil money from the consortium is ring-fenced and next to untouchable for now, well-connected people are getting frustrated and dipping greedily into other pots. Government receipts from old-fashioned sources like local taxes and customs duties plunged in 2004. "It is as though those resources became the pocket money of a group of people," he says.
Even before the money started flowing in, Chad ranked 142 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2004. Nigeria occupied 144th position. Only two countries, Bangladesh and Haiti, fared worse.
But when asked to assess the collège's efficacy in 2004, the first year oil revenue hit the treasury coffers, Assingar has a sheet of paper showing that a respectable 76 percent of the funds under its control had been allocated to approved projects. He would see how things pan out in 2005 before deciding whether to remain a member.
"But for sure, as soon as any abuses become flagrant, I shall resign."
Unconvincing explanations came out of the government early this year when Chad's teachers threatened to strike, citing three months' salary arrears, a far longer default than they had suffered in the years before oil.
"Strangely enough it is when the government's pockets are filling up with oil money that it is unable to pay teachers' salaries," said Ange-Gabriel Soulassengar, then a lay worker with the Roman Catholic Church, the institution that has emerged as the oil project's sternest critic in Chad.
Soulassengar was based at the bishopric in Laï, a little town on the eastern bank of the Logone, a wide river that winds sluggishly through the south, blessing its fertile plains and marshes. There is talk of oil being nearby, and although ExxonMobil and the Canadian company EnCana have yet to announce any commercially viable finds, the local people and their clergy are already worried about the prospect.
The 60-mile (100-kilometer) drive north from Doba to Laï took me three hours. Rice paddies and fields of sorghum stretched toward the Logone, and longhorn cattle ambled by, kept in line by the tapping sticks of Fulani herdsmen. Mango trees and rôniers, the sturdy local palm trees, gave shade and shelter. The villages were busy and tidy, with brick huts and earthen grain stores enclosed by walls of matting in square family compounds.
But if this paints a picture of bucolic peace, it would be a serious distortion. Reality for the people of southern Chad is a life expectancy of 48, cut short by malaria and increasingly by AIDS. It is also constant fear of the intentions of anyone armed and in uniform, no choice of what economic activity to pursue apart from farming in a fickle climate, and powerlessness to negotiate a fair price for cash crops.
And the word wafting up the sandy track from Doba is that if oil is discovered, the 15,000 people of Laï should not assume that their existence will change for the better.
Father Alexandre Canales Maza has been a missionary in this area since 1978, when he arrived from Spain at the age of 30, dispatched by the Comboni Missionary Society. Every three years he goes home to Santander to see his family, but his life is here, in southern Chad. When he first arrived, Canales worked as a teacher. Soulassengar was a schoolboy in a neighboring town, and when I visited, 25 years later, they were colleagues in the Laï branch of the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission.
"People's eyes are opened," Canales said. "It is known that Doba wasn't really ready for the oil. No oil has been found at Laï yet, but whatever happens, there will be consequences for us. We're making sure that the people don't lose out and that they know how to make their demands."
When I arrived in Laï, he and Soulassengar had just hosted a workshop in the town about—surprise, surprise—oil. The meeting drew 140 people, including representatives of the oil companies, the Collège de Contrôle, local peasants, and some of the key NGOs. It achieved its main purpose, which was to set up a grassroots network to defend the interests of the local citizenry.
"The population is saying, 'We are the owners of this land, these trees, this fishing ground, so just wait a moment!' " was how Soulassengar summed up the mood.
Who knows? Maybe the oil companies will break the habit of several lifetimes and listen carefully to the peasants of Laï. The whole world will be a better place if they do.
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