On August 11, 1960, Chad gained its independence from France. But the post-independence euphoria was short-lived as Francois Tombalbaye, the country's president, proved to be an autocratic leader. Almost immediately he banned all political parties - paving the way for nearly 40 years of civil war.
"Since then each regime that rose to power has had to live with this democratic violence. To this day we can't get rid of it," Saleh Kebzabo, the head of opposition in the National Assembly of Chad, says.
The cycle of violence continued after Tombalbaye's death and was often inflamed by Chad's neighbours.
Hissene Habre, Tombalbaye's successor, came to power in 1982, but he too ruled with an iron fist. Under his watch close to 20,000 people were killed and many more disappeared.
"The Hissene Habre regime was like a bloody dictatorship - no liberties, no freedom of opinion," Delphine Djiraibe, a human rights lawyer, says.
A 'tropical' democracy
In 1990 Idriss Deby, a military commander, took control of the country. He has been in power ever since. With his rule multi-party politics returned to Chad, giving a semblance of freedom to its citizens.
"We have experienced 20 years of democracy, since President Deby took control. I don't want to sound ungrateful and say it's not a real democracy but let's call it a democracy with a tropical flavour," Kebzabo says.
"But the reality remains that there are issues. There is a measure of liberty allowed but with consequences. So I think there is room for improvement and we are fighting for that."
Throughout Chad's post-independence changes, the influence of its former colonial master has remained constant.
"Fast forward to today and you can say that we are being subjected to neocolonialism. Because you have an independent state that is being dragged or carried along by France and that creates problems," Kebzabo says.
"Each and every government that came to power post independence has had the support of the French military to help crush the rebellion."
|Almost 40 years of civil war took its toll on Chad's economy [GALLO/GETTY]
The years of political unrest took their toll on the country's economy, which relied primarily on arable and livestock farming, as well as cotton exports to France. But the discovery of oil promised to transform Chad.
"It was in 1973 when Esso discovered the first oil in Doba in southern Chad," Tabe Eugene N'Gaolam, Chad's oil minister, says.
But constant violence and insecurity kept investors away and it was only in 2000, with the backing of the World Bank, that oil giant Esso decided to build a pipeline.
The Chad-Cameroon pipeline would carry Chad's oil from Doba, in the south of the country, to a port in neighbouring Cameroon for export to world markets.
Under pressure from civil rights groups, the World Bank devised a brand new model of investment. In return for its backing and funds, the Chadian government agreed to divert a large percentage of the oil revenues towards the country's development.
In 2003 the oil began to flow, but any hope of a peace dividend was fleeting. Citing increased unrest and the threat of rebellion, Deby redirected oil revenues to military spending. The World Bank's repeated protests fell on deaf ears and in 2008 it finally withdrew.
But oil production continued.
"I think it was only a misunderstanding between the World Bank and the Chadian government. The terms of the agreement were that a share of the money should be kept for future generations. But the Chadian government decided to prioritise other sectors," N'Gaolam says. "And what I don't understand is why the World Bank blames Chad when they used the oil revenue to buy weapons and beat out their aggressors. When there is no peace there will never be development."
Incoherent social policy
Perhaps the biggest criticism leveled at the government is that not enough of the oil wealth trickles down to Chad's population.
"Today, it's been five or six years since we started exporting petroleum ... but the ordinary Chadian does not benefit from it, because there is a lack of good governance," Kebzabo says.
But in the capital, Ndjamena, the old is being swept aside to make room for the new - roads, hospitals and schools are being built and mud houses are being replaced by brick ones.
"I believe that oil had a positive impact on the quality of life of Chadians. Our average income per year went from $160 a few years ago to $480 today," says Ali Abdel-Rahmane Haggar, an economic analyst.
"And it's clear that we are living longer. Men are living past 52 years of age when previously their life expectancy was 45. For women it was 49, today they are living to 55 and this is because of the availability of health care. Infant mortality has also dropped."
But for Djiraibe the facts and figures mask a lack of coherent social policy.
"When you come to Ndjamena you will see that there are roads, there are buildings but for who [are] those roads and ... buildings being built?" Delphine asks.
"You have that and just across the road you have people that are living with no means - not a house, not sanitation, nothing to eat."
Outside Ndjamena much of the country is underdeveloped, with most people working as nomadic herders in the arid north or farmers in the south. But the towns and villages where oil was discovered are different. The government has set aside five per cent of the oil windfall to develop the areas surrounding the wells - turning once sleepy villages such as Doba into boomtowns.
"There are many people who come to Doba to find work. Doba is being developed, it's a nice town," says Jibril Ayunanbe, a taxi driver who moved to Doba from the capital.
"We have [a] commercial centre, paved roads and there are many buildings that were built recently and more are on the way and that's a good thing. What is not good is that there is a lot of prostitution. I have to say that in general we are not worried about changes to society, but we are scared because the Chadian government can take away the land we live on and say that this is land that belongs to the state."
Such fears are not far-fetched. Marsiel Diranay is a farmer whose land was appropriated by the government.
"Esso sent an American woman; she came to work with us here in the village. She explained to us that Esso will be coming to exploit the oil here and that people whose land was occupied would be compensated and that the village will receive help in developing its infrastructure," Diranay explains.
"It's true that I received money as compensation for my land. But now I don't have any left. I invested it in a big house in Bibidjay so I can rent it out but this house was destroyed by a storm and now I have no money and no land," he says.
Djiraibe believes that people in the oil region are now poorer than they were before oil was discovered.
"Their lands have been taken for the oil project. They get compensation but without preparation. The cash that they have received has been expended like that and now they find themselves with nothing."
A new colonial master?
|Many complain that the oil profits have not trickled down to those most in need [GALLO/GETTY]
The precious mineral remains primarily in the hands of foreign entities, with China the latest to increase its influence in the region.
"China and the African countries have a potential to cooperate together, not only in the energy and oil sector but also in the industrial one," Hang Mingyuan, the commercial attache of the Chinese embassy in Chad, says. "China's direct investments in Africa today surpass $5bn."
In 2007, China National Petroleum Cooperation (CNPC) struck black gold in Chad. Since then China, unlike Esso, has diversified its activities in the country - building Chad's first ever oil refinery which, when completed in 2011, will have the capacity to refine 20,000 barrels of oil per day.
Ahmat Khazali Acyl, the managing director of Chad's National Energy Company, CNPC's partner in the joint venture, says: "We [have been] producing crude oil since 2003. We are in 2010 and we are still importing [the] finished product for our engines. For us it does not make sense. So in a way we are becoming independent. We're using our own product and we'll notice the price at the pump."
Acyl says the refinery will be run largely by Chadians. But the workers constructing it are mostly Chinese and China has been criticised for bringing their work force with them rather than creating jobs for locals. They also stand accused of jealously guarding their technology and expertise, but insist they are training Chadians to take over.
Unlike Western donors and investors, China has a non-interference policy, but exactly what this means is open to debate. For critics it allows China to flout international requirements and prop up despotic regimes. But for those who are tired of the conditions placed on them by Western donors and investors, it presents an opportunity.
"Whatever is going on now it's actually developing the country. The schools that our kids are going to, the health district that we're building, the hospitals, the wells for clean water. Everything is going into helping out people with our own resources. Finding partners to get those resources out of the ground I don't think is a form of neocolonialism," Acyl says.
The 'curse' of oil
But stability remains elusive and the flow of petrodollars has made Chad a bigger prize. The rebels have grown more determined to wrest control from Deby - who has responded by consolidating his grip on power - and in the last decade have made numerous bids to take over the country.
"It is a curse. Now we are in the midst of armed conflict because of the oil money," Delphine says.
And while the nation makes billions of dollars annually in oil revenue, many of its people remain destitute. "We have a high unemployment rate; almost 40 per cent of the active population do not work. We have a bad economic plan ... [and] corruption ... has made things more expensive," Haggar says.
This January, Chad and Sudan signed a peace treaty, vowing to put an end to their funding of and support for rebel groups in each other's countries. Presidential elections are due to take place in 2011 and the opposition is hoping that this time around they will be free and fair.
"In the last two years the opposition signed an accord with the majority government to improve the democratic process. And that's what's happening currently," Kebzabo says.
But it is clear that the nation still has a long way to go before its people begin to reap the rewards of peace and oil profits. Fifty years after gaining its freedom from France, Chad's struggle to be truly independent continues.
Source: Al Jazeera