It has been two years since I was last in Chad after a long stint as a correspondent in London. Not long enough to forget a place you might think, but when I arrived recently in N’Djamena the sweltering dead of night, I got lost.
First on leaving the airport, I found a succession of new wide boulevards lined with park benches, the tarmac replete with fresh white markings, I could not work out how to get to my hotel; then on to the centre of town where the huge gendarmerie base opposite President Deby’s ‘Palais Rose’ has vanished, to be replaced by the ‘Place de Republic’ – an enormous open space containing a triumphal arch, statues of freed slaves and a collection of animals (antelope, horse and a squirrel), giant TV screens which were playing to no-one in the dark, and of course the ubiquitous Chadian tricolour. Where had the old city gone?
President Deby has been on a passionate campaign to transform the city into ‘La Vitrine d’Afrique’ or the ‘showcase’ of Africa. Finally able to command the now significant sums Chad is earning every year from its oil resources, the government has redesigned the centre of the capital from a dusty backwater with only about 30km of paved roads in 2007 to a shining new city. When I was first preparing to come here from Mali in 2008, I remember being told, ‘Niamey is the small dusty version of Bamako, and N’Djamena is the small dusty version of Niamey’. That all seems to be changing.
It has not been easy. When Chad’s oil project came on-stream in 2003 an agreement had been drawn up with the World Bank, which funded the construction of a pipeline built to Cameroon so the oil could be exported, with the express aim of trying to ensure the revenues would be used to benefit the whole population. This flagship scheme designed to put an end to what’s commonly known as the ‘oil curse’ went badly wrong, with the Chadian government re-writing the agreements in parliament and the World Bank withdrawing completely from the project in 2008.
The oil companies have stayed however, and over the years found a relatively peaceable co-existence with the government. Yet all the oil continued to be exported and ordinary Chadians could be forgiven for asking what benefit it was to them. When the Chinese National Petroleum Company arrived in the late 2000s they promised something different – cashing in on their approximately 20,000 bpd concession in the Bongor Basin, the Chinese have built a refinery at Djermaya which began to produce diesel and petrol for local consumption at the end of 2011. Although this relationship has also been characteristically fraught – the Chinese chairman of the refinery was declared ‘persona non grata’ in Chad earlier this year in a row over the price the Chinese were receiving for the fuel – it has allowed Deby to give a palpable demonstration of the fruits of the oil boom. Diesel is now about 520 CFA at the pump – a guaranteed price – and noticeably cheaper than when I was last in Chad, when all of its domestic fuel was imported from Cameroon or Nigeria.
But life is still not easy in Chad – food and living costs are excessively high (Chad recently came in as the third most expensive city in the world for expatriates and those costs feed down to ordinary Chadians), and hasty promises to increase civil service salaries by up to 40% in the next two years will be difficult to achieve. Once the visitor to N’Djamena leaves the shiny new presidential quarter, very little has changed, with bad roads, few businesses and substandard housing. In the countryside, food production is poor, over three million people are facing food shortages this year – the country’s deficit is 400,000 tonnes and government stocks are only about 40,000 tonnes. UNICEF estimates that 100,000 children could die if assistance isn’t brought urgently. Literacy levels are still low, and the country is struggling to cope with outbreaks of polio, meningitis and measles.
Four years ago rebels backed by Sudan made a daring attack on N’Djamena – reaching the spot opposite the presidential palace where the new triumphal arch now stands – and came within hours of unseating Deby. The resolution of that crisis was largely due to rapprochement between Sudan and Chad, and not because Deby had done much to recognise the populations’ and indeed the rebels’ grievances. Speaking to many people in the city I found a deep level of cynicism about last year’s presidential elections which Deby won with 83% of the vote after the opposition boycotted what they called ‘a farce’. Changes to the centre of town have been criticised for being superficial and because they yield much quicker results that investments in education and health.
Although Deby can be commended for starting to show that oil money can make a difference, as the threat of conflict spilling over from Sudan, Libya and even northern Nigeria (Boko Haram) remains, it will take more than cheap petrol to guarantee the country avoids the kind of social upheaval seen elsewhere.
Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist with a focus on African issues. She has a particular interest in the Sahel.