There was a dust storm on our first morning in Ndjamena and the city – so warm and dark the night before – took on an air of sickliness, as if something worse was expected to happen. The light was grey and a shroud of dust hung where the sky used to be. In the streets, people seemed discomfited, squinting against the little eddies of sand thrown up now and again by light gusts of wind. Even though it was only midday there was an impression that everybody was on their way home early, the men who sped by on their motorbikes and the women who walked on the pavements carrying baskets on their heads. Many of the streets were unpaved and the buildings were low and colourless and it was difficult to get any vivid sense that this was a city at all.
Ndjamena has an area called the ‘European Quarter’; usually it is easy to tell the difference between those well-to-do streets where the expats live and the other neighbourhoods, but this city is so flattened out that it was not immediately possible to distinguish the strip of French restaurants and supermarkets, the small bookstore and the airline offices at Avenue Charles de Gaulle as a place for the wealthy. The city presents itself to the visitor in a series of little pictures: a man with a beard reading the Koran to a group kneeling under a tent; Pernod and vegetable oil bottles full of petrol on sale at tables placed at the side of the road; small wooden shacks surrounded by old cars with their bonnets raised, oily engines and machine parts; kiosks selling cigarettes and phone cards and, on every wooden or corrugated fence, signs for the mobile phone company, Celtel.
At the offices where we went to get our papers, a soldier in a green uniform walked across the broad front yard where a car with no wheels appeared to have sunk into the sand. The dark and poky rooms were bare save for dust-covered filing cabinets and an unsteady metal-framed chair with yellow foam sprouting from the seat. Bored men laboured over enormous typewriters under the cooling breeze of a whirring fan. In one room stacks of old papers were piled high all along one wall, bound together in dusty grey bundles like forgotten bank-notes, tattered at the edges as if rats had nibbled them. The sound of motorbikes and the smell of petrol fumes came and went. On the cracked cement pavement a barefoot boy passed holding out a box of eggs for sale in the palm of his hand. He was followed by another boy holding a set of silver tools in the crook of one arm, like a game-show compère displaying a prize to an audience. In his other hand he gripped a canvas bag containing a bicycle pump and a machete.
On our way back to the hotel we drove past a crowd of people across the road from the French consulate. Soldiers or policemen stood by the entrance tapping long wooden sticks against the heels of their shoes. The crowd, men in ragged shirts and trousers, were relations of veterans of French campaigns from Vietnam to Algeria, waiting to collect pensions. Most were still there the next day and the day after that. Chad was invented by France at the end of the last century as its more adventurous colonialists pushed in from their conquests on the west coast of Africa. Until 1973 Ndjamena was called Fort Lamy, after the French commander who was killed while trying to subdue the Africans. For the white soldier or administrator Fort Lamy was an unforgiving outpost of French Equatorial Africa, seven hundred miles from the Atlantic in a vast space of desert and scrub. In the mid 1920s a traveller setting out from Paris would take four or five months to reach Chad, where he would find only a handful of French merchants. But from here the French created a country, drawing borders that pulled together different clans, religions and traditions. Muslims from the north became fellow-countrymen with southerners whom they used to enslave. In some places the French imposed themselves brutally; in others they were hardly seen. One of the French commanders who had once celebrated the conquest of Chad as a great achievement later confessed to second thoughts: ‘I said to myself, when I was alone, that it truly was not worth having killed so many and having suffered so much to conquer such a forsaken country.’ Since independence in 1960, the French have pulled the strings of Chad’s history when it suits them, a state of affairs described by one historian as ‘sovereignty under surveillance’.
Chad is still one of the poorest countries in the world, most of its territory arid mountain and desert. It has no access to the sea and no railway. But it has found oil. Last year, from an oilfield in the south, a consortium led by Esso began pumping around two hundred thousand barrels a day through more than a thousand kilometres of pipeline to tankers off the coast of Cameroon. It’s the biggest single investment of any kind in sub-Saharan Africa. The government of Chad stands to earn a hundred million dollars a year over the next decade or two. In a new version of ‘sovereignty under surveillance’, the country has made a deal with the World Bank under which it will spend the money on reducing poverty. The Bank is supposed to help local groups to make sure that the money is spent wisely. But although the civil wars that convulsed Chad after independence ended fourteen years ago, the idea of checks and balances is still very fragile. Three years ago President Idriss Deby put all the main opposition leaders in jail after a dispute over an election. He released them after a phone call from the president of the World Bank. The Bank is so powerful because Chad is dependent on foreign aid. Some Chadians urged it not to give its sanction to the oil exploration until political institutions were much stronger; they fear the oil money will be used to strengthen a repressive government or even reignite the wars of the past.
Ndjamena has been fought over many times, but it is getting more difficult to find the marks of war. Grass and weeds have grown up around bomb sites; occasionally, passing the same corner for the third or fourth time, it is possible to notice bullet marks on a crumbling gable end. Every morning around half past eight, two French Mirage jets would scorch their way across the sky above our hotel. At lunchtime the pilots would come sauntering into the lobby. And in the afternoon they would be found drinking beer in the bar beside the swimming pool.
Much of the violence that broke out after the French left formally in 1960 had its origins in how they had ruled – in the way they had set the south against the north, for instance. At first, the French sent Legionnaires for brief campaigns to protect their favoured factions. But in the late seventies Libya invaded the Muslim north and within a couple of years Colonel Qaddafi’s troops controlled two thirds of Chad. This got the Americans interested: General Alexander Haig, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, talked of giving Qaddafi ‘a bloody nose’. The French and the Americans supported Hissen Habre, the victor in the civil war of 1982, and slowly the Libyans were pushed back. For as long as they could they turned a blind eye to Habre’s repression; he is said to have killed forty thousand people. After Habre was challenged by his best commander, Idriss Deby, who had beaten the Libyans across the desert, the French switched sides again. Deby took power in 1990.
The oil minister of Chad, Jusuf Abasallah, wasn’t in the country then; his family had sent him to Germany to escape the war and he studied law there. At his office in an ugly, modern building towards the edge of Ndjamena, he wears a dark blue suit and is young, confident and friendly. It’s odd, then, to notice on his desk a little ceramic red and yellow pick-up truck crowded with little miniture soldiers with guns. Whenever we have a break in our interview he lights a cigarette. I asked him what he would say if, when he stopped to buy cigarettes on his way home, a stallholder asked him to explain how the oil would make life better. He took a puff of the cigarette and said he would explain to the man in the kiosk that he needed to see the impact of the oil with an economist’s eye: if you wait ten years you will have better roads, electricity in your house and maybe a telephone. This is the kind of thing the World Bank likes to hear. But we also met an older, less charming man called Quoroom Kabaddi, who is referred to as the ‘Oil Co-Ordinator’ and has a more powerful position than Mr Abasallah, being responsible for negotiating with Esso and the World Bank on President Deby’s behalf. So long as there were no security problems, Mr Kabaddi said, then the oil money would be spent on improving life for stallholders and other ordinary people. But nobody could predict the future and in exceptional circumstances the money could be used for the security of the state. ‘When the government has to defend itself there is no minimum price’, Mr Kabaddi said.
Esso has its own little terminal at the edge of the airport where you’re checked in, searched and given yellow laminated boarding cards for the one-hour flight on a small plane to the oilfield at Kome in the south. Many of the people here at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning were foreign oil workers. When we flew into Chad from Paris the Air France plane was full of Americans with southern accents who were talking to each other about the price of cows in Louisiana and what kind of mileage they got from their pick-up trucks. When they get to Ndjamena they check in for the night in the Novotel and then pick up the company flight to the oilfield, where they stay for eight weeks before flying back home for eight weeks’ rest.
Most of the flight was through a cloud of dust. When we began to descend, the Longone river opened out below us, patches of green stretching away from its banks. We could see little villages and herds of cattle. Here and there neat rectangles of red dirt stood out like tidy garden plots, some of them marked with white picket fencing. These were the sites prepared for new drilling. We landed on an airstrip of laterite and were taken on a minibus to the Esso offices, elaborate prefabs constructed from materials shipped from the United States and carried on hundreds of trucks and train carriages from the Cameroon coast.
We had come on the plane with Ron Royal, the boss of Esso in Chad, a Canadian who has spent most of his life working in the oil business. In contrast to the others on board, who were casually dressed, Ron was wearing a navy business suit, a white shirt and tie and polished black city shoes which, though he was a tall man in his late fifties, made him look dainty as he walked across the red clay. On the plane he had sat by himself in the front seat. Ron’s pitch was that Chad was very lucky Esso had even considered coming here. He liked to say that the economics of the oilfield were not ‘robust’; in his thirty-five years with Esso he had never seen a project with such low returns. But he hinted that Esso was looking beyond immediate gain: the exploration teams had found that new satellite wells looked even more promising than the base from where the oil started pumping in late 2003.
Ron talked of meeting President Deby as if these encounters between the Canadian oil executive who wore his navy suit in the bush on a Saturday and an all-powerful president who had spent most of his life making war in the desert were between two worldly-wise old stagers. Ron had reminded the president that even income of $100 million a year, when divided up among Chad’s population of nine million, left only $12 a head per year. ‘That rang a few bells.’ Nonetheless he could see how Chad was growing prosperous. When he came to Ndjamena from the Esso office in Bordeaux a couple of years ago, Ron left his sixteen-year-old Mercedes behind for fear of being too ostentatious. Now, he said with the air of a man impressed by a shiny car, he had recently seen a 7-series BMW and a brand-new Mercedes on the same street.
We spent most of an afternoon with Ron touring the villages around the oilfield where, in recognition of disturbance caused by the heavy machinery and the wide trench dug for the pipeline, Esso was engaged in good works for the locals. Some of the discarded wood from packing cases had made desks in a school classroom in one village; in another they were building a solar-powered water pump to replace the hand pump. Ron was genial in the presence of half-naked children and their mothers. Later, though, on the bus, he confessed to finding rural Chad a shock. When his friends back in Canada had asked him about it the best way he could describe it to them was by saying it was like a National Geographic TV special.
To judge from his account on the bus, he spent most of his time telling the Chadians what Esso couldn’t do for them. Local officials had asked
Ron if he could give them four-wheel-drives to come to meetings, and he had said no. The Chadians had asked for a hundred thousand dollars to pave the roads but he had said no. The government wanted eighty kilometres of paved road; Esso was building nine. We drove along a wide dirt road carved through the flat, recently green plain. Occasionally lorries and trucks roared by. Mostly it was empty. Then we caught up with a small boy pushing another boy in a kind of wheelchair with pedals. A man was ploughing a little plot to plant ground nuts. In front of us a tanker lorry trundled along, spreading a mixture of water and molasses to keep down the dust. We passed a tree where a bicycle had been left; smoke was rising from the grass nearby.
As we arrived back at the oilfield Ron was urgently called aside by one of the American managers as he got off the bus; we had been waiting on the plane for a while before he reappeared. When we landed once again in Ndjamena, flying in over hundreds of corrugated iron roofs, he rushed away again, barely saying goodbye.
The next day we discovered the cause of this little panic. A rumour was going around that the President of Cameroon, the country where Esso’s pipeline ended up, had died suddenly while playing golf in Switzerland. The rumour turned out to be untrue, but it was the kind of unexpected news that Ron and the other Esso executives dreaded. A few weeks previously there had been a mutiny at an army barracks in Ndjamena. International telephone lines had been cut for forty-eight hours. The official story was that the mutiny had been staged by a group of disaffected soldiers seeking more pay. Other people had their own stories that they would share: that the rebellious soldiers wanted President Deby to go to war on behalf of the Africans in Darfur in Sudan; that some of the soldiers had taken their weapons and disappeared into the interior of the country.
Certainly there was an air of insecurity in Ndjamena. At the World Bank offices a sign had been recently affixed to one of the doors: ‘For security reasons due to recent events in Ndjamena staff and visiting missions are advised not to stay in the office later than 7pm.’ One evening we had gone to dinner at a local (that is to say, African) restaurant much further out of town than the three or four places run by French expatriates that were usually favoured by foreign visitors. On the way back, our taxi, driven by an old man, was pulled over by several men in military uniforms near a roundabout. Out of my window on the passenger side I could see two men being pushed around. A soldier or policeman – it was difficult to tell which – put his head through the driver’s side and asked for our passports. Then another soldier pulled open the driver’s door and dragged the old man outside. One of us had no passport, and the very agitated soldier, clearly drunk, screamed at him in the back seat: ‘C’est très grave! C’est très grave!’ He turned towards me again and said, more wheedling than screaming, that he needed to eat, bringing his thumb and fingers towards his mouth. I gave him five thousand Central African Francs and that was enough. The driver returned and we set off again. Approaching the centre of town the driver saw another military truck approaching and took off down side streets.
The biggest paradox of Chad as an oil producer is that most of the streets of Ndjamena are dark after six o’clock, the kind of darkness that, relieved by occasional flickers of lamps and candles, gives the sensation of a permanent power cut. The headlights of the car make a small tunnel of light through the murk: cyclists and pedestrians appear from nowhere. People gather at candlelit tables by the roadside or do their grocery shopping at markets where dozens of little kerosene lights barely illuminate slabs of fish and bags of rice laid out on rows of tables. The city’s power plant has about half the capacity of the plant that runs Ron Royal’s oilfield. They say that at night the oilfield can be seen from space.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 17 Winter 2004-05