For more than 15 years, landlocked Chad has been racked by religious, ethnic, and political dissension between the Christian or animist south and the Muslim north. Periodically these simmering disputes have dragged the large but sparsely populated desert land into violent civil war.
Last March, heavy fighting broke among the four principal northern and southern factions. But the strife rapidly developed into a bitter power struggle between two Muslim groups: the Armed Forces of the North (FAN) of Hissien Habre, and the Popular Armed Forces (FAP) of President Goukhouni Woddei, whose faction enjoys Libyan support. Since then, more than 110,000 Chadians have sought refuge mainly in neighboring Cameroon but also in Sudan. Some 6,000 persons are believed to have died. Food, shelter, and medical supplies are being provided by the UNHCR, the French government, and various volunteer agencies.
Attempts by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) have so far failed to bring about a peace settlement between the two rival factions. The reported presence of an estimated 2,000 Libyan troops advancing on N'Djamena, the Chadian capital, has further aggravated the conflict.
The French, who pulled out the last of their troops from the former colony in May, regard Libyan intervention as a highly dangerous development. Sources maintain that no pan-African organization has the military means or political ability to stop such a military excursion despite loud protests by President Senghor of Senegal.
Some observes feel that the government of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing is not keen on a confrontation with Libya and is therefore taking a neutral stance. "The French are afraid of losing the extremely lucrative Libyan arms market," notes one cynical source.
One suggested scenario is that the French might agree to "divide" Chad into a Libyan- influenced north and a French-influenced south. Traditionally, the French have always regarded the south as their "zone utile" (useful zone) because of its agricultural advantages over the more arid north.
Others maintain that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has no intention of losing any control over Chad as a whole because of his pan-Arab ambitions.
"Unfortunately, unless some compromise can be worked out between the two factions, preferably through OAU mediation, this conflict could drag on until one of the factions weakens militarily," says one Africa specialist here. "But that still won't solve the country's traditional north-south problems."