Chad: a primer

Like, I suspect, a good many others, I have been putting off doing anything about Chad. I was having enough on my plate trying to get clear about El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and President Rea-gan.

But apparently Chad can be neglected no longer. With the USS Eisenhower in the Gulf of Sidra defying Colonel Qaddafi of Libya for the sake of the regime running things down in the capital of Chad, and with Mr. Reagan sending American AWACS with fighter cover to Sudan for help to the government of Chad - I have been doing my homework on Chad.

Herewith, a primer on the latest center of world trouble.

Chad is a big country, about twice the size of Texas, but with few people, fewer than 5 million.

Mostly it is dry, being on the edge of the Sahara Desert. That is why its people are among the poorest in Africa. Their per capita GNP is about $160.

Chad should really be two countries, not one.

The people in the north, bordering on Libya, are mostly Arab Muslims. Ethnically they are kin to Berbers and Tuaregs, the original inhabitants of North Africa. They are much the same as the people in Libya. The nomadic tribesmen who live in southern Libya and northern Chad are unaware of being different or living in different countries.

The people of the south are black. They are kin to the tribes of eastern Nigeria which takes a particular interest in their welfare. Ethnically, southern Chad belongs with Nigeria.

Chad used to be part of French Equatorial Africa. During the French period the French encouraged the southern blacks who became politically dominant. Some became Christian and were educated in France. French-speaking, educated Christian blacks were the ruling class when Chad was given its independence from France in 1960.

The Arab Muslims of the north, roughly half of the total population, never liked being under the rule of Christian blacks who had been educated in France. The northern Arabs began a rebellion in 1968. In effect there has been an endemic civil war in Chad ever since, with the northern Muslims gradually taking over from the southern blacks.

There have been dreadful massacres conducted by Arabs of blacks, and by blacks of Arabs - equally. By now the French-speaking black elite class has largely been wiped out.

French troops went back in 1978 in a last effort to salvage something of the black Christian leadership. There was heavy fighting during early 1979 with the French on the side of the blacks. A compromise was patched together. The French finally left with the government nominally in the hands of a coalition. But it has not lasted.

Two northern Arab leaders, once partners, are now the most important men in the country, and bitter rivals. One is Goukhouni Woddei. The other is Hissein Habre. In 1978 Goukhouni was made head of a compromise government and was backed by Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. Mr. Habre did not like that arrangement and rebelled against it.

In 1981 Habre's rebellion was successful. He is said to have had some CIA support. Goukhouni fled north to Libya where Colonel Qaddafi outfitted him with a new army and sent him south to regain his presidential chair, if he could. He also sent Libyan troops and bombers along in support. The war is being fought briskly on both sides.

It is doubtful that either Mr. Habre or Mr. Goukhouni has ideological inclinations. Either will accept aid from wherever it may come. Colonel Qaddafi has usually supported Goukhouni since 1978. The French and Americans therefore automatically support his rival. But the French, having seen their favorite proteges, the French-educated blacks of the south, eliminated from the running, are less interested now.

The underlying issue is whether the Muslim Arabs of North Africa are to be able to extend their control south of the Sahara, and by how far. Colonel Qaddafi, being a fanatic Muslim Arab himself, is naturally supporting the Arab cause. Because Colonel Qaddafi is a political and military client of Moscow, Mr. Reagan must support the other side, which happens, in this case, also to be Arab.

There is mineral wealth involved, but it is largely in the north and is in effect in Colonel Qaddafi's hands no matter who wins in the south.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.