Chad: At a Glance
Issue 16
Rock art sites show that hunter-gatherers roamed the area over 9000 years ago. By about the time Christ was born, cereal farming and iron working were practised and camel caravans plodded the trans-Sahara trade routes.


Rock art sites show that hunter-gatherers roamed the area over 9000 years ago. By about the time Christ was born, cereal farming and iron working were practised and camel caravans plodded the trans-Sahara trade routes. Around 650AD pastoral Berbers were the ruling aristocracy in areas north and east of Lake Chad, and by the 14th century different tribes from north and south were regularly clashing. In the early 1600s the Wadai kingdom ruled, using wealth derived from slave trading to subjugate the south.

British explorers Hugh Clapperton and Dixon Denham paid a visit in 1822 but it was France that moved in, and by 1908 Chad was part of French Equatorial Africa. In favouring the south for development they further fuelled the north-south animosity, particularly as they undermined traditional trans-Sahara trade practices. The Muslim theocracy was most irritated.

Starting independence in 1960 with a southern dominated one-party state didn't help either - particularly since, as is often the way in Africa, government became increasingly autocratic, inefficient, corrupt and ethnocentric. Over the next two decades, civil war, with periodic coups d'état, cease-fires and resumptions, raged against a background of shifting alliances and foreign interference. Somehow in 1990 the people of Chad agreed a constitution, which established a single party state under the dictator Hissene Habre. However, formerly-ousted Lt-Gen. Idriss Deby returned, backed by Libya, and Habre fled to exile. Autocratic rule, nepotism, protests and rebellions continued. After multi-party elections in 1996 Deby retained power, but within two years stood accused of genocide by Amnesty International.

In exile, Habre was recently charged with committing atrocities, including murder, during his ruthless eight-year, French-aided rule in the 1980s. However the courts ruled that he could not be tried in Senegal, much to the disgust of Human Rights organisations and Chadian torture victims. Meanwhile the tension between the Arab-Muslim north and the Negro-Christian south continues.


In terms of the 1996 constitution Chad is a multi-party democracy. It is still led by Deby, his Prime Minister and a 125 member unicameral National Assembly. The country is divided into fourteen prefectures and operates a legal system based on French civil law and customary Chadian practices. The country retains strong links with France and francophone African states. It also has ties with the OAU, the EU and the UN.

The government continues to meet resistance, particularly from rebels seeking autonomy in the south. Ethnic conflicts simmer, the bureaucracy is corrupt and inefficient, and the country cannot honour its external debt. As it suffers from limited natural resources, an inhospitable climate, recurring droughts, geographic remoteness and an inadequate infrastructure, its woes continue.

Mercifully the economy has shown some recent improvement, but Chad remains one of the most underdeveloped and aid-dependent countries in the world.

Lake Chad

The country is dominated by a low-lying basin containing Lake Chad, the most significant body of water in the Sahel. The lake, only 250m above sea level, is fed by the Logone and Chari rivers and their feeder streams draining from the south-east.

Once the fourth-largest body of water in Africa, Lake Chad has shrunk by almost 95% over the past 38 years, according to research sponsored by NASA. Climate change and increasing demands for water have drained it to little more than a twentieth of its size in 1963, when it covered 15,500km2. A precious source of fresh water for at least 20 million people in up to six countries, it now covers around 830km2.

The shrinkage is expected to worsen as global warming increases demand for water in the region. The lake's ecosystem faces obliteration and Chad's water supplies, as well as those of countries such as Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon (which border the lake's former shores) and Sudan and the Central African Republic (which rely on rivers that form part of its drainage basin) may be threatened.

Lake Chad is also subject to evaporation, but surprisingly the waters remain fresh despite there being no circulation from an outlet. The lake is dotted with a series of little islands and small boats, and is heavily fished for local consumption and export. There are no tourist facilities.

Around the Country

From the lake the heavily denuded land rises through encircling acacia-dotted scrublands, semi-desert plateaux and lowlands with occasional kagas (craggy tors) and Doum palms growing in moist basins. Extensive sand dunes, some fixed, some migratory, are crossed before reaching the Sahara. In the far north the Tibesti Massif reaches a maximum elevation of 3415m at the peak of the volcanic Emi Koussi.

To the north-east are the sandstone Ennedi and 1500m-high Quadai plateaux, on the Nile-Chari-Chad divide along the border with Sudan. The Amamaoua and Baibokoum Mountains on the western border are connected to a low ridge separating the Chari and Congo basins in the extreme south.

The 40% of the country that can carry crops and livestock is found mainly between the swamps and savannah woodlands of the south. Altogether the country covers an area over twice the size of France, but has few physical features to attract even the most ardent explorer.

The Climate

Not surprisingly, the north is baking hot and extremely dry throughout the year, with great extremes between day and night temperatures. In addition, the hot Harmattan winds can make life extremely unpleasant. The central plains may pick up some rain between July and October, but they are more likely to suffer droughts and periodic locust plagues. The semi-tropical lowlands in the south can receive up to 1100mm of rain in good years, but from November through to June the countryside is dry.

The People

Chad is where Muslim Caucasoid North Africans meet the Negroes of the Sudanese and Eastern Negrotic cultures. There are about 8.5 million people, most of whom (understandably) exist in the south on subsistence farming, herding and fishing. Almost half are illiterate, two out of five are children and few will live to see their fiftieth birthday. Their lot is not a prosperous one.

Muslims make up about half the country's population. Amongst their nine ethnic groups are desert Bedouins, Taureg and nomadic Fulani camel and cattle herders. Many of them live in the north or the central areas, where the trader-farmer Hausa and the Wadai, who cultivate the land using old North African methods, are found.

The south is mainly populated by non-Muslims such as the Hakka, farmers whose forefathers displaced the original hunger-gatherer inhabitants. The largest group, however, are the Sara who fish, till the land and occupy offices in towns, including the capital N'Djamena, where most of the 150,000 foreigners are based. About half the people in the south have converted to Christianity but the rest still cling to traditional beliefs.

French and Arabic are the official languages but you could hear any of a hundred different tongues in the country. Hausa dominates in the lake areas whilst Sara and Sango are most often spoken in rural communities in the south.

Money Matters

Half the country's GDP and about 85% of employment comes from agriculture, the development of which has largely taken place since WWII. The main cash crop is cotton but you will see sorghum, millet, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, rice and even some dates being cultivated. Goats, sheep and camels are kept by locals but most cattle are ranched for meat processing by a foreign company. Raw cotton, textiles, meat products and fish are exported - mainly to Portugal, Germany, France and South Africa. Salt is mined around Chad. Chadians also brew a reasonable beer and make consumables such as soap and cigarettes. Some foodstuffs, machinery, military and industrial goods have to be imported. In December 1996 Chad concluded an agreement with Esso to exploit oil at Doba and pipe it out through Cameroon for export - this may begin some time this year.

In essence Chad has a subsistence economy very much subject to the vagaries of the weather, locusts, civil war - and government.


Apart from a brave backpacker or two and the odd eccentric explorer, you won't find tourists. There are no zebra-striped minibuses, hustling guides or curio shops. In fact, you can have the place largely to yourself.

Published in Travel Africa Edition Sixteen: Summer 2001 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)

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