By Kaleem Kawaja
Editorâ€™s Note: The following is a writeup of a presentation given by the Chadian Ambassador to the US, Dr. Mahmoud Bechir, at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring Maryland.
Washington DC–March 23–In a wide ranging discussion on the serious ethnic violence in Darfur, Sudan, Dr Mahmoud Bechir, Ambassador of Chad to US highlighted the serious ethnic tension and conflict in the region of Darfur and Chad which is located at the very center of the African continent. Dr Bechir was speaking at the Muslim Community Center, Washington DC. Dr Bechir described that his country Chad with a population of about 11 million people but with a vast geographic land mass that makes it larger than South Africa is centered around the vast Chad lake. Chad is surrounded by Sudan on the east, Libya on the north, Niger and Nigeria on the west and Central African Republic on the south.
Ambassador Bechir informed that Chad is home to people of about 100 different ethnicities and dialects although Arabic and French are the main languages in the country. About 55% of the population is Muslim, about 20% are Catholics, about 14% are Protestants and the remaining belong to various animistic faiths. Southern Chad is more progressive and economically forward while northern Chad where more Muslims live is economically backward. That resulted in a 15 year long civil war soon after independence from France. Finally the Patriotic Salvation Movement led by current President Idriss Deby took power in 1996. The Chad parliament has 155 members from its 25 provinces.
Considering the lack of many resources and being land locked with no access to sea Chad still has a reasonably healthy intellectual life. Joseph Scid, Baba Moustapha, Ahmat Taboye are some of the top intellectuals and writers of Chad. Even though there are very few movie houses in Chad the local movie industry is doing reasonably well. Mahmat Haroun its renowned movie director made the acclaimed movie â€œDarattâ€ which won a top award in the 63rd international film festivals in Venice. Soccer is the national sport and usually the Chad soccer team does well in international competitions.
Bechir said that the twin events in 2003, namely the discovery of oil and the Darfur conflict put his sleepy country on the international radar of big nations. Since the beginning of these events Chad has become a crossroad for the competing interests of major countries like USA, China, France. Presently US oil giant Exxon is conducting exploration for oil in Chad.
Ambassador Bechir termed the long lingering conflict and violence in the Southwestern Sudanese province of Darfur, which lies on the eastern border of Chad, as a real tragedy of the suffering people of the region comprising of southern Sudan and southern Chad. He said that the conflict began as a dispute on grazing rights for the camel herding ethnic Arab Bagghara nomadic people of north Darfur and the settled agriculturist Fur and Zhagawa local African tribes of southern Darfur. The cattle of the nomadic tribes frequently trespassed on the farms and agricultural lands of the well settled people of the south. Soon both sides formed armed militias to defend themselves. The nomad tribes formed the Junjaweed militia and the agriculturists formed the Sudanese Liberation Movement militia.
Unfortunately the Sudanese government that should have remained strictly neutral in the conflict did not do so. Dr Bechir said it was like a father taking side with one of his sons when there is a conflict between two of his sons. The Junjaweed militia being better armed their attacks in southern Darfur caused havoc. Beginning in 2003 about 250,000 refugees from Darfur crossed over to eastern Chad. For the small country of Chad that is a big economic burden to bear. About 2.5 million Darfur residents were displaced. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) deployed about 7,000 African troops to stop the fighting. But being poorly equipped they are not very successful in preventing the violent conflict. Much tension has developed between the large country of Sudan and its small neighour Chad. Both countries have rebel forces fighting their respective governments. Allegations and counter-allegations blaming the other side for helping the rebels have been made by both countries.
Dr Mahmoud Bechir expressed disappointment that the many Muslim countries in the middle east, the Islamic Organization Conference (IOC) and with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) have not paid much attention and have not taken effective steps to stop the violent conflict in Darfur. France and US are taking more interest especially since the discovery of oil in southern Chad and Darfur. He appealed to all nations especially the Muslim and African nations to bring an end to this conflict and restore the tranquility of the peaceful region â€“ the heart of Africa.
The writer is a community activist in Washington DC. firstname.lastname@example.org.