Wednesday, May 17, 2006

N’DJAMENA, Chad — Like most gasoline vendors in this sun-drenched capital, Zachariah Suileman sells gasoline in old liquor bottles, which seems ironic for a country that produces more than 160,000 barrels of oil per day.

“Our oil is refined far away, and when it comes back to us, we can barely afford to buy it, except in small amounts. That’s why it’s sold in bottles,” said Mr. Suileman, who, even with gasoline selling at $6 a gallon, barely can afford to support his wife and six children.

For Mr. Suileman and nearly 10 million other ordinary Chadians, the oil riches have yet to raise living standards in a country perennially ranked among the world’s poorest.

Three years after Chad began shipping its oil — collecting nearly $400 million to date — few people outside N’Djamena have access to electricity, running water, paved roads or health clinics. Public schools are nonexistent. Life expectancy is 46 years for men and slightly longer for women.

Chad appears to have followed the path taken by other African oil-producing states — Angola, Nigeria and Sudan, among them — whose leaders have used much of the oil revenues to beef up their military forces against opposition groups and rebel movements seeking larger shares of the wealth.

“Chad was supposed to be different. The oil money was supposed to help the poor, but we’re not seeing that,” said Massalbaye Tenebaye, president of the country’s Human Rights Commission.

The thwarted hopes of many have turned into resentment toward the government of President Idriss Deby, widely perceived here as using the country’s oil wealth to enrich himself and those close to him. It’s a perception shared by corruption watchdog Transparency International, which last year rated Chad the most corrupt country in Africa.

Growing anger has emboldened rebel groups, which have tried twice to overthrow the Deby government in the past two months.

[His victory in May 3 presidential elections was confirmed Sunday, with officials saying he won 77.5 percent of the vote, Agence France-Presse reported. Four other virtually unknown candidates won from 3.7 percent to 8.8 percent of the vote.

[Election commission President Ahmat Mahamat Bachir said turnout was 61.5 percent of the 5.7 million eligible voters, though independent observers called the participation lackluster.]

In the latest coup attempt, on April 13, hundreds of rebels entered the capital just before sunrise and were cheered on by onlookers before clashing with Chad’s army in a street battle that left about 350 people dead — mainly rebels and civilians.

Afterward, Mr. Deby decided that a heftier portion of the country’s oil profits should go toward buying weapons to stave off a rebellion that he says is being orchestrated by Sudan.

In January, the World Bank, which helped finance Chad’s oil infrastructure, suspended $124 million in loans and grants and $125 million in oil royalties after the government reneged on an agreement to spend most of the oil wealth to build roads, hospitals, schools and other projects to help the nation’s poor.

After the April 13 attack, Mr. Deby threatened to shut down the country’s oil production by April 30 unless the World Bank released the funds. As the institution stood firm, Mr. Deby turned to the oil consortium, led by U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp., demanding that it cough up at least $100 million to help tide the country over until the World Bank unfreezes Chad’s royalties.

The threat prompted quick intervention by U.S. diplomats. The United States relies on African countries for 18 percent of its oil supply, an amount expected to rise to 25 percent in the next 10 years, analysts say.

Late last month, Mr. Deby appeared to have won the showdown with the World Bank, which worked out a deal to restore Chad’s access to its oil money. As part of the deal, as much as 30 percent of Chad’s oil revenue — twice the current amount — goes directly to the government, making it easier for the money to slip under the radar of international monitoring agencies.

Critics say the need for oversight is clear.

A group of Chadian citizens, government officials and World Bank representatives monitoring oil spending have questioned many deals.

A construction company was paid $360,000 to build a water tower, but never built it. Companies hired to dig water wells or build health clinics either abandoned them entirely or left them partially finished. Some government ministries bought computer equipment and furniture at three times the market price.

In what many say smacks of nepotism, more than $50 million in road projects was awarded to a partnership between a foreign contractor and a company led by the president’s brother, Daoussa Deby.

Despite the criticism, the president, a former rebel commander, shows no signs of retreat. Some analysts think that despite his faults, he is a better choice than those trying to unseat him.

Some diplomats say that if Chadian rebels, most likely backed by Sudan, succeeded in toppling Mr. Deby, the fallout would worsen the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region. Sudanese rebels — backed by Mr. Deby, an ethnic Zaghawa who shares tribal identity with many of the rebels — are the only buffer for millions under attack by Arab militias, said to be backed by Sudan’s army.

As more of Chad’s oil revenue goes toward enriching the ruling elite and buying weapons, the country seems to be entering familiar territory.

“What’s happening in Nigeria could happen here. It’s more or less the same situation, with people having to fight for justice and democracy from a government that is drunk with oil and unwilling to listen,” said Lol Mahamat Choua, a former president of Chad, who leads the opposition Rally for Democracy and Progress.

Mr. Choua was part of a 1999 delegation that went to the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington to hash out the agreement under which Chad’s oil riches would benefit the poor.

Citing widespread fraud in the past two elections, Mr. Choua and other opposition leaders boycotted the recent election that extended Mr. Deby’s 16-year-old stay in power. Rebel leaders had said they intended to stop the election to deprive Mr. Deby of another five years in which to plunder the country’s oil wealth.

“We finally understood that Deby is a dictator with oil money to back him and can only be removed by force,” said Aleissaty Saleh Allazam, a spokesman for Chad’s largest rebel group, the United Front for Democratic Change.

• Distributed by New York Times News Service.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide