Civil War Begins in Chad Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rival factions in the poverty-stricken Saharan nation of Chad struggled for control of the country. No conclusive victor emerged, and the civil war continued intermittently for the next twenty-three years, taking an awful toll in human lives and suffering.

Summary of Event

Civil war, political brutality, frequent coups d’etat, a hostile physical environment, and endemic poverty have plagued Chad’s four million inhabitants since shortly after the nation achieved independence from France in 1960. Like those of many other African nations, Chad’s boundaries reflect interimperial rivalries (in this case, between France and Italy), rather than social cohesion. Chad’s national politics thus revolve around competition among its myriad social and ethnic groupings, including the three arid, predominantly Arab districts of the north; the seminomadic people of the Sahelian central region; and the people of the relatively more arable, densely populated, ethnically diverse south. Backed by Libya, France, and other countries, rival movements have struggled for national power since 1965. Civil wars;Chad Chadian civil war Postcolonialism;Chad [kw]Civil War Begins in Chad (Nov., 1965) [kw]War Begins in Chad, Civil (Nov., 1965) [kw]Chad, Civil War Begins in (Nov., 1965) Civil wars;Chad Chadian civil war Postcolonialism;Chad [g]Africa;Nov., 1965: Civil War Begins in Chad[08640] [g]Chad;Nov., 1965: Civil War Begins in Chad[08640] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov., 1965: Civil War Begins in Chad[08640] [c]Government and politics;Nov., 1965: Civil War Begins in Chad[08640] Tombalbaye, François Malloum, Félix Habré, Hissène Oueddei, Goukouni

A large, desolate, landlocked territory, Chad was inhabited mainly by nomads and fugitive slaves when it became a colony separate from French Equatorial Africa in 1920. Because of its agricultural potential, the southern region had enjoyed most of the colonial development efforts, including cotton production and social services such as schools and utilities. The country’s first president, François (later Ngarta) Tombalbaye, was a member of the minuscule French-educated southern elite. He assumed leadership of Chad soon after it was declared a republic with its capital at N’Djamena (formerly Fort-Lamy) on August 11, 1960.

Independence brought neither liberation nor peace. Virtually from the beginning, Muslim Chadians from the northern and central parts of the country resisted the government’s efforts to settle nomads and force them to pay usurious rates on government “farm loans.” Moreover, they demanded a greater say in the southern-dominated government. The regime responded by outlawing opposition parties in March, 1962, and organizing well-controlled elections.

Riots against tax collectors and loan officers broke out in eastern and central Chad in November, 1965, marking the beginning of the civil war. These tax revolts were suppressed by the army, only to erupt again nearby. On June 22, 1966, two or three dissident groups met in neighboring western Sudan to form the Front de Libération Nationale Front de Libération Nationale du Tchad Frolinat (Frolinat; national liberation front). Within a year, the rebellion against imposed sedentarization and heavy taxation had spread throughout the north. The army was directed to stop demonstrations and disband the opposition. At least 250 strikers and regime opponents were imprisoned for banditry, and some of them died, disappeared, or were tortured in jail. Amid spreading unrest and even mutiny in 1968, Tombalbaye called on France to support his anti-insurgency campaign. French paratroopers engaged directly in fighting against insurgents and their sympathizers from April, 1969, through mid-1971.





In response to Tombalbaye’s strong-arm tactics, the rebellion spread not only throughout the central and northern districts but also to the Sara peoples of the president’s own native southern region, where his “authenticity” campaign—which required Sara youth to undergo traditional initiation rites—was resented by many educated Sarans. Pockets of resistance appeared in the south. After Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Qaddafi, Muammar al- rise to the leadership of neighboring Libya in 1969, Libyan aid to Frolinat increased, and the movement became more militantly anti-imperialist and pro-Islamic. Eventually, even Tombalbaye’s own top military commanders, including General Félix Malloum, turned against the eccentric, ineffectual, and increasingly hated dictator. Several officers were arrested for plotting against the regime.

After a military coup in 1975 in which Tombalbaye was assassinated, the new president, Malloum, released about 175 political detainees from prison and promoted some reforms. The respite from chaos and repression was, however, short-lived. Rebels still controlled rural areas of the central and northern regions and gained on N’Djamena. There was discord within Frolinat, an increasingly motley, diverse, and divided collection of warlord armies. A quarrel between the front’s two most prominent leaders, Hissène Habré and Goukouni Oueddei—partly over the treatment of a French archaeologist held hostage by the commandos and exacerbated by al-Qaddafi’s efforts to control the movement—split Frolinat. While Oueddei became Libya’s favorite client, Habré was brought into the Malloum government as prime minister.

The year 1979 saw countrywide anarchy and chaos, intercommunal violence, and military confrontations among the various guerrilla groups. Those groups also clashed with the army. A strike by Muslim students in N’Djamena in February touched off a spate of violent incidents, some of them reported as massacres, between Muslims and non-Muslims. Within days of the student strike, Habré’s forces took the capital from Malloum, who retired under French asylum. Lacking power and water and prey to Habré’s pillaging militia, civilians fled N’Djamena. Meanwhile, as rebel forces fought for control of the provinces, the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity (OAU) sponsored a series of talks leading to a short-lived cease-fire agreement that put Goukouni Oueddei at the head of a “transitional government,” with Habré as defense minister. Habré’s forces and those of other rebel commandos continued the armed struggle, capturing several towns and besieging the capital.

In 1980 and 1981, direct and indirect foreign intervention further complicated the imbroglio. Fighting broke out in March, 1980, and raged continuously for the rest of the year. After the remaining eleven hundred French forces were recalled to Paris, President Oueddei invited Libya to assist his government in defending the positions under its control against Habré’s troops. Eager also to consolidate Libya’s claims to the long-disputed Aozou strip on the Libyan-Chadian border, al-Qaddafi willingly complied, dispatching tanks, helicopters, and mortars south across the desert. By December, they had effectively defeated Habré’s forces militarily, and in January, 1981, al-Qaddafi declared Libyan unity with Chad. This prompted the formation of an OAU peacekeeping force and, more important, U.S. and French backing for Habré in the form of both arms and diplomacy. The Libyans withdrew in late summer, 1981, their positions ostensibly being handed over to OAU peacekeepers. Habré’s forces gradually took control of the country, entering N’Djamena in June, 1982.

For the next four years, Chad was effectively divided between Libyan-backed, Oueddei-led factions that dominated the northern two-thirds of the country and the western-backed Habré government in the south. Sarans and other southerners resisted military occupation by Habrés army, and soon whole neighborhoods and villages were fleeing before the presidential guard’s counterinsurgency campaign. After consolidating his positions, Oueddei began penetrating south in late 1983. This occasioned a new French intervention, including three thousand troops and fighter-bombers, to halt any Libyan advance, allowing Habré armies to reoccupy some fallen towns. Clashes continued, with Libyan and French support, until a falling-out between Oueddei and al-Qaddafi allowed Habré to gain the upper hand in 1986. He gradually conquered the north, and on September 12, 1988, an OAU cease-fire was accepted by all major forces in Chad. The twenty-three year Chadian civil war appeared to be ended, but the country’s future was uncertain.


Throughout the several phases of Chad’s civil war, atrocities were committed by all sides. With the number of political, civilian, and combatant deaths numbering in the tens of thousands, staggering infant and child mortality, and the further disastrous effects of drought, famine, and desertification, Chad’s rate of population growth was among Africa’s lowest. Chadians on the whole were among the most deprived and terrorized people in the world.

The Tombalbaye and Habré regimes in particular, but also those of other leaders, resorted to execution of rivals and challengers, detention of activists and demonstrators, and heavy military and tax pressure on civilian communities. Dozens of “conspirators” were executed by martial law authorities between 1965 and 1990. Hundreds of students, professionals, civil servants, and peasants were detained at least briefly, and some languished indefinitely without formal charges being brought. The combined forces of climate, unsanitary conditions, and state security methods made disease and death common in detention. All the armies took hostages. For example, in 1983 the Habré and Oueddei forces each claimed to hold at least one thousand captives, an unknown number of whom died or disappeared.

As each region formed its own militias, the strongest men went off to fight, sometimes to die, leaving their families vulnerable to marauding rival armies and a farm economy hard-pressed to function without their labor. Brutal treatment of one clan was likely to provoke retribution, as in April, 1983, when forty villagers in the far south were massacred. Internecine conflict, particularly between Muslims and non-Muslims, helped perpetuate the vicious cycle of violence. Few families remained unscathed.

As in the Sudan, Ethiopia, and other war-ravaged Sahelian countries, more than two decades of widespread conflict also exacerbated an incipient environmental disaster by killing livestock and crops, pillaging grain stores, removing the strongest farmers, polluting or depleting water wells, driving people from their homes, destroying buildings and power stations, and diverting resources from desperately needed development projects. Weakened by the effects of war, the farm economy of central and northern Chad was decimated by the drought of the mid-1980’s. Moreover, since the intermediate-rainfall zone in the south was planted mainly with cotton, there was a small domestic food supply.

In 1985, approximately one million people, one-fourth of Chad’s population, were weakened by famine and in danger of starvation. At least fifty thousand sought refuge in relief camps. With fewer than one hundred miles of paved road amid thousands of miles of desert and with much less publicity for its plight than Ethiopia had, Chad was in no position to deliver food, medical supplies, or water to its hardest-hit central regions. Well-intentioned humanitarian relief efforts were nowhere near adequate, especially given that the government was bankrupt and continued to be more concerned with state security than with the quality of its citizens’ lives, or even with preserving those lives.

Some African theorists have argued that, in the African context, “human rights” might have a different meaning than in the West. In Chad, the human rights conditions from 1965 until at least 1988 were horrible by any criteria. There was no question of freedom of speech, religious communities were at war with one another, martial law was applied by numerous factions, and property rights could not be guaranteed. Beyond these abuses were the terrible loss of and threat to the lives of Chadians, many of whom suffered physical danger and deprivation for years on end. Civil wars;Chad Chadian civil war Postcolonialism;Chad

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burr, Millard. Africa’s Thirty Years War: Libya, Chad, and the Sudan, 1963-1993. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Comprehensive history of three decades of war in three African nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mazrui, Ali A., and Michael Tidy. Nationalism and New States in Africa from About 1935 to the Present. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1984. Among the many available books on the colonial background and postindependence problems of African states, this one is useful not only for its fairly thorough review of nationalist, interethnic, and political struggles throughout the continent but also for its section on the civil war in Chad. This is currently one of the few studies of Africa to have such a section.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nolutshungu, Sam C. Limits of Anarchy: Intervention and State Formation in Chad. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996. Examines the consequences of foreign intervention in Chad during its twenty-three years of civil war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Virginia, and Richard Adloff. The Emerging States of French Equatorial Africa. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1960. A detailed account of political and economic developments in the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, including a fifty-page chapter on conditions in “Tchad” during the colonial period. Conflicts prior to independence laid the groundwork for civil war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whiteman, Kaye. Chad. London: Minority Rights Group, 1988. A brief but densely written, information-packed primer on the conundrum of Chadian politics. This study details the events, groups, and leaders that tore Chad apart during the twenty-five years after independence in one of the most embroiled, complex, and violent postcolonial conflicts. Particular attention is paid to civil and political rights and human suffering.

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