Spectre of famine haunts Chad as funds diverted to strengthen army


Oil money for poverty relief projects has been withheld from the starving population, writes JODY CLARKE

IT IS 12 metres high, cost over $30 million and stands as a showcase for Central Africa, according to the man who commissioned it.

But the statue of a horseman standing on the rond-point de la Grande Armée, a roundabout in the Centre of the Chadian capital N’djamena, could come to symbolise more than “the shining feat of arms” of the country’s army.

Because as Chad faces its worst food crisis in half-a-century, new oil money intended for agriculture, health and education has instead been diverted to the army, now one of sub-Saharan’s best equipped.

And as two million people face the worst hunger known for a generation, the government has been busily buying new weapons and other military equipment.

It is enough to fill the letters page of any newspaper for a year. But in Chad, a country run by the same man for 20 years, there is little its 11 million citizens can do.

“We’re just poor people” says one man in Bilget, a small village in Am-Dam district, northeastern Chad. “Nobody cares about us.”

The rains have failed in Bilget, as well as most of the Sahelian belt, a band of semi-arid land that stretches south of the Sahara from Mauritania in the west to Chad in the east. In November 2009, the UN World Food Programme warned of a food crisis, putting out out a figure that revealed that there had been a 34 per cent decrease in food production in 2009 from the previous year.

Now, “people are talking about the worst food crisis in 50 years” says John Holmes, UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and. emergency relief co-ordinator.

Last year, just 369 mm of rain fell in 17 days in Am-Dam, according to the district’s chief engineer, Nekarambaya Kamndo, compared to 596 mm over 40 days in 2000.

As a result the local harvest, which should normally produce 500 kg of sorghum and 900 kg of maize per hectare, has this year come up with nothing.

“This is the worst year ever” he says. “There is absolutely nothing. All has been lost.”

Ghost towns are springing up across the dry landscape as people abandon their homes for work in the cities.

The local hospital, meanwhile, is already recording a malnutrition rate of 18 per cent among children, a “real catastrophe” says its administration chief, Moussa Sharif.

The government does little. Some 19 civil servants in the hospital have not been paid in at least eight months and Bilget, although it has drawn up its own development plan, can’t find the money to fund it. “The government is doing nothing,” is the repeated message in the village. One of the leaders on the local governing board says it will cost one million CFA francs to build a well, a fraction of the cost of the N’jdamena roundabout. “But we can’t afford it.” And with little help from the authorities, people are resorting to the most desperate measures to stay alive.

On a 900 km drive east across the country, every village we stopped at was engaged in the same activities. Ant hills are dug up in search of the tiny grains dragged there by the insects, while other have begun boiling up leaves to mix with whatever stores they have left.

Some people have even begun eating animal feed.

At 750 CFA francs for 50 kg, it’s a good deal cheaper than the subsidised government food sacks, which are selling for 5000 CFA francs.

Of course, it shouldn’t be like this. Oil revenue rose from around 300 billion CFA francs in the early 2000s to 1,000 billion in 2009. The World Bank helped get the fledgling industry going, financing the development of the 1,600-kilometre, $4.2 billion pipeline from Chad through Cameroon to the sea.

The Chadian government, meanwhile, promised to invest the majority of the oil revenue in poverty-relief projects. Some 10 per cent of the profits were to be stashed in a rainy-day fund for future generations, while another 80 per cent was earmarked for Chad’s development.

But in January 2006, Chad’s president Idriss Deby raided the fund’s coffers, stating that he needed the money to buy more weapons to deal with rebels in the east funded by Sudan. Chad’s military spending has now gone from $14 million to $315 million between 2000 and 2009, an increase of over 2000 per cent.

How can the government find money for its military and not for its people? “I will ask that question at the next session of parliament” says Ahmat Mahamat Yousouf, the local MP.

He is in Am-Dam registering people to vote for November’s legislative elections. Coincidentally, says one wry observer, just two weeks after the government made its one and only distribution of food sacks.

Voter pour manger” he says. “ Vote to Eat.” However, government authorities only distributed 1,500 50kg sacks in Am-Dam, a district that is home to 80,000 people.

One sack feeds a family of seven for about 15 days, so even if people could find the money to buy one, there is only enough food for 10,000 people for half a month.

Not surprisingly, food prices for animal feed are on the up. Ground nut oil residue, a flaky material that looks like brittle tiles, is selling at 500 CFA francs for a bowl in Bilget market against 100 several months ago.

Animals, meanwhile, are dying for lack of water and food.

Unis Youuoif (65) says he usually has 100 cattle but has lost 10. “And I will lose more soon as there is nothing here. People are coming from 200km away because they think there was a well here, even though it has dried up. It is truly catastrophic. The people have no money to buy food.”

Meanwhile, the desert continues to expand south, with little money available to fund a grand tree-planting scheme promised by the government. Approximately 10 million trees were to be planted over two years, but getting the money to fund it has been difficult.