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Despite living in a country that produces more than 160,000 barrels of oil a day, most Chadians buy their gasoline from sellers who store it in used soda and liquor bottles.
Despite living in a country that produces more than 160,000 barrels of oil a day, most Chadians buy their gasoline from sellers who store it in used soda and liquor bottles. (Raymond Thibodeaux for the Boston Globe)

Anger rises in oil-rich Chad as funds don't aid the poor

N'DJAMÉNA, Chad -- Three years after Chad began exporting its oil with assistance from the World Bank, few people outside the capital have access to electricity, running water, paved roads, and health clinics. Public schools are nonexistent. Life expectancy is 46 years for men, and only slightly longer for women.

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

Growing anger in this country of nearly 10 million has spurred opposition leaders and emboldened rebel groups, which have twice in the past two months tried to overthrow the government. In the latest 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. A street battle killed 350 people, mainly rebels and civilians.

In the aftermath of that attack, a rattled Déby announced that a heftier portion of the country's oil profits -- estimated at $400 million in exports -- should go toward buying weapons to stave off a rebellion that he says is being orchestrated by Sudan.

For many, Déby appears to be embarking on a path taken by leaders of other African oil-producing states -- Angola, Nigeria, and Sudan, among them -- who have used up much of their countries' oil revenues to beef up their militaries against increasingly restive 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 Chad's Human Rights Commission.

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

After the April 13 attack, Déby threatened to shut down the country's oil production unless the World Bank released the funds. As the World Bank stood firm, Déby turned to Chad's oil consortium, led by US oil giant ExxonMobil, demanding it pay at least $100 million to tide the country over until the World Bank released Chad's royalties.

The threat prompted quick intervention by US diplomats, acting on behalf of US oil companies that rely on African countries for 18 percent of their oil supply, an amount expected to rise to 25 percent in 10 years, specialists say.

On Thursday, Déby 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.

The need for oversight is clear. A group of Chadian civil society members, government officials, and World Bank representatives monitoring oil expenditures last year found a litany of corrupt deals.

In one, a construction company was paid $360,000 to build a water tower, and never built it. Companies hired out to dig water wells or health clinics either abandoned them or left them partially finished. Some government ministries bought computer equipment and furniture for as much as three times their normal market price. And more than $50 million in road projects were awarded to a partnership between a foreign contractor and a company headed by Déby's brother, Daoussa Déby.

Déby navigates the capital's dusty, crumbling roads in a sparkling white Hummer, gliding past merchants selling mangoes, cigarettes, and gasoline from ramshackle storefronts or rickety wooden tables.

Despite the barrage of criticism aimed at his government, Déby, a former rebel commander, shows no signs of retreat. And some analysts say that even with his faults, he is a better alternative to those trying to unseat him.

Some in the diplomatic community are wary that if Chadian rebels, most likely backed by Sudan, succeed in toppling Déby, the fallout would worsen the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region.

Sudanese rebels -- backed by Déby, an ethnic Zaghawan who shares a tribal identity with many of the rebels -- are the only real buffer of defense for millions under genocidal attack by Sudan's army and their allied Arab militias.

To help defend its borders against Sudan, Chad is planning to buy six Russian-made helicopter gunships, according to Western officials in N'Djaména.

Chad currently has two attack helicopters, but only one was operational during the April 13 attack.

As more and more of Chad's oil revenue goes toward enriching the ruling elite and buying weapons to better fend off rebel attacks, the road map for lifting most Chadians out of poverty -- seen by economists as a model for the development of other African countries -- seems to be veering into familiar terrain.

''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 Chadian president who now leads the opposition group, Rally for Democracy and Progress.

He was referring to rebels in Nigeria's oil-rich delta region who have carried out attacks against the army and kidnapped foreign oil workers to strong-arm the government into handing over a bigger share of the oil income.

Choua was part of a 1999 delegation that traveled to the World Bank's headquarters in Washington, D.C., to hash out the agreement by which Chad's oil riches would benefit the poor.

Now, citing widespread fraud in the past two elections, Choua and other opposition leaders have vowed to boycott the May 3 elections, in which Déby is likely to extend his 16-year stay in power.

But rebel leaders have said they intend to stop the elections to deprive Déby of another five years in which to plunder the country's oil wealth.

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

In a country where most people eke out a living on barely arable land, the easy riches of oil have intensified the jockeying for control of Chad's government, said Tenebaye, the human rights activist.

''Whoever gets control of the government, gets to control the oil money," he said. ''In Chad, that's everything."


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