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French Colonial Administration

By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the great empires had been destroyed or were in eclipse. European interest in Africa generally grew during the nineteenth century. By 1887 France, motivated by the search for wealth, had driven inland from its settlements on central Africa's west coast to claim the territory of Ubangi-Chari (present-day Central African Republic). It claimed this area as a zone of French influence, and within two years it occupied part of what is now southern Chad. In the early 1890s, French military expeditions sent to Chad encountered the forces of Rabih Fadlallah, who had been conducting slave raids (razzias) in southern Chad throughout the 1890s and had sacked the settlements of Kanem-Borno, Bagirmi, and Wadai. After years of indecisive engagements, French forces finally defeated Rabih Fadlallah at the Battle of Kousseri in 1900.

The arrival of the French in the late 1800s had benefits and disadvantages for the indigenous population. By the early twentieth century, the French had stopped northern groups from slave raiding in the south, established a few schools, and initiated some development projects. The colonial administration, however, also dislocated villages and instituted mandatory cotton production quotas for farmers. Moreover, the French administration of Chad was conducted from faraway Brazzaville (in present-day Congo), and its efforts were concentrated in the south; throughout the colonial period, France's control of the central and northern areas was nominal.

This north-south distinction created a preindependence political system dominated by southerners, who were exposed more to French education and culture than were northerners. Following independence in 1960, this dominance persisted and created considerable resentment among central and northern groups, who felt that their interests were not adequately represented by the new government.

In the late 1980s, social differences based on region persisted. The sparsely populated, desert north was peopled mainly by Toubou, many of whom were nomadic. Semisedentary groups, several of which were of Arab descent, inhabited the semiarid central areas (called the Sahel). Islam was the major religion in these areas. The tropical south, also called the soudanian zone, was the most densely populated region and was home to darker skinned peoples, especially the Sara ethnic group. Here, agriculture was the principal means of livelihood, particularly the cultivation of cotton, although there was also some small-scale industry.

Traditional African religions were prevalent in the south, but, because of earlier missionary efforts, so too were several Christian denominations. Termed Le Tchad Utile (Useful Chad) by the French, the south contained a disproportionate share of the educational and health facilities, as well as the majority of the development projects.

Throughout the colonial era and after independence, the Chadian economy had been based on agriculture. As such, it has been driven by the south, the only region with a climate suitable for the wide-scale production of cotton and foodstuffs (although livestock raising in the Sahel has also had some importance). At independence France left the colony with an economy retarded by exploitative policies. It was marked by insufficient development of infrastructure, overreliance on cotton and the whims of the international markets, and dependence on imports for industrial and consumer goods. By the late 1980s, warfare, drought, and famine had combined to keep the economy depressed, and international development organizations generally maintained that Chad was one of the poorest nations in the world. Indicative of this impoverishment was the fact that in 1988 Chad had a gross national product (GNP) per capita of only US$160 and no paved roads. According to some observers, Chad had become a ward of the international donor community.

Two fundamental themes dominated Chad's colonial experience with the French: an absence of policies designed to unify the territory and an exceptionally slow pace of modernization. In the French scale of priorities, the colony of Chad ranked near the bottom; it was less important than non-African territories, North Africa, West Africa, or even the other French possessions in Central Africa. The French came to perceive Chad primarily as a source of raw cotton and untrained labor to be used in the more productive colonies to the south. Within Chad there was neither the will nor the resources to do much more than maintain a semblance of law and order. In fact, even this basic function of governance was often neglected; throughout the colonial period, large areas of Chad were never governed effectively from N'Djamena (called Fort-Lamy prior to September 1973).

Chad was linked in 1905 with three French colonies to the south- Ubangi-Chari, Moyen-Congo (present-day Congo), and Gabon. But Chad did not receive separate colony status or a unified administrative policy until 1920. The four colonies were administered together as French Equatorial Africa under the direction of a governor general stationed in Brazzaville. The governor general had broad administrative control over the federation, including external and internal security, economic and financial affairs, and all communications with the French minister of the colonies. Lieutenant governors, also appointed by the French government, were expected to implement in each colony the orders of the governor general. The central administration in Brazzaville tightly controlled the lieutenant governors despite reformist efforts toward decentralization between 1910 and 1946. Chad's lieutenant governor had greater autonomy because of the distance from Brazzaville and because of France's much greater interest in the other three colonies.

The lines of control from Brazzaville, feeble as they may have been, were still stronger than those from N'Djamena to its hinterland. In the huge Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti Prefecture, the handful of French military administrators soon reached a tacit agreement with the inhabitants of the desert; as long as caravan trails remained relatively secure and minimal levels of law and order were met, the military administration (headquartered in Faya Largeau) usually left the people alone (see fig. 1). In central Chad, French rule was only slightly more substantive. In Ouaddai and Biltine prefectures, endemic resistance continued against the French and, in some cases, against any authority that attempted to suppress banditry and brigandage. The thinly staffed colonial administration provided only weak supervision over arid Kanem Prefecture and the sparsely populated areas of Guera and Salamat prefectures. Old-fashioned razzias continued in the 1920s, and it was reported in 1923 that a group of Senegalese Muslims on their way to Mecca had been seized and sold into slavery. Unwilling to expend the resources required for effective administration, the French government responded with sporadic coercion and a growing reliance on indirect rule through the sultanates.

France managed to govern effectively only the south, but until 1946 administrative direction came from Bangui in Ubangi-Chari rather than N'Djamena. Unlike northern and central Chad, a French colonial system of direct civilian administration was set up among the Sara, a southern ethnic group, and their neighbors. Also, unlike the rest of Chad, a modest level of economic development occurred in the south because of the introduction in 1929 of large scale cotton production. Remittances and pensions to southerners who served in the French military also enhanced economic well-being. But even the advantages of more income, schools, and roads failed to win popular support for the French in the south.

In addition to earlier grievances, such as forced porterage (which claimed thousands of lives) and village relocation, southern farmers resented the mandatory quotas for the production of cotton, which France purchased at artificially low prices. Government-protected chiefs further abused this situation. The chiefs were resented all the more because they were generally the artificial creations of the French in a region of previously stateless societies. This commonality of treatment and the colonial organizational framework began to create during this period a sense of Sara ethnicity among persons whose collective identities had previously been limited to small kinship groups.

Although France had put forth considerable effort during the conquest of Chad, the ensuing administration of the territory was halfhearted. Officials in the French colonial service resisted assignments to Chad, so posts often went to novices or to out-of-favor officials. One historian of France's empire has concluded that it was almost impossible to be too demented or depraved to be considered unfit for duty in Chad. Still, major scandals occurred periodically, and many of the posts remained vacant. In 1928, for example, 42 percent of the Chadian subdivisions lacked official administrators.

An event occurred in 1935 that was to have far-reaching consequences throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In that year, the French colonial administration negotiated a border adjustment with Italy, Libya's colonial master. The adjustment would have relocated the Libyan-Chad boundary about 100 kilometers south across the Aozou Strip. Although the French legislature never ratified the agreement, the negotiations formed part of the basis of Libya's claim to the area decades later.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2016 19:20:40 ZULU