News that some 92 Chadian soldiers have been killed by Boko Haram in the east of the landlocked Central African country has gone under the radar. Not necessarily because of the global media’s preoccupation with Covid-19, but because this part of the world is generally seen as unimportant.
It follows in the wake of a Boko Haram attack on a Nigerian military convoy earlier in the week that left some 50 soldiers dead. So, despite intensive efforts, periods of success, and bold government pronouncements in the past couple of years, Boko Haram remains alive and dangerous.
Like many countries in the Sahel region, the Chadian population is fairly equally split between Muslims and Christians, with a few percentage points more of the former. Islam reached the land centuries before Christianity, moving from the Middle East after the time of the Prophet Muhammad into North Africa and then down on the caravan trails into the Sahara where it was adopted by some of the numerous ethnic tribes inhabiting the region.
The French conquered Chad in the early 20th century and Christianity gradually spread during the colonial period, although it was not accompanied by any real modernisation. Muslims now predominate in the north and east of the country, with Christians more prevalent in the south and pockets of the west, where the recent Boko Haram massacre occurred.
Boko Haram is not particularly picky about its targets. Not just Christians but large sections of the Muslim population are counted as enemies, their fundamentalist Salafi faith running counter not just to Shia Muslims but many more ‘moderate’ Sunnis. With the polarising divide between Christians and Muslims, not to mention splits within these respective religions, in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali, the jihadists”holy war’ will not cease.
It was religious tensions that sparked the Chadian Civil War in 1965, just five years after the country had secured independence from France. Francois Tombalbaye, a southern Protestant, was severely mistrusted by the Muslims residing in the north of the country, who saw his policies as religiously-motivated.
It took until 1975 before Tombalbaye was eventually deposed and since then the country has effectively only had two rulers: Hissène Habré (1982-1990) and Idriss Déby (1990-present). Neither ruler has been particularly concerned with Chadian impoverishment or human rights, and their dictatorships have failed to stifle religious conflict, with Chad returning to civil war in 2005.
Déby has, however, been keen to eradicate Boko Haram from Chad’s borders, concerned of the impetus the terrorist group could receive from disenchanted Chadian Muslims.
There is no doubt that international concern over Covid-19 will be exploited by groups such as Boko Haram, who will seek to take advantage of the disruption – and general inattention towards the region – to further their warped goals. Meanwhile, any momentum gained by Boko Haram, or religious strife that their attacks promote, will cause the type of widespread panic and displacement that will ensure that Covid-19 spreads through the region quickly on its arrival.
We are awaiting the full affects of the pandemic to grip Africa and, when it comes, the destitute populace of Chad seemingly stands little chance.