The Aouzou Strip, highlighted in red.

Chad became independent from France in 1960, and like the other huge countries lying along the Sahel region—Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Sudan—suffered from the north–south divide. The north was poor, many of its people were nomadic, and they were ethnically Arab, Tuareg or Arabicized, and Muslim. The south was more populous, more westernized as a result of colonialism, and the population was black African, following African traditional religions or Christianity rather than Islam. These were mainly settled agricultural people who were better off in both material and educational terms than the nomads of the north. This divide between north and south made the subsequent civil wars easier to understand, though these were greatly complicated by other considerations: struggles between rival contenders for power, the role of Libya, which laid claim to the Aozou Strip in the north, and interventions by France, sometimes urged on by the United States, as well as neighbors such as Nigeria and Zaire.

Background and Beginnings

In 1962, Chad’s first post-independence president, François Tombalbaye, made Chad a one-party state and though this political decision was accepted by the south, it was rejected in the north. French troops, which had remained in the north after independence, were withdrawn in 1964 and replaced by sections of the Chad National Army, whose soldiers were recruited from the south. These troops were soon at odds with the local people. A first revolt against southern domination occurred in 1966 at Oueddai; the rebels secured some limited support from Sudan. This and other brief rebellions at this time were uncoordinated and largely ineffective; they were in reaction to taxes, the behavior (and presence) of central government civil servants, and, more generally, because of longstanding northern suspicions of any southern interference. Slowly, these northern rebels came together to create a central organization—the Front de Libération Nationale du Tchad (FROLINAT)/Chad National Liberation Front. It was then recognized by the Libyan government (which had its own reasons for intervening in the affairs of Chad) and provided with offices in Tripoli.

The First Phase: 1966–75

The civil war, which gradually developed, was complicated by external factors. It was predominantly a struggle between the widely different peoples of north and south whose various leaders over the years sought power for themselves. But it also involved France, which intervened several times with military force over a period of 20 years on behalf of the government in the south, while Libya provided the principal external support for FROLINAT, which represented the northern rebels. In the later stages of these wars, during the 1980s, the United States became involved, offering financial support to the south and reinforcing France’s interventions, largely in order to contain Libyan expansionism.

Dr. Abba Siddick was the first leader of FROLINAT in 1966, but he was soon to be replaced by Goukouni Oueddei, who was prepared to rely upon Libyan support. At first, FROLINAT obtained aid from Algeria, but from 1971 onward relied upon Libya. Tombalbaye attempted to appease FROLINAT by taking northerners into his cabinet, but his overtures were rejected. In 1968, as the war increased in intensity, France sent an air force contingent to reinforce the government of Tombalbaye, and the following year dispatched 1,600 troops to Chad. Their numbers were reduced in 1971 and withdrawn in 1972, and though their presence had not made a great deal of difference to the fighting on the ground, this first French intervention set a pattern for the future. Following a coup attempt against him, Tombalbaye accused Libya of complicity in the FROLINAT rebellion and broke off diplomatic relations, but this action merely persuaded Libya to recognize FROLINAT. The fighting became serious in the early 1970s with FROLINAT capturing a number of northern towns, including Bardai and Faya-Largeau.

FROLINAT had no discernible ideology apart from race and religion and its consequent determination to control the government. Like many such movements, FROLINAT was subject to internal tensions and splits. Goukouni Oeddei and his Forces Armées Populaires (FAP)/Popular Armed Forces proved too independent for Libya’s purposes and so it switched its support to the new Front d’Action Commune (FAC)/Front for Common Action, which was led by Ahmat Acyl. A third splinter group emerged: the Forces Armées du Nord (FAN)/Armed Forces of the North led by Hissène Habré.

In November 1972, the governments of Chad and Libya resumed diplomatic relations and signed a pact of friendship. This was no more than a temporary pause for breath, however, for in 1973 Libya moved its own armed forces into the Aozou Strip of northern Chad, which it proceeded to annex. Libya justified this action in terms of a 1935 Franco–Italian Protocol, which had recognized 111,370 square kilometers (43,000 square miles) of northern Chad as part of Italian Libya. Subsequently, France had not ratified the Protocol, but there existed clear grounds for argument as to which country had rights of possession. The region was all the more important because it contained substantial resources of uranium. In 1975, Tombalbaye was ousted in a coup by General Felix Malloum, but he proved unable either to subdue the northern rebels and bring the civil war to an end or to expel the Libyans from the Aozou Strip.

The Second Phase: 1975–1986

Following the seizure of three French hostages by FROLINAT in 1975, Malloum fell out with Paris and ended France’s base facilities in N’Djamena, although they were restored the following year. In January 1978, Malloum met Habré, the leader of the FAN; they agreed upon a ceasefire and a new government, which would include FROLINAT members. This was an attempt by Malloum to keep FROLINAT divided, but it broke down as FROLINAT, in reaction, became reunited and proceeded to inflict a series of defeats on the Chad army, capturing Fada and Faya Largeau in the process and splitting the country so that the whole of the north was held by FROLINAT, the south by the government. A ceasefire between the two sides followed, but in April 1978 FROLINAT broke it and its forces advanced on the capital. France intervened again, this time sending a force of 2,500 Legionnaires and several squadrons of fighter-bombers in support of the government. In June, the French and Chadian forces launched a major offensive against FROLINAT and inflicted heavy losses upon it at Ati. As a result, Malloum’s government, which had been close to collapse, recovered.

Libya, meanwhile, had committed between 2,000 and 3,000 troops to the support of FROLINAT, so that by mid-1978, both France and Libya were heavily involved in the Chad war. Although the French forces had halted the southward advance of FROLINAT, they had not defeated them. Consequently, the country was divided between the south held by the government supported by France and the north held by FROLINAT supported by Libya. Habré of the FAN now made an agreement with Malloum: the latter would remain as president while Habré would become prime minister; his army, the FAN, would be demobilized and its members integrated into the national army. At this point France supported Habré. The alliance was short-lived and had broken down by December 1978. The FAN had not been disbanded, and by January 1979 FAN troops were clashing with the regular army and proving to be a superior fighting force. Then Goukouni’s FROLINAT forces advanced upon N’Djamena to join with Habré in attacking the government, and in a coup of February 1979, Habré ousted Malloum. This coup was followed by a general war, with the Muslim forces from the north massacring black southerners and vice versa.

The Forces Armées du Tchad (FAT)/Armed Forces of Chad were rallied by Colonel Abdelkader Kamougue, a former foreign minister, and military order was re-established. Nigeria now intervened in an effort to counterbalance Libyan influence. The Nigerian government hosted peace talks at Kano in northern Nigeria during March and April 1979. These involved Habré, Goukouni, Malloum, a pro-Nigerian party which had emerged, and Libya, as well as Cameroon, Niger, and Sudan as further putative peacemakers. A cease-fire was agreed upon and a Gouvernement d’Union Nationale de Transition (GUNT)/National Union Transitional Government was established. Habré and Malloum “resigned” and Goukouni was appointed president of GUNT. The various armies were to be integrated. Nigeria then overstepped its role as a peacemaker by trying to impose its own candidate, Mahamat Abba, upon Chad, leading both Habré and Goukouni to quit the conference. On their return to N’Djamena, Habré and Goukouni agreed to form a government of national unity of their own, but this, too, did not last and Chad reverted to factional squabbles and fighting.

In March 1980, fighting broke out in N’Djamena between Kamougue’s FAT and Habré’s FAN and continued all year. France decided to withdraw and had taken its troops out of Chad by May. Then, in June, Goukouni signed a treaty of friendship with Libya but without consulting the GUNT to which he belonged. An offensive by Habré’s FAN in the north resulted in major retaliation by Libyan forces whose planes attacked Faya-Largeau and N’Djamena, while its troops, in combination with those of Goukouni, overran large areas. Backed by 5,000 Libyan troops Goukouni took the capital, N’Djamena; it was a triumph for Goukouni. He now overreached himself by entering into an agreement with Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi for an eventual union of Chad and Libya, an agreement which provoked a major international reaction. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) embarked upon intensive diplomacy, which was backed by both France and the United States, to prevent Gaddafi from extending his influence into Chad and by mid-1981, under strong French pressure, Libya withdrew its forces from N’Djamena. At a meeting in Nairobi in June 1981, the OAU agreed to establish a peacekeeping force, which both France and the United States promised to help finance. This was mounted in December of that year when 2,000 Nigerian troops, 2,000 Zairean, and 800 Senegalese under the command of a Nigerian, Major General Ejisa, arrived in Chad. This force remained neutral, although Goukouni had hoped to use it to destroy the FAN and Habré; instead, the OAU persuaded the Libyans to withdraw, with the result that Habré, in the north, obtained many of their weapons and was able to renew his struggle against Goukouni. His fortunes were again in the ascendant, and in June 1982, Habré took N’Djamena unopposed: Kamougue fled as his support collapsed and Goukouni also fled to Algeria.

By October 1982, Habré had established a government in N’Djamena; not only was the FAN more efficient now than Goukouni’s forces, but the latter had lost support in the south by agreeing to Libya’s claims in the north. A new pro-Habré Forces Armées Nationales Tchadiennes (FANT)/National Armed Forces of Chad was formed. By 1983, Habré had gained international recognition; however, Goukouni was making a recovery in the north. Habré refused to deal with Libya, which maintained its claim to the Aozou Strip, while the FAN now became riven by factions. In April, fighting broke out between FAN troops and the Nigerians over counterclaims between Chad and Nigeria to islands in Lake Chad, with the Nigerians allying themselves with anti-Habré groups. French mercenaries assisted the FAN which, nonetheless, suffered some 300 casualties (dead).

In June 1983, Gaddafi increased the level of Libyan support for Goukouni, but this led to a new French intervention (in part the result of U.S. pressures) with 2,800 troops. These created an east–west line (the Red Line) across the country to prevent Goukouni’s forces from coming further south. At this point, violence erupted in the extreme south of the country and Habré was not immediately in a position to bring this under control; numbers of refugees from the violence fled into neighboring countries. In the north, Libyan planes bombed Oum Chalouba before being repulsed with heavy losses by Habré’s forces. In September 1983, Habré visited France to take part in the Franco–African summit and criticized France for not being prepared to fight the Libyans. The war continued through 1984 with substantial casualties on both sides. In mid-1984, Habré dissolved FROLINAT and replaced it with the Union Nationale pour l’Indépendence et la Révolution (UNIR)/National Union for Independence and Revolution in an effort to create a more evenly balanced north–south government, but it did not work. Further fighting in the south erupted in August 1984 and was met by brutal government repression so that refugees flooded into Central African Republic (CAR). The fighting continued to April 1985. In September 1984, France and Libya agreed to withdraw their troops simultaneously from Chad, and by 10 November, all 3,300 French troops had left the country, although Libya kept its forces in the far north. President François Mitterand admitted he had been fooled by Gaddafi. France then made an offer to send troops back to Chad, but Habré refused since he distrusted French motives. Through 1985, Habré consolidated his power in the south and appeared to have brought the rebellion there under control. By October 1985, however, the Libyans had an estimated 4,000 troops in the north of Chad.

The Third Phase: 1986–1990

In February 1986, the civil war became an international war when the Libyans launched an offensive across the 16th parallel of latitude north, the line France had established dividing the country. Gaddafi had assumed that France would not send troops back to Chad, but he had miscalculated. Initially Habré’s forces repulsed the Libyan attack; then he appealed to France for aid and French bombers from bases in CAR bombed the Libyan airstrip at Ouadi Doum, northeast of Faya-Largeau. France then established an air strike force in Chad. The United States (in April 1986 the United States had bombed Libya in an attempt to “take out” Gaddafi) now provided Habré with $10 million in aid. At the same time, Goukouni’s GUNT was disintegrating and many of its members defected to Habré. By mid-November, U.S. arms for Chad were arriving in Douala, Cameroon, and France had sent 1,000 troops to support its air units, and these were deployed along the 16th parallel of latitude. Then, in December, Habré launched an offensive against the Libyans in the extreme north at Bardai and in the Tibesti Mountains. French aircraft dropped supplies for his forces. Otherwise, despite Habré’s urgent requests for their help, the French appeared unwilling to become further involved fighting the Libyans, although they had 1,200 troops along the 16th parallel and a further 4,000 stationed in CAR. Habré, especially, wanted anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. The Libyans now had an estimated 6,000–8,000 troops in Chad. Only after Habré had pleaded that 20 years of war had wrecked the Chad economy and that he was not strong enough to face Libya unaided, did France agree to drop supplies for his forces, while the United States promised a further $15 million in aid. The French publicly discouraged Habré from attacking the Libyans, but then in mid-December, Goukouni’s forces, which had switched to Habré’s side the previous October, inflicted a major defeat on the Libyans.

At Bardai, 400 Libyans were killed and 17 of their tanks destroyed. France now agreed to assist Habré, who went north to attack the Libyans and assist the 3,000 Goukouni troops. This juncture represented a rapprochement between Habré and Goukouni’s FAP, although Goukouni himself appeared to be a prisoner in Tripoli. These Libyan reversals at the end of 1986 offered the best opportunity yet of bringing the civil war to an end. At the beginning of 1987, Habré’s forces launched a major offensive against the Libyans, who were forced to quit most of the towns they had occupied including Ouadi Doum. The Libyans then met with a major defeat at Fada when 784 soldiers were reported killed and 100 (Soviet) tanks were destroyed. Later 130 Libyan prisoners were displayed to the diplomatic corps in N’Djamena. During January, French planes ferried supplies to the north as Habré prepared for a further advance, while Libya built up its forces to an estimated 15,000 men and France sent a further 1,000 troops to Chad. In March 1987, Habré’s forces under the command of Hassan Djamous captured Ouadi Doum, which was Libya’s base for its strike aircraft: 3,600 Libyans were killed, 700 were captured, and 2,000 died of thirst in the desert as they fled. The Libyans now gave up Faya-Largeau and retreated further north while Habré, at last, appeared able to extend his authority over the whole country. Another 2,000–3,000 Libyan troops were isolated across the border in the Darfur Province of Sudan. Many of the Libyan troops were, in fact, mercenaries who had been pressed into the Islamic Pan-African Legion; these were originally people who had gone to Libya to seek work. The Chad war appeared to be deeply unpopular in Libya.

A Precarious Peace

France and Senegal (chair of the OAU) tried to persuade Habré to take the issue of the Aozou Strip to arbitration (April 1987), but Habré refused, stating his determination to recapture it. In August his forces took Aozou town but then were forced to retreat under heavy Libyan air attacks. However, in September FANT forces captured Maater-es-Surra in southeast Libya, destroying 22 aircraft and 100 tanks and killing 1,700 Libyans. Habré now had troops in southern Libya and controlled the whole of Chad; on 11 September 1987, a cease-fire with Libya was agreed upon. However, Habré did not have control of the Aozou Strip and a stalemate between Libya and Chad continued through 1988, especially as France was not prepared to help Habré take over the Aozou Strip, which had been heavily fortified by the Libyans. A breakthrough came in May 1988, when Gaddafi announced his readiness to recognize the Habré government and provide a “Marshall Plan” to reconstruct war-damaged areas of Chad.

Casualties over more than 20 years of civil war, with its various foreign interventions, are extremely difficult to quantify; at times the fighting had only been between Chad factions, at others the French and Libyans were active on either side, and by the end it was a war between Chad and Libya. During the fight for N’Djamena in 1980, between 3,000 and 4,000 people were killed. From 1965 to the end of the 1970s possibly 20,000 people were killed, while a further 30,000 died during the 1980s. The short conflict between Chad and Nigeria in 1983 over Lake Chad resulted in between 300 and 500 Chadians being killed. Claims and counterclaims for casualties were often conflicting and the casualties for 1987 in the fighting with Libya are at best approximations since Chad undoubtedly inflated the figures for Libyan casualties, while Libya played down its losses, which were in the region of 4,000 dead, 200 tanks and 45 aircraft destroyed. Libyan interventions were certainly very costly, but it could rely upon its oil wealth to meet the bill; Chad, on the other hand, is one of the poorest countries in Africa. It was heavily dependent upon French financial and military aid, and French forces came and went three times during the 20-year war. Chad also received financial and military assistance from the United States ($25 million in 1983; $15 million in 1987). The French estimated the cost of maintaining their troops in Chad at approximately $420,000 a day and these interventions were not popular in France. At various stages of the war refugees from Chad crossed into Sudan and CAR and in the 1980s, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were up to 25,000 refugees in Darfur Province of Sudan.

Habré’s great year of triumph was 1987: he fought the Libyans to a standstill and invaded their territory before obtaining a ceasefire; Gaddafi agreed to recognize his government and provide aid; and finally Libya agreed to go to arbitration over the Aozou Strip. On 31 August 1989, Chad and Libya agreed to spend a year seeking a solution to their differences, while an OAU Observer Force administered the Aozou Strip and France and Libya undertook to withdraw their forces in stages. However, in December 1990, General Idriss Déby, who had been in exile in Darfur, Sudan, overthrew Habré in a coup. He released Libyan prisoners who had been held since 1988 and was believed to have received support for his coup from Gaddafi. Nonetheless, on 5 September 1991, Chad and Libya signed a security agreement of bilateral cooperation and both the internal and external wars appeared to have come to an end. On 3 February 1994, the International Court of Justice ruled by 16 to one to confirm Chad’s sovereignty over the Aozou Strip, and on 31 May, the Aozou Strip was formally returned to Chad.