Thirty​ years ago, disembarking at the airport in N’Djamena, I knew within moments that the calcination of desert sand produces a dust of such pungency that it wipes all previous data from the olfactory memory. Two other startling realisations in Chad: first, that a state capital of about 200,000 inhabitants could have only two paved streets and no street lights at all; second, that despite the shifting fortunes of war – the far northern oasis town of Faya-Largeau changed hands twice during my ten-day stay in the country – one of the rebel leaders, Abba Siddick, was more interested in a brief mention of his country in the French satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné than he was about whether Libya or Chad (and, if it was Chad, which Chadians?) had gained control of the desert fort. In those days, France ruled the roost in its former colony and I was learning French: the future belonged to me. Just back from a recent trip, I had a chance to review these early impressions. Nowadays only the dust makes the cut.

N’Djamena – from the Arabic ‘place of rest’ – is now a sprawling city with more than a million inhabitants, a maze of roads, roundabouts and even the odd flyover. Spoiled for choice on the sparkling blacktops, seasoned residents complain about how easy it is to get lost. The old centre, an encrustation either side of the avenue Charles de Gaulle, is on its state-sponsored way to becoming a new, upstart part of town, pinned in place by a five-star Kempinski hotel (‘156 deluxe rooms’), which already functions as the guesthouse of the future. Chad’s oil wealth has resulted in a construction frenzy, which is also a feeding frenzy for the men at the top. Oil began to flow in 2003 but, until a few years ago, the cost of putting down periodic insurgencies accounted for almost all of the revenue stream. In 2006 and 2008, rebels advanced within sight of the presidency and, had it not been for the French military, the president, Idriss Déby, might have been toppled. But the regime depends as much on oil receipts as it does on French troops, which have been stationed here since 1983, and the strategic oil business is in American hands. ExxonMobil leads the consortium which provides the government with 80 per cent of its revenue (while 80 per cent of the population rely for their livelihood on subsistence farming and animal husbandry).

I’m a gatherer – news is the object of my forays – not a hunter, and I have a healthy suspicion of Hemingway. But I remember what he wrote in the 1950s about appearances in Africa being ‘true at first light and a lie by noon’. He was playing with the idea of the mirage, and in Chad the north-south divide is a modern newsgatherer’s hallucination. Throughout the Sahel region – the swathe of land stretching from Mauritania to Darfur, west to east across the continent – ‘north’ and ‘south’ have become handy portmanteau words for hurried visitors, and Chad is a perfect fit. Unpacked, they mean a lot of different things. North stands for the ‘ungoverned’ spaces, sparsely populated by Islamised, often nomadic minorities: ‘bad’ because they are the descendants of slave-raiders in East Africa; ‘good’ because we once doffed our hats to them as warrior elites; yet ‘bad’ again once they’ve become 21st-century jihadists, taking Western hostages, severing limbs, stoning women for alleged adultery and messing with Unesco world heritage sites in Mali. South refers to a less austere environment, often ‘savannah’, with more than the bare subsistence minimum and larger population clusters; it signals Christians and ‘animists’, whose beliefs are innocent until proven guilty: the peoples of the southern Sahel had enrolled massively in the ‘colonial school’, and teachers are reluctant to disown their disciples. Empty versus full, arid versus lush, Islam versus Christianity, resistance fighters versus collaborators, and in Nigeria, boko haram versus boko halal – ‘school is bad’ versus ‘school is good’. This is a thin version of the reality.

When I was travelling to Chad in the 1980s, Hissène Habré, a northerner born in Faya-Largeau, was in charge of the country. For the first time since ‘the north’ had seized power at the end of the 1970s, there was a serious attempt to build a state – nation state would be going too far – and, in the end, what Habré achieved was no more than a state security apparatus. With French help, Muammar Gaddafi’s repeated attempts to annex Chad were successfully repelled. The ‘Toyota wars’ against Libyan-backed rebels were waged in the desert. Four-by-fours equipped with small artillery pieces were thrown at the enemy like cuirassiers, wave after wave. At the same time, dissent was snuffed out in ‘la piscine’, the headquarters of the political police in N’Djamena where during the eight years of Habré’s reign an estimated forty thousand died in a subterranean cellblock built in what was once a swimming pool. I learned about the place after Habré’s fall. Until then I’d wondered in a cursory way about the astonishing security panoply around the president. Even his regular guests had their heels checked for explosives – this was well before the ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid tried to bring down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.

The Chadian state used to be – in the words of the American anthropologist Janet Roitman – a ‘garrison-entrepôt’: a guarded storage facility for hoarders in one of the world’s poorest countries. ‘The south’ lost power once no one was prepared to defend the treasure of a postcolonial elite claiming implausibly to stand for the country’s majority. Successive warlords from the north drove home the fundamental point that power falls to those who are prepared to die for it, rather than those who enjoy living with it. In the past the comforts of incumbency enervated regimes in the capital, and led to periodic raids on the garrison-entrepôt by a new surge of power-hungry desert fighters. But this has changed with the recent oil wealth, small as it is in international terms, at 100,000 barrels per day: enough to buy off dissent and acquire sophisticated weaponry for the army. The new Chad is a rentier state, disbursing patronage from a well of black gold.

Before the oil, France used to tip the balance. On 1 December 1990, I was waiting on the edge of N’Djamena with a correspondent from the French news agency AFP for Idriss Déby to sweep in and take over the country. Habré had fled into exile and Déby, his former chief of staff, was about to enter the abandoned, panic-stricken capital. He was ‘accompanied’ on his ride to power by an operative from the DGSE, the French secret service. My AFP colleague and I had been tipped off by the DGSE for a first interview with the incoming president (it didn’t happen: Déby stopped to greet us but then drove on). All three of us, the new president, the AFP journalist and I, were part of the French dispositif, the arrangement between the former colonial power and the new state that followed independence. From the inside, it felt all-encompassing, but it wasn’t. I remember a Reuters journalist protesting that the French were shutting him out of the unfolding story by hopping across the hotel lobby in N’Djamena shouting: ‘They’ve cut my leg off! I want it back!’

In the spring of 2013, France was happy to enlist Déby’s tribal army for its anti-jihadist intervention in Mali, a huge boost for Déby’s prestige: Zaghawa fighters from the president’s ethnic group formed the backbone of the expeditionary force, led into battle by one of his sons, General Mahamat Déby. The Americans, too, count on the Chadian military for their own ‘war on terror’ in the Sahel. The Zaghawa core of the Chadian army is a tough, fearless fighting force with a dismal human rights record at home and abroad.

Yet inadvertently, by overthrowing Gaddafi, the West has created a new set of problems in northern Chad, where the spillover effects of the chaos in Libya now need to be contained. Add to this the threat emanating from Boko Haram and the unresolved crisis in Darfur, where Chad is inextricably involved (see Jérome Tubiana, LRB, 19 December 2009), and it’s clear why the crisis in the neighbouring Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims are at loggerheads, has caused such alarm in N’Djamena. Chad has a similar religious divide and even though it’s been hailed as a new ‘regional power’, it has just withdrawn its contingent from the regional peacekeeping force in CAR: Déby’s regime is increasingly concerned about the home front.

One night in January, I paid a courtesy visit to another of Déby’s sons, Adam Idriss, a colonel in the Presidential Guard. I met the soft-spoken, almost shy young man in his sitting room, where he was alone in front of a giant flat-screen TV, the sole source of lighting. We spoke about the help he’d given to a colleague, allowing him to travel embedded with the Chadian army as it fought in northern Mali – a welcome change in perspective, and a scoop for that matter. Graciously, Idriss played down his role and said one should never underestimate the number of people who were willing to move things along. He was a courteous, amenable figure, but Chadian websites are heaving with organisational charts denouncing the ‘parasitic confiscation of power’ by the presidential family sensu stricto and sensu lato, and by the Zaghawa in general, who account for less than 5 per cent of Chad’s ten million population. Courtesy and goodwill were all very well, but hardly confirmed by the semi-automatic pistol that the president’s son kept next to him on his leather sofa, always within reach.

For almost 25 years, a small minority in Chad has maintained its white-knuckle grip on the upper echelons of the administration, the armed forces and the public sector of the economy. How long will they be able to hold on? Much depends on Déby, whose health, at 62, has become an early source of speculation. ‘He hasn’t got any serious problems, it’s just fatigue,’ a member of his entourage remarked in an off the record conversation. ‘But the president needs to prepare for his succession. As of now, the army wouldn’t obey any elected official.’ This goes deeper than the instinctive defence of power and privilege. The greater worry is the possibility, after quarter of a century under Déby, of a vengeful backlash against the Zaghawa. The rule of the strong man, based on an inner circle, however long it lasts, does nothing for the stability of a country’s institutions. Twice holed up in his presidency, Déby refused French offers to evacuate him and his close family. Did he turn down safe conduct into exile because he was too brave to run away? Or perhaps he was worried by the prospect of living in fear of prosecution for human rights violations, which is the fate of Habré, now waiting in a Senegalese prison cell to be tried by a special African court for crimes against humanity and a range of war crimes. Either way Déby was keenly aware that the French could no longer protect him.

Chad has become a twilight country. The French are on the defensive but they’re not on their way out; the US – but also China, Turkey and others – are on the offensive but they’re not on their way in. The French call their local anti-terrorist operation – woefully underfunded by comparison to its American equivalent – the Direction des affaires réservées (‘classified business’). At the same time, they remain indispensable suppliers and middlemen even in the US-dominated oil business, and no one even thinks about replacing them as guarantors of the local potentate. In actuarial terms, this kind of life insurance has become too hazardous to contemplate – perhaps even for France.

As for the Chadians, they now live in a surreal, globalised environment where the present seems to disown the past. Elections are conducted at regular intervals but not much democracy ensues in a country where the rule of law means rule by a minority. Since oil superseded cotton as the main foreign currency earner, the country’s GNP has soared but so has the grinding poverty around an enclave economy. Significantly, Chad has projected its forces beyond its borders, in Darfur, CAR and Mali, only to discover that they may soon have to be deployed at home.

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