CAR: Unexpected forces that shape Chadian citizenship: From fluid to fixed belonging?

– Inge Butter, 14 January 2015.

Chad and the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) are not only linked through conflict and political support. Between the two territories there is a long relationship of exchange in the form of cross-border family ties, trade networks and resource exploitation. In precolonial times different empires united or divided the region. Under the reign of the French (as Afrique Equatorial Francaise, A.E.F.) the territory was governed as one military region. Such a history of governance, in which borders shifted or were alternatively non-existent, has shaped societies and feelings of belonging. The post-colonial division between Chad and C.A.R. in 1960 started a period in which questions of nationality gained meaning and categories of strangers and migrants were increasingly part of the social landscape. Nevertheless, when members of our research team visited Bangui in 2012, the capital city came across as a cosmopolitan town housing people of varying roots and nationalities. In the case of those of Chadian origin, we met people with ties to varying regions —Sara, Kanembu, Salamat— and whose travel histories had begun in the 20th century. Some Chadians came as soldiers, forced labourers or merchants in the time of the A.E.F.. Men came looking to set up trade in the time of Bokassa while one woman remembers coming into C.A.R. on the day Habré became president, following her new husband. In the more recent context of the CEMAC, travel and commerce are (officially) made easier over national boundaries. Over time, this openness and permeability of the border has helped people to make a living and to feel both Chadian and Centrafricaine. What then, happened to these ‘cosmopolites’ when in 2013, the Séléka alliance descended on the capital and when, in the following months, national origins and boundaries seemed to become more pertinent? Who are these people that have become both victim and perpetrator in an immensely complicated conflict— what are their stories of belonging and citizenship?


Three women, three stories

These are the stories of three Chadian women who have spent the largest part of their lives in the C.A.R.. Khadidja, Habiba and Nour are in their twenties to forties and consider Centrafrique as their home. Khadidja and Habiba are second generation immigrants while Nour belongs to the third generation of her family living and working in Bangui. All three women are of Chadian Arab origin, hailing from various nomadic tribes in Central and Eastern Chad. The ways in which they have lived in C.A.R. vary, as do their ties with their country of origin and the way they have navigated familial, local and regional politics during the ongoing conflict. Their experiences (and futures) are entangled with that of friends and family on both sides of the national border. In this conflict there is no clear “good” or “bad” side and all members of the Centrafricaine population have suffered its consequences. Due to the nature of my fieldwork amongst predominantly Arab Chadians, it is only their stories I can tell in detail. This piece should be read as an attempt to bring some nuance into the understanding of those that were living in the C.A.R. at the time the conflict broke out, and as a reflection on their futures.



Twenty-six year old Nour and her family were amongst those that were air crafted out of Bangui on the 22nd December 2013. They had initially taken cover with relatives in Bangui’s neighbourhood Cinq Kilo, having left their own unsafe housing in Miskeen. In Cinq Kilo they were herded up by Burundian MISCA troops and brought to Bangui’s international airport where they waited for days without enough drinking water. Humanitarian agencies were having trouble catering to the needs of the hundreds of people fleeing their quartiers. The Chadian government sent several planes to pick up its nationals, women and children getting priority. ID-cards were barely checked. Even though Nour and her family have the C.A.R. identity they did not claim this nationality but instead chose to assert themselves as Chadians. A direct consequence is that they thus became repatriates instead of refugees. Instead of being taken into the care of the UNHCR they were brought under the responsibility of the Chadian government and settled in a camp on N’Djamena’s eastern outskirts.

Those living in the camp in Gawwi had been provided with floor mats (birsh), rice, water and oil by the Chadian state and local (mostly Islamic) NGOs. One of the main things that was lacking however was wood to cook on. Being an already expensive item to get hold of in N’Djamena this proved to be an issue for many families. Those who had fled with money were able to buy certain goods or use the money to set up a small business. Others were forced to sell the birsh they had been donated in order to buy other much needed products. Nour and her family had literally left with the clothes on their backs and some cash. Upon arrival in the camp Nour was quick to contact those who still owed her money from when she had spent two years in her husband’s parental town (Mongo, Central Chad) and done some trade. Being the business woman she is, she was soon running a little commerce of her own, selling perfumes, tea and coffee from her tent. She would travel by public mini-bus to the main market in N’Djamena several times a week to buy goods. Her brother arrived by road late-February 2014 and by March he was selling cigarettes just outside the camp terrain, along with many other vendors of various products (vegetables, wood, soaps).


Life in Bangui

In reality, life in Bangui for Nour and her family wasn’t ideal. It was tough. Nour and her two brothers lived with their mother, aunt and grandmother in a badly-built concession consisting of two rooms. Unlike some of the other houses in the neighbourhood, theirs was built in the old-fashioned way, with mud and straw. Nour’s mother made a living processing corn into flour, drying the kernels before grinding them. Only one of her brothers helped to provide an income, although the women never saw much of it. The younger women all have children.

Nour was married as a second wife to a Chadian collecteur. He would collect diamonds from the different mining sites around Berberati (in south-west C.A.R.) and sell them on to larger companies. His business was never very successful and he wasn’t the best in managing his affairs when it did turn lucrative. In 2010 he decided to try his luck in Libya, travelling via Chad to leave his new young wife with child and his four other children in the care of his family members in and around Mongo. Nour refused to live in the nomadic ferikh and instead rented a room from a marabout in town, selling perfumes and other beauty products at the local market. She complained that making a living from the market in Mongo was harder than in Bangui. Retail prices were already steep, not leaving much margin to make a profit. When after two years Nour’s husband had still not come back nor sent any money, she decided to head back to Bangui.

In October 2012 she had picked up her old life in Bangui, selling Chadian products at the Marché Soundanais in Cinq Kilo. She had still not received a dime from her husband, even after Ramadan, and was so angry at this that she had declared a divorce. She wanted her son to grow up in Bangui and was planning on working hard so that she would be able to provide him with an education.


Return to Chad

Come March 2014 and she and her mostly female relatives and children had been living in a refugee camp for three months. The outlook was unknown. In N’Djamena, people expected the Chadian state to act like they had when Chadians fled Libya after the fall of Khaddafi (in 2011) and were provided with cash money, land or jobs. Amongst the local N’Djamena population talk was of these refugees (officially named repatriates) returning to their origins or families. Many could but for even more this was an impossibility. Take Nour and her family who in total consist of twenty people. Which family member would be able to house them all? Even if they were to provide for their own food, the sheer lack of sleeping space would be an issue. Nour’s grandmother knew the name of her village but not its exact location. Visitors had told her to go back with her daughters and grandchildren, “Your family in the village will help you build somewhere to live with the grasses, mud and sticks the land provides”. Even if she could find out where she had grown up exactly, who says they would be waiting for them with open arms? It has been forty years since she last set foot in Chad and she is now an old woman. What would they live off of? They have outgrown life en brousse, too acquainted with urban living, fresh foodstuffs and more humid temperatures.



One of Nour’s relatives had already made the move to N’Djamena in July 2013. As a wealthy business woman Khadidja belongs to the elite and has ‘friends’ with close ties to Bozize’s former government. In addition to sensing brewing tensions even before the Séléka made their move in March 2013, she had been pre-warned. She admitted once that she kept these acquaintances as a form of protection. She felt insecure driving in Bangui at night and preferred to be accompanied by such an acquaintance. It helped when harassed by police checks and added an extra layer of safety[1].

As the eldest daughter, Khadidja is in her mid-thirties and was born and raised in Bangui along with her two siblings. Her father had come to the C.A.R. in the sixties, leaving his nomadic lifestyle behind. He initially set out as a livestock merchant, bringing in cattle from Chad and selling them on the Centrafricaine markets. This business eventually evolved into the import of other goods and he became one of the chief providers to the French army bases. He met his wife in Bangui. In 1983, when Khadidja was only five years old, her father was killed. According to general opinion this was a direct consequence of his hosting the ex-CDR Chadians who fled to the C.A.R. in the 1980s[2]. As she came of age, Khadidja’s uncle guarded her part in her father’s inheritance.

Khadidja has kept her familial ties to Chad alive, visiting on occasion with and without the children. Her mother has children from a previous marriage, all of whom live in N’Djamena and she is close with her half-sister. Upon the death of her own husband his family had given her the choice: his business selling veterinarian pharmaceuticals or the land he owned in N’Djamena. Her husband’s children from an earlier marriage had been eager to take over a business which produced a ready flow of capital. His brother, however, was reluctant to give Khadidja and her children the plots of land. She is still grateful for her decision to fight for the plots of land. The business is hard work but the land just sits there and rises in value. Land prices in N’Djamena have gone up considerably in the past years. Khadidja owns three such plots of land.


Planning for the future

Already before the Séléka alliance descended on Bangui, Khadidja was making plans for the future. She had not yet decided where she would let her children grow up but as the educational system in Bangui was sliding backwards she was considering her options. Despite owning land in Chad and having family there, she did not have any economic ties to the country. She didn’t like the mentality found in N’Djamena, worrying what effect it would have on her children and was leaning towards moving her family to Cameroon. Khadidja is not alone in claiming there is a certain mentality in N’Djamena, a perhaps difficult-to-describe feeling which comes with the heavily monopolised economic sectors, the ever-present threat of violent coupes, an elite which gets away with murder   and a watch-your-own-back kind of society. As a safety-net she was planning to build on the first two smaller plots of land she owned, building homes for her and her children, selling the third and largest plot to finance the construction.

By March 2014, Khadidja was renting a concession in N’Djamena and was still unsure what type of business to invest in. The plot of land she had started constructing was well underway. Initially she had planned to construct two plots at the same time but after having thought it over she had decided to first build a home for her and her children to live. This way they would no longer have to pay a monthly rent and could rest tranquil while she constructed the second plot and two little shops along the road adjacent to the property. In the meantime, she and her children could live off of the four million CFA in rent she was receiving each month. On leaving Bangui she had decided to rent out her own house. A smart move. Besides bringing in a large sum of income, it would secure the compound against looting as the organisations renting are part of the peace-keeping missions.

Setting up a trading business (import, export, etc) like she had run in Bangui was almost impossible. This she had learned in the past year and the lack of a diploma was getting in the way of alternatives. Instead she was planning on (re)schooling herself while in the meantime constructing yet another piece of land for rental.



As a younger cousin to Khadidja, Habiba was born as the first and only child of her Chadian father and mother. Her mother had been born in eastern Chad and had accompanied her elder sister to Bangui as a five year old. After a first failed marriage the sister re-married a successful merchant, Khadidja’s father. When Habiba’s father, Isaah, followed his maternal uncle to Bangui several years later and came to work for him, a marriage between Khadidja’s mother’s younger sister was soon arranged. Isaah also started out with livestock and later became the proprietor of plots of land and houses as well as several boutiques in the west of C.A.R..

Habiba grew up with her mother in Bangui as her father was constantly moving between his assets in south-western C.A.R.. After her parents divorced her mother remarried and had several more children, allowing Habiba to grow up with four half-sisters and one half-brother. At a fairly young age she was married to Khadidja’s youngest brother. She bore a son to him but the marriage didn’t last. Following tradition her son now lives with his father’s family and is in practice being raised by Khadidja.

As she was still a young woman upon her divorce a new marriage candidate was found amongst her father’s family in Chad. Her uncle’s eldest son was eligible and it was decided that he would come to the C.A.R. to learn the business and become her husband. Upon marrying her cousin Ibrahim, she moved to a small town towards the west of Bangui in which her father owned a plot of land and a boutique.

With her father’s passing in 2009 his other brother, Hajj Saleh, became responsible for the distribution of the inheritance, with Habiba as a woman under Islamic law, receiving one third. Hajj Saleh had been working alongside Isaah for some years. And so, over the past few years Hajj Saleh has been managing the investments Isaah had made in the C.A.R., selling the majority and keeping others. Apart from shops, land and property, their capital is in the form of livestock herded by Mbororo herders. To not incur the wrath of these herdsmen by selling all the cattle at once —men believe highly in witchcraft, especially in relation to the Mbororo— he has been selling a few at a time. The cash this generates has been sent to Chad and converted into a herd of camels.



With the violence that erupted after the coupe in March 2013, Habiba and her family seemed to be out of violence’s reach. Yet towards December, when the anti-Balaka retaliation and Séléka plundering became more prominent, they too were warned by soldiers that it would be wise to leave their village. They travelled to a larger town further west towards the border with Cameroon where an old friend of her father’s lived, Salim Malik. It is here that Ibrahim, together with several other men, decided he would stay with their cattle. Habiba and her two young children (aged four and a baby of six months), were sent on to Cameroon, arriving in a refugee camp in Kentzouh. Not long after, news reached family in N’Djamena by way of a Malian neighbour and friend of Salim that the town had been attacked. The Malian had been left unharmed and as he had been a figure in the life of Salim he knew who to contact in Chad. Of the eleven people killed, they were unable to identify seven. Salim was amongst those identified, along with his family.

When the news reached the ferikh (nomadic camps) it was feared that Ibrahim was amongst the unidentifiable. As chef de ferikh, Hajj Saleh decided it would be best to hold a dowtt, a ceremony held for the deceased. The dowtt was carried out as planned, costing the family a lot in capital (cash and livestock). The morning after the ceremony a phone call came in, Ibrahim had been spotted derrière son bétail. There was no further explanation of how this had happened and what his status was. Before leaving Ibrahim had said they were planning to head south towards Congo-Zaire, as they call it, before turning and heading north along the Cameroonian border, up towards Chad. Family in Chad worried, they knew Ibrahim wasn’t carrying any weapons. They had discussed this over the phone when he was still debating whether or not to leave. The group that left were carrying sticks and the knives all Chadians own. Nothing automatic.


The return to Chad

In March 2014 Habiba arrived in N’Djamena. The Chadian state had arranged for transportation to pick up their ‘repatriates’ and bring them back to their country of origin. The buses left Kentzouh and traveled via Garou-Boulai to Moundou and eventually on to Chad. On arrival in N’Djamena the passengers were dropped at a large petrol station not far from where the buses heading east leave. At eleven at night Habiba called her paternal uncle Ahmed, who resides in the city. He knew she was on her way as someone she was in the refugee camp in Kentzouh with had called ahead. For the next few weeks Habiba and her children spent time recovering from the long journey, dealing with the stress of not knowing how her husband was faring. She alternated living with the paternal uncle and his family and with her cousin Khadidja. Since Habiba’s divorce, Khadidja had been taking care of her nephew and Habiba had not seen her first-born son since he was eight years old. By now he had grown into a boy of thirteen.

Amongst Khadidja and the paternal uncle decisions were made as to what would be best for Habiba. They both felt she should stay in the capital for a good few months before heading to the ferikh. Family in the ferikh were desperate to have her and her children back. Her second-born son, whom she had left in the ferikh a good year and a half before, was constantly asking about her. Habiba had lived in the ferikh between 2010 and 2012. After first her mother’s passing, followed by that of her father two years later, she had gone into a depression. For the first four months it was Salim Malik, her father’s friend from the beginning of his C.A.R. adventures, who stayed by her side, night and day. When her condition didn’t improve her uncle decided she should go stay with her father’s family in the ferikh. She had never met them and it would also be good for her two sons (then three and one years old) to get to know their parents.

Life in the ferikh was tough on her. Apart from the obvious psychological depression, she has a heavy body weight and suffers from heart palpitations. Mostly, the climate in central Chad is hot and dry, unlike what she had grown up with. The staple of boulle was hard for her stomach to digest and the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables didn’t help. Although she never came to participate fully in the chores of other ferikh women, like fetching water and collecting fire wood, she did help with the cooking and would do her own laundry. She found it hard to walk long distances and therefore did not venture out to far away ferikhs for social visits. In the two plus years she lived with her two aunts (one simultaneously mother-in-law) and amongst her other close family she learned to appreciate their ways and traditions. By the time she left in May 2012, there were plans for her and Ibrahim to eventually return to Chad so that they could live in the house her father had built in the nearby town of Mongo and where Ibrahim could run a boutique.


Familial reunions

On Sunday evening the 23rd of March 2014, Ahmed received a phone call from Ibrahim to say they had arrived in the south of Chad, without their cattle. They had lost everything. It was arranged that Hajj Saleh, the uncle, would send money so that Ibrahim and his friend could take a bus to N’Djamena. On Wednesday at four in the afternoon, Ahmed drove to the Express Sud Voyage in Dembé to collect the pair. It was an emotional reunion. Both men were noticeably relieved. They looked tired and thin, each carrying nothing more than the standard sac in which groceries are carried.

The morning after Ibrahim and the herd left Geng, the town was attacked. Habiba and her children had already left for Cameroon. With the herd they travelled south, as was the plan, before heading north along the Cameroonian border. Most of the journey went through dense forest. They never met anyone else, only heard people in the distance. It was a tiring walk of several weeks and by the time they reached northern C.A.R. the cattle were exhausted. Close to the border bandits accosted them, firing in all directions and scattering the livestock. Ibrahim and the others fled for the bushes where they could. Some were successful and the rest rounded up. Ibrahim and his friend were let free for some reason and they didn’t think twice before getting out of there. This is how they came to enter Chad with not much more than the clothes on their backs.

Now that Ibrahim had returned, Habiba could no longer stay on in N’Djamena as planned. She and her children belonged with her husband and in turn, he belonged with his parents. Ibrahim was allowed to recover for a few days while logistics were discussed. Habiba’s father had bought land in Mongo and built five rooms on it. All were being rented out by Hajj Saleh. The idea was that two of the renters would be given notice so that Habiba and Ibrahim could occupy these chambers. The other three rooms would remain rentals, at least for the time being. Getting the renters out couldn’t be done in one day and the rooms would need some work before they were considered suitable. First off, the young couple would stay in the ferikh until after the Ramadan, before moving into the rooms in Mongo. This was not as Habiba had envisioned it, nor what Khadidja and Ahmed wanted for her. She had come to terms with life in the ferikh before yet was understandably reluctant to do it again for a longer period of time. Now that her husband was present, there was no real reason to not move into the rooms in Mongo. Except for what the family thought best. By September 2014, the young family was still living with their parents in the ferikh. Expectedly, the youngest two children had been sick.


Unknown futures

The above three stories have far more side-stories and layers, showing the complexity of familial relations, even without the added factor of conflict and violence. The husband Nour had divorced has decided to return from Libya. His first-born son had made the journey to the far south of Chad to tell his mother she needed to come live in Mongo and be there for her daughters. She followed her son, bringing children from later relationships with her. Even if Nour would want to undo the divorce, the presence of wife number one makes this less likely. Khadidja has the benefit of being financially well-endowed yet this also makes her vulnerable and cautious in terms of investments made for her future. In contrast, Nour’s lack of wealth and loose family ties gives her a certain freedom. A freedom that Habiba misses while being well-looked after by her father’s family.

Time will tell where these three women will end up. How long will Nour and her family be able to stay in the refugee camp? What actions will the Chadian state undertake and will they, eventually return back to the country they know best, C.A.R.? Their lack of a support network is troubling yet also provides freedom. There is no uncle to tell Nour she should come and live in a rural setting and re-marry. Will Habiba finally make the move to Mongo and live the life her father possibly envisioned for her? Or will her young family continue to live under her uncle’s directions. Has her husband Ibrahim, who previously preferred living in the C.A.R., completely changed his mind after being confronted with violence? Will their children be able to attend school in Mongo as Habiba wished? And Khadidja, what will the future bring her? Will she be able to find her way in Chad’s complicated and highly monopolised business world?

The women and their families, like so many other Chadians who fled the C.A.R. to ‘return’, find themselves ‘betwixt and between’. In most cases there is no real ‘return’ as many have never set foot in Chad to begin with. Those with a tight-knit family who they’ve kept up relations with over the years have something to fall back on. On the other hand, these families don’t always have the means and do often have all sorts of ideas of ‘what would be best’. Ideas that do not always rhyme with the lives lived in C.A.R..

On a national level there are many more questions; Will frictions arise between the numbers of ‘Chadian Centraficaine’s’ and the local population, as some in N’Djamena feared— the C.A.R. conflict displacing itself to Chad? What has the state envisioned for its ‘lost’ herd and will these Chadians eventually return to the C.A.R. to pick-up where they left off, rebuilding and forgiving?


Time will tell.


One year later, January 2015

Nour has left the state-run repatriation camp in Gawwi and moved back to Bangui. It is unclear whether she travelled alone with her young son or whether she was accompanied by any of her other twenty-two family members. Nour was always one to not sit around and Habiba claims she  had been fed-up with waiting around in the camp with nothing for them in ways of making a ‘real’ life for themselves.  Ahmed nor Habiba have had any news from her since she has left for Bangui. Habiba herself has just returned to N’Djamena to be treated for an eye infection and is staying with her uncle Ahmed. Her three youngest children are with their grandmother in the ferikh, to which she will also return. There is no further news on the move to Mongo. Khadidja has found a way to pursue her entrepreneurial talents, dealing in commercial activities between Chad, C.A.R. and Cameroon (mostly transporting goods by plane).

While these three women’s Chadian roots (parentage) are clear, their actual citizenship status as well as (feelings of) belonging are less so. In the case of Nour and Khadidja especially, there is a certain fluidity to the way in which they have reutilised their ties and belonging to both countries.


[1]When we met up in February 2014 she confided that one of these acquaintances had at first gone into hiding but was now an active member of the anti-Balaka. In which capacity is unclear.

[2] After the suspicious death of a prominent Arab CDR leader in 1982, many of the rebel group fled the country. The story goes that it was Habré himself who sent a hit-man to kill Khadidja’s father. The murder happened in broad daylight en plein ville. No one was arrested and reports are that the killer possessed a specialised weapon. Khadidja’s father is said to have not been politically involved, merely acting as host and providing a support network. He was a well-known figure amongst the Chadian community in Centrafrique.

Get more stuff like this
in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.

Get more stuff like this
in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.