(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

How to survive when the robbers are often policemen

Map of Chad
IRIN

If armed robbers break into your house or steal your car in N'djamena, the hot and sandy capital of Chad, residents say you are better off blowing a whistle than calling a policeman.

When one person blows their whistle, the entire family joins in. Then the whole street is alerted and neighbours add their whistles to the alarm calls, hoping to scare off the intruder and make him realise that he will have more than a lone individual to deal with.

The problem with calling the police in N'djamena is that the criminal may well enjoy police or government protection. He may even be a policeman, gendarme or a soldier himself.

This has turned out to be the case in a string of recent incidents reported in the local press, where the assailant has simply been set free.

Those who can afford sophisticated weaponry keep guns and tear gas cannisters handy to deal with attackers and intruders. Even the head of the local human rights association packs a pistol to defend himself.

“I was nearly killed in my office”, Dobian Assingar, the President of the Chadian League of Human Rights, told IRIN. “A guy came to my office and pointed his gun at me. I took out mine and he fled."

"This was the seventh time I had been attacked”, Assingar added, emphasizing that the only solution left was to carry a gun to defend himself.

Knives and magic charms ward off attacker

People of more modest means simply arm themselves with knives and magic charms to combat the growing crime wave in the capital of this volatile and often lawless Central African state.

“I spread sesame oil on the floor at the main entrances to the house and all the family annoints themselves so that no unwanted visitor will pass our door”, Palaye, a demobilized soldier told IRIN.

Others hang a rhinoceros horn above their front door to ward off unwanted visitors or buy amulets from traditional sorcerers to make them invulnerable to bullets.

Residents in this city of one million people on the banks of the Logone river, which forms the border with neighbouring Cameroon, told IRIN that the security situation had got worse since the government of President Idriss Deby launched a crackdown on pay fraud in the security forces earlier this year.

The government attempted to weed out several thousand phantom soldiers whose pay was collected by serving members of the security forces in a bid to boost their low salaries.

However, this crackdown had the effect of leaving former beneficiaries of the fiddle disgruntled and severely out of pocket.

The government cited dissatisfaction with the clean-up campaign as being a major factor behind an abortive army mutiny last month.

Guns flood in from Sudan and Central African Republic

Residents also blame the growing tide of lawlessness on the return of idle gunmen from the Central African Republic, where a large force of Chadian mercenaries helped President Francois Bozize unseat his predecessor Ange-Felix Patasse in March last year.

A long tradition of civil wars within Chad and guns flooding in from the conflict in Sudan's Darfur province on Chad's eastern border make the situation even worse.

“Insecurity in N'djamena is greatly caused by former ex-combatants who, having nothing else to do, engage in extortion”, Idrissa Mbaye, the United Nations Field Security Officer in N’djamena told IRIN.

The grinding poverty in which most Chadians are forced to live - the country ranks 165th out of 175 on the United Nations Human Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index - also tempts many to seek a short cut to riches.

And poor street lighting in N'djamena, where prolonged power cuts are a way of life, makes mugging so much easier.

Zaghawahs are said to enjoy impunity

Local newspapers are full of stories involving crimes committed by the military and N'djamena residents say members of President Deby's small Zaghawah ethnic group from eastern Chad, enjoy a particularly high degree of immunity from prosecution.

Earlier this year, the N'djamena newspapers reported in considerable detail the case of Colonel Tidjani Misse, a Zaghawah army officer based in N'Djamena, who was found in possession of a car which had been stolen from the electricity company (SONEL) in neighbouring Cameroon.

The Cameroonian authorities asked Mbodou Seid, the Chadian consul in the northern Cameroonian town of Garoua, to retrieve the vehicle and the diplomat proceeded to help SONEL file a law suit in N'djamena to have the car restored to its rightful owner.

However, on 21 April the aggrieved Misse fired at the consul with a gun as he was about to enter a lawyer's office in N'djamena to help lay the case before a Chadian court.

The consul escaped unhurt and the army officer was arrested. However, his detention does not appear to have lasted very long.
The Chadian press said a few weeks later that Misse was one of the ringleaders involved in the 16 May army mutiny.

Sometimes, however, members of the security forces indulging in a bit of free-lance armed robbery are caught and sent to trial.

Some military criminals are brought to justice

On the night of 6 May, for instance, army warrant officer Yusuf Saboune led a gang that broke into the house of Outman Al Gandour, a wealthy cattle trader, and stole a case containing several million CFA francs (the equivalent of several thousand US dollars) in cash.

A relative of Al Gandour told IRIN that the soldier shot dead the cattle trader's younger brother during the raid and injured three other members of the family. Saboune was subsequently captured by neighbours and handed over to the police. The warrant officer, who had already been linked with previous crimes, was charged in court and at the end of May was still in custody awaiting trial.

Military sources told IRIN that crime and complicity with crime by members of the armed forces had been on the rise since the government crackdown on pay fraud began in January. At that point most salary payments in the security forces were frozen.

In February, the government discovered that some soldiers were drawing pay for a higher rank than they actually held and that many officers were picking up the pay packets of 5,000 "ghost soldiers" who simply didn't exist.

Since a private in the Chadian army earns less than 15,000 CFA francs (US$30) per month, the temptation for members of the security forces to supplement their income in illicit ways has always been high.

And military sources said the chances of military personnel from President Deby's Zaghawah ethnic group being brought to justice for their misdeeds were very slim.

Zaghawahs have come to occupy most of the key posts in the upper echelons of government since Deby came to power in 1990 after ousting former head of state Hissene Habre in a civil war.

The sources told IRIN that whenever the police caught a Zaghawah offender, some higher ranking Zaghawah officer usually intervened to have the suspect freed no matter what offence he was believed to have committed.

Interior Minister says the law is applied to all

Asked about these allegations of impunity, Interior Minister Abderamane Moussa insisted that justice was applied impartially to all and that Zaghawahs enjoyed no special privileges.

“Chad is a democratic country with democratic institutions. Justice is autonomous, free, with no pressure from whomever. The people arrested rightly go to prison,” he told IRIN.

However, Moussa admitted that the security forces were often over-stretched and under-resourced and that many of the gunmen who participated in a succession of civil wars had turned to banditry after failing to find a niche in the government's security forces.

"Our country has gone through decades of civil war. Former combatants have not all been integrated into the army ranks… They were used to an easy life, and now they lay ambushes on the roads” the interior minister said.

“Chad has extremely limited material and human resources to protect such a vast area. We are doing our best, but it is not easy”, he added.

However, diplomats, religious leaders and N'djamena residents in general insist that impunity in the security forces is a major problem which has led to a breakdown in the public's confidence in the government to maintain law and order.

“Already under Hissene Habre, it was Deby’s kinsmen the Zaghawahs, who created a reign of insecurity in the country under the cover of the Goranes, who were Hissene Habre's people," Khalil, an accountant with a private company in N’djamena, told IRIN.

"Today, they operate in broad daylight, killing people to take their motorbikes and cars because they are all powerful," he added.

Church accuses authorities of complicity in crime The Roman Catholic Church, which has a large following in southern Chad, spoke out forcefully on the issue in April.

Following a meeting in the southern town of Moundou, the Chadian bishop's conference issued a statement on the country's social and political situation in the country.

Referring to the climate of growing insecurity in Chad, the bishops said : “the partisan and/or clumsy interventions of the local authorities, and often their very complicity (in crime) give rise to feelings of injustice and oppression and are a source of general discontent.”

Sometimes, even when the police do agree to chase criminals, they demand money for their services.

“On 25 May, when two recalcitrant pupils from my school threatened me with a knife, the gendarmes of the third arrondissement demanded money before intervening," Ndeh Nkolo Suzanne, the headmistress of a primary school in the capital, told IRIN.

The Republican Guard and the National and Chadian National Nomadic Guard (GNNT), two well-armed sections of the armed forces which both played a prominent role in the May military rebellion, are particularly well known for extorting money from motorists as they demand to see their papers at check points.

War and weapons proliferation

About 150 idle fighters who recently returned from Central African Republic with a cash bonus of 300,000 CFA francs (US$600) each are also seen as a major problem.

For the time being, they are simply being accommodated at two camps within easy reach of N'djamena. Some are at Koundoul, 25 km from the capital. The rest are at Loumia, 80 km distant.

These returnees have brought a new influx of weapons with them, many of which are now for sale.

One barman in Koundoul told IRIN that he had been involved in several deals to trade guns. "The price of automatic rifles and hand guns varies between 50,000 and 100,000 CFA francs ($100 and $200)," he said.

Another 150 former Chadian fighters in the Central African Republic have drifted into Cameroon, where they have been blamed for a new crime wave.

Military sources said arms have also been entering Chad recently from Sudan.

Up to Sudanese 200,000 refugees have flooded across the border into Chad as two rebel movements in Darfur fight against the Khartoum government and its Arab militia allies.

The reaction of the authorities

The government has taken sporadic initiatives to clamp down on violent crime, but none have had a lasting effect.

In 1996, the government created youth vigilante committees called CARPs in each neighbourhood of the capital. A year later, the French government equipped the Chadian police with a new batch of four-wheel-drive vehicles. And in 2002 a special anti-gang brigade of the police called RAID was created.

However, Moussa Arabi, a police commissioner in one N'djamena neighbourhood, told IRIN that all these initiatives failed because Zaghawah offenders were always let off.

“The RAID chiefs, just like the people who ran the CARP’s before them, were Zaghawahs who would release Zaghawah offenders,” he said.

Garondé Djarma, a former prefect (local government administrator), said: “Texts on security have been developed and adopted. The Chadian government even has a Ministry of Public Security. But the whole security apparatus is in danger of collapsing because some Chadians think they are above the law!”

This sentiment was reflected in a commentary on Chadian state radio in early June, picked up by BBC Monitoring.

"Gossips call N'djamena a powder keg and argue that the possession of firearms or knives in Chad has become common practice over the past few years. The least quarrel between two people makes them quickly resort to arms as if the only way of solving our problems were to resort to weapons," commentator Biasituna Borinbul remarked.

He recommended that the security forces spend more time checking the cars of Chadian citizens entering the capital instead of harassing foreigners.

Meanwhile, the citizens of N'djamena bolt their doors and hope that they will not be the next victim of a break-in or mugging.

Dominique Touade, the marketing director of the Chadian weekly L'Observateur, said he was attacked by three men with machetes at night in early May and woke up in hospital to find he had lost his mobile phone and purse.

"I think it is poverty which prompts young people to become aggressive “, he said.

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