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Conflits et violences dans le bassin du lac Tchad

Emmanuel Chauvin
Olivier Langlois
Christian Seignobos
et al.

Partie 3 – Les insécurités, l’État et le pouvoir

Chapitre 16. The N’Guéli bridge as a space of insecurity

A case of militarized governance in Chad

Alessio Iocchi


Cette contribution questionne les mesures de sûreté, la gouvernance urbaine et le revers de la guerre contre le terrorisme au Tchad, à travers l’analyse des événements violents survenus à N’Guéli, à la frontière Tchad-Cameroun, en novembre 2016, apportant une perspective sur les conflits liés à la gestion de l’espace en temps d’insécurité.

Texte intégral


  • 1 “Tchad : premier attentat-suicide à N’Djamena”, Le Monde, 16 June 2015 [en ligne]; “Attentat‑suicid (...)
  • 2 “Le Tchad interdit la burqa pour des raisons de sécurité après le double attentat‑suicide”, Jeune A (...)

1The purpose of the present paper is to reflect about mechanisms of urban governance in an environment affected by political insecurity. Chad’s government has become a major military power through its intervention to counter violent jihadism in the Lake Chad area, though this has nonetheless highlighted the regime’s political and economic stress points in the medium term. The military intervention against the organization collectively referred to as Boko Haram has proved to be also an instrument to elude mounting tensions growing within the country’s power circle, in addition to increased social discontent. On the other hand, through its commitment against terrorism, Déby’s government is testing the effectiveness of a relatively innovative strategy to bargain financial benefits in the “international political marketplace” (Waal de, 2014), proving to be a reliable partner for Western allies in the wider context of the Global War on Terror. The N’Djamena urban landscape has been harshly affected by the Boko Haram insurgency in June and July 2015 when a series of bombings hit different spots in the city, collectively claiming 59 deaths.1 The government’s strong reaction resulted, among others, in the ban for the full-face veil, restriction on the use of crash helmets and on mobility.2 Military presence has increased in the city: troops have started to patrol the city’s main strategic places while mosques, churches and other aggregation points in N’Djamena have fallen under the surveillance of semi-spontaneous vigilante-styled groups (comités de quartier). Déby’s military grip on the city and, generally, on the country’s vital institutions emerged in the gradual exploitation of the “security narrative” (Huysmans, 2006; El-Affendi, 2015) to justify operations of urban planning and development and, more broadly, measures of public governance, including frequent forced displacements, or déguerpissement, which have become an usual method to regulate urban environment in postcolonial states (Beall et al., 2000; Lindell, 2008). This paper aims to explore how, in the effort to counter terrorist threats, forces of order are increasingly contributing to determine a context of insecurity in N’Djamena’s urban area, likewise to what happens in rural areas with Eaux-Forêts (Mugelé, 2017) and further aggravated by the widespread judicial impunity of authorities and their kinfolk (Debos, 2017). Expressions such as “forced displacement”, “forced eviction” are frequently employed, likewise to a verb like “oust”, to designate déguerpissement in English. Déguerpissement are deemed to be operations of forced eviction of individuals from properties or estates, over which they have no legally recognised rights. The word has its roots in the colonial lexicon, when it was employed to designate the expulsion manu militari of bidonvillois (Dorrier-Apprill, 2001: 75) while Coquery-Vidrovitch defines the operation as the “[…] expulsion autoritaire et brutale des quartiers précaires et non légalisés” (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2006: 1103). Today, the operation is frequently employed by states as part of urban renovation schemes or in order to improve citizens’ living conditions (sanitation systems, fight against poverty). Widely penetrated in Francophone Africa’s daily language, the term will be used in the present text in its original form or through the expression of “forced displacement”.

2This article is based on a field research conducted in N’Djamena. The author spent the period between October and December 2016 in the city, visiting on a daily basis the wards of N’Guéli, Walia and Toukra. During this time, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a wide range of actors connected to the subject of research, including city government politicians and officials, members of security forces (gendarmes, policemen, Customs officers), local government representatives, motorcycle taxi drivers (clandos), market vendors, trade unionists, leaders of associations of informal workers, journalists. Respondents were selected through their expertise and through ‘snowball sampling’, in which each response directs the researcher to other informants.

The event: bias and coercion

  • 3 All data are retrieved from UN Data, at
  • 4 The days of the 2nd battle of N’Djamena saw the arrest at the hand of Déby’s forces of notable oppo (...)
  • 5 Post-9/11 global security discourses have converged to form what has been called the “War on Terror (...)

3N’Djamena has more than doubled its population between 1993 and today, growing from 529,555 to 1,260,000 inhabitants in 20153: this has resulted from a massive migration pattern from the countryside which significantly extended the city’s urban territory. A first wave of forced evictions was completed following the armed attack of February 2008, when president Déby issued a decree authorizing the demolition of what were called illegally constructed buildings and structures in the neighbourhoods of Gardolé II and Walia (9th arrondissement). The evictions were conducted without due process, adequate notice, consultation, alternative housing or compensation, justified by the state of emergency following the 2nd battle of N’Djamena (2-4 February 2008). Along with curfews, restrictions to mobility and an increasingly tighter grip on press, the government issued several orders for arrest towards opposition leaders, implying that forced evictions might have happened in the frame of the country’s political turmoil and conceived as a measure to undermine rebel forces as well as political antagonists.4 Since then, and despite formally the civil war came to an end in 2010, national and municipal authorities have continued the practice: putting aside alleged security reasons, the demolition of homes and businesses started to be claimed as part of recent plans of urban development, connected to those “good governance” practices encouraged by international financial institutions and intended to enhance living conditions in shack settlements or, generally, in the suburbs. The forced displacement which took place in late November 2016, instead, falls into the broader frame of the “state of emergency” discourse supported by the government for opportunistic reasons in the aftermath of the bombings, which comfortably conjugates with the War on Terror well-tested paradigm of global security.5

4Traditionally, in critical urban studies, the establishment of a new spatial order, such as the one examined for N’Djamena, is associated to the neo-liberal political project of reinforcement of urban élite’s interests (Harvey, 1989, 2012). After decades at the frontline of the struggle for development and poverty-eradication, Chad is now one of the most involved military actors in the War on Terror. This new security-sensitive context provides the stage for the lawful negation of the right to an adequate housing (Mitchell, 2003), which takes place through decrees and armed coercion, in the name of concepts like securization, sanitation and development which belong to the nebulous development lexicon (Cornwall, Eade, 2010). The dynamics of eviction and protest observed in the Nkanini informal settlement in Cape Town (Skuse, Cousins, 2007) and, more broadly, the modes of urban governance documented in South African cities (Bénit-Gbaffou, 2015; Pezzano, 2016a, 2016b), provide tools through which frame how the state codifies the access to urban resources (in line with the Millennium Development Goals) and the practices of institutionalized political participation, pillar of the World Bank-promoted “good governance” process. Though still in nuce, N’Guéli’s forms of grassroots organized resistance appear coherent to what exposed by the – right to the city – literature (Brenner et al., 2009; Parnell, Pieterse, 2010): the attempt to shape a “right to informality” (Huchzermeyer, 2011) and the emergence of insurgent practices (Holston, 2008), which may in turn activate greater mobilizations and lead to the establishment of informal dwellers as political subjects (Bayat, 2010).

  • 6 Bedoum L. Lionel, 2016 – Le conflit a des en dessus effrayants. Abba Garde, 153, 30 November‑10 Dec (...)
  • 7 The figure of the chef de race (ethnic chief) was created after the World War II as a native repres (...)
  • 8 Interviews taking place days after the clash by the author of the present work with policemen confi (...)
  • 9 Interview with the maire premier adjoint of 9th arrondissement, 30 November 2016, N’Guéli. Chad.
  • 10 This occurrence is linked to the arrest of some military officers from N’Guéli in connection to the (...)

5The event here analysed occurred on Thursday 24 November 2016, after a football match. A dispute arises between two teenagers, both students at the local Lycée Sans frontière de N’Guéli: the question rapidly worsens in a brawl and, while throwing stones at each other, one of the youngsters is hit and collapses on the ground. Despite a quick rush to the local hospital he will be declared dead soon after. Fearing retaliation at the hand of the victim’s family, the other teenager, along with his family, soon leaves N’Guéli. During the night, some women from the victim’s family arrive at the abandoned home ready to confront the assailant but, finding none, they instead decide to set the house on fire. Even though, at the very same time, some meetings were taking place between members of the two families, moderated by the 9th arrondissement’s and Bahr al-Ghazal’s representatives, sources6 have later claimed that a parallel meeting was being held between the victim’s family and their chef de race,7 Sabour Djabour, which led to the nefarious happening of Friday 25 November. On that day’s late morning, nearby the meat market of N’Guéli, where a group of women from the victim’s family had gathered to mourn the departed, several individuals arrived on board of Toyota pick-ups; they came out of the vehicles armed with different rifles and shotguns and started to shoot indifferently at the market’s bystanders. Several persons died and many others were wounded; several casualties of the gunfight were laying blood-covered on the tarmac, while a great number of passers-by injured by stray bullets were carried by moto-taxis to the nearest hospital.8 Soon after, the shooters vanished trying to escape, but police was easily on their tracks and the investigation soon led to several arrests, while an impressive control device was implemented throughout the city, and especially in N’Guéli and neighbouring sections. Police controls at rond-points and major crossroads lasted for some days. On Tuesday 29 November morning, N’Djamena’s mayor Mariam Djimet Ibet issued a decree authorising the forced evictions of three quartiers in N’Guéli, namely N’Guéli I, Bodor and Karwei. Several bulldozers, escorted by municipal police, reached the settlement and wiped out all the mud bricks-made buildings, leaving thousands of people homeless. The decree explicitly referred to the happenings of the 24th and 25th November, citing the need to “tear down the anarchic settlement”,9 thus implying that the murderers were natives from these houses. However this kind of connection between the murderous brawl and the déguerpissement seemed immediately shallow, if not imaginative: the purported assailant not only did not live in the demolished homes, but he also did not belong to the mostly Ngambay-speaking community of N’Guéli I, Bodor and Karwei. The brawl, and later the homicides, took place in another part of the arrondissement and originated from a communitarian fracture between Muslim clans which had actually nothing to do with the people déguerpi. Adding further confusion to observers – and further frustration to the affected citizens – a vague search for “possible Boko Haram activities” was conducted by military and police forces, though most of them hailed from those very same suburbs.10

Methods of governance: attempts to control the (political) space

  • 11 Interviews with residents, N’Djamena, Chad, November 2016.
  • 12 Interviews with evicted residents, Toukra, Chad, November 2016.
  • 13 Discussions with the Comité de Crise’s representatives, N’Guéli, Chad, October, November and Decemb (...)

6In order to settle questions arising from “anarchic” occupations of public spaces, states have frequently adopted the solution to evict, sic et simpliciter. In postcolonial era, evictions appeared as a useful way to master informal urban growth and to create healthy spaces for people to live in (Blot, Spire, 2014). For long periods, during the troubled political history of Chad, urban space used to have not a proper regulation, but during the civil war (2005-2010) a new policy of dirigiste nature was implemented. As noted above, on 22 February 2008, president Déby issued a decree authorizing the forced destruction of buildings classified as illegal, either because public lands were “anarchically” occupied (i.e. without permission) or because these structures were built without official building permits. The decree applied to Gardolé II and Walia, in the 9th arrondissement, but the destruction was later extended to other districts, like Farcha and Chagoua. In 2009 demolitions were extended to the Arded Djoumal area of the 3rd arrondissement, between the so-called “bar chinois” and the Kabalaye church, but, at least in this case, some of the evicted were given a sort of compensation, spanning from FCFA 1 million to 15 millions (between €1,500 and 24,000).11 However, before the demolition, they were not consulted nor they were given the chance to negotiate the terms of the evictions. A municipal decree (2009) issued from N’Djamena’s mayor authorized the demolition of structures built in non-durable materials (mud bricks) if they were in proximity to main roads, so forced evictions and demolitions continued undisturbed. After many years of neglect, the state has therefore become the effective administrator of urban space, and has provided a legislative frame through which devise and regulate the occupation and usage of public lands. Between 2010 and 2011, demolitions were extended to densely-populated suburbs of Ambatta and Toukra (9th arrondissement), where a particularly brutal eviction took place in the night between 24 and 25 December 2010.12 In June and December 2013 in neighbourhoods of N’Guéli (N’Guéli I and II, Bodor and Karwei) on the river Chari, a déguerpissement took place, this time intended for reasons of public security. Since no other employment for the plots of land by the administration or by privates was implemented, soon after former dwellers decided to resettle there. But, constantly fearing the return of bulldozers, they organized in an association to bring to the court a petition for the legal recognition of their right to live in the ward, coherently with already analysed forms of grassroots responses against violent state governance in informal settlements (Bayat, 1997, 2000). During several discussions conducted with members of the so-called Comité de Crise, created in the aftermath of the forced displacements to petition the state regarding the housing question, memories of the first census conducted by the Ministère de l’Aménagement du territoire, de l’Urbanisme et de l’Habitat (Matuh) in 2009 came to light.13 Those days, technicians told them that the lands, purchased or occupied by their ancestors – first waves of migrants during the 1940s and 1950s and, at the time, out of N’Djamena’s urban boundary – were light and porous and therefore not suitable for buildings, though, perfect for cultivation. Although this information alarmed them, sometime later, in 2011, the works for the erection of a mosque and the development of an hospital unit, somehow assured them that, for the moment, no eviction was to take place. But this was not the case. The governance mechanism put in place by policy-makers in Chad is vividly evoked by an old déguerpi inhabitant of N’Guéli Karwei:

7“They [the bulldozers] have come really early in the morning. I was staying here with my family and I asked them why were they here. The municipal police, that escorted them, told us that the maire had decided to oust us from our houses because they are unsafe, that those are all illegal structures and that we shall go to the plots of land the municipality donated us in Toukra. We told that in Toukra the land isn’t good as it is here in N’Guéli, [that] when we try to amass bricks they fall down and the ground is wet all the time because of the river… Others began to complain, nobody wanted to leave his house, children cried and old people started to feel some distress. Short, the bulldozers started to wreck down the walls and the police urged us to remove our stuff from the houses before the collapse. Many among us were not fast enough and the roofs collapsed over all their belongings. Police told us that we were warned about N’Guéli being a non-building-area, but we shouted “you belong to this place, you know we were not given any compensation and the land we were given is not good for living in, what shall we do now? We are forced out from our homes!” (former inhabitant of N’Guéli Karwei in 2016).

8Spatial relegation and resettlement practice result from the confrontation between people already living at the margins of cities and a set of multiple actors belonging to different categories but still identifiable through their support by political power: the state, local authorities, private societies. N’Guéli inhabitants disputed the legitimacy of the decision regarding their forced relocation but were faced to the inherent shortcomings and slow times of justice in Chad, while their lawyer meanwhile deceased in a car crash, therefore leaving them poor room to continue the dispute or to settle for a fair compensation. These citizens refuse a reinstallation and claim their right to live in N’Guéli, to which they are connected for familiar reasons, therefore meaning that this is a landscape that the ancestors and their descendants have contributed to forge and produce. Being a suburb of N’Djamena, N’Guéli enjoys a good position right on the south bank of the Chari river; moreover, its connection to the city through the bridge represents an asset for its inhabitants, which understandably see a possible relocation as a trauma. Therefore, it is possible to wonder whether these practices of relocation, applied indifferently and short-sightedly to a vulnerable category of citizens, represent an attempt to produce a space exclusively for the benefit of those who can afford the mounting prices of real estate market (Blot & Spire, 2014; Nguema, 2014).

An intrusive security response

9In N’Djamena, the practice of déguerpissements shows how, on its very core, lies a relationship of power between the déguerpis and the déguerpisseurs, while at stake there is the development and exploitation of spaces valued in terms of economic rationality (Ninnin, 2014; Morange & Spire, 2017). Forced displacements reveal different competitors’ strategies on how to produce urban spaces and shape notions of legitimacy regarding citizens’ condition and their way to employ urban areas, either on downtown or at the periphery. Being recipient of an important flow of money connected to development and humanitarian aid, the central government conceived in 1996 a Plan urbain de référence (PUR), the first one since 1962. But it was not effectively implemented until November 2008, when the Matuh provided the city with a document intended to provide guidelines and policies for urban development, which formed the basis for the extended “Agenda 21” project.14 A massive contribution came through the Agence française de développement (AFD)-funded projects to allow water-access and general sanitation to the city suburbs, which have started in 2013.15 The development frame allowed and encouraged state interventions in these once neglected peripheral areas, consistently with the guide-lines provided by the World Bank regarding so-called “development-induced displacements” (Kälin, 2000), which eventually promote negotiations and “fair” compensations, though often the notion of what’s “fair” and what’s not remains arbitrarily determined by authorities. Nonetheless, what, as a matter of fact, lays behind the development imperatives is the mere notion of legality. Paradoxically, state attempts to intervene for the improvement of unhealthy living conditions leads to a further impoverishment of subjects deemed aid-recipients (Choplin, 2014). Whether the déguerpissements are implemented in order to produce an ordered urban system or because the settlement are not “within the law”, they automatically translate on the ground as normative interventions which challenge the legitimacy of the dwellers to live in the city: the political meaning of such operations is that informal settlements have no right to be within the city’s boundaries, at least within the frame of economic liberalism (Mitchell, 2003). This impression is further strengthened by the frequent employment of military and police forces to ensure a “peaceful” process of eviction. As noted elsewhere (Gervais-Lambony et al., 2014; Loungou, 2014), recent security demands have contributed to shape urban space management. In N’Djamena a structural form of intervention is slowly redrawing the city’s aspect. While, as we have seen, a great part of urban projects are aimed to assure healthier and safer living conditions to inhabitants of recently-formed suburban areas, they also serve to the dual need to produce a “secured” space and to guarantee military provisions to the city’s national and foreign bases. The development of urban spaces, therefore, fulfils a role also in terms of facilitating the access to key strategic points or to achieve a better social control. In N’Djamena, in the context of the frequent political turmoil which have characterized the country since its independence and especially after the recent battles (2006, 2008), the notion of security has become an imperative for the ruling class. A goal whose achievement was made easier by oil-derived incomes and the country’s steady role as a French ally in the terrorism-sensitive Sahel region. After the Chadian civil war, the political-military élite on power has oriented its urban policies towards the regulation of a “safe space”, able to avert possible attempts to seize the city’s strategic points or to conduct a guerrilla-styled siege. Today, the necessities presented by the role of Chad, and specifically of N’Djamena, in the War on Terror as the central headquarters of both the Multi National Joint Task Force (coordinated by the Lake Chad Basin Commission, LCBC) and France-led Opération Barkhane have led to a new planning scheme for the city as a “security and logistics hub”. The development of a “militarized political marketplace” in Chad (Debos, 2014), in which the context of threat of violence is monetized through rent-seeking military cooperation, has given place in the country to possibilities for new economical endeavours and to a narrative through which justify authoritative measures. Long sought possibilities to monetize N’Guéli’s position as the biggest trading hub in Chad are in train to be developed through several investments by transport societies, with the aim to create a corridor linking to Cameroon’s largest port in Douala.16 Rather than being a “development-driven displacement”, the episode here recounted resembles more to a “market-driven displacement”.


10In conclusion, thanks to oil-revenues and the monetisation of its role as a key-player in the frame of anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel, N’Djamena’s face is slowly being modified to provide an healthier and safer space for its political and business élite, rather than for its citizens. Attempting to comply with World Bank’s directives, forced displacements actually take place without adequate notification, compensation and resettlement assistance: therefore, the “slum rhetoric” (Gilbert, 2007) appears employed to push the most vulnerable class of citizens away from much-coveted areas of business and strategic interest. The employment of incoherent discourses by the state, which nonchalantly associate illegal dwellings to criminal behaviour and to the threat of terrorist activities, masks the real reasons of the operation.


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1 “Tchad : premier attentat-suicide à N’Djamena”, Le Monde, 16 June 2015 [en ligne]; “Attentat‑suicide meurtrier au marché central de N’Djamena”, Le Monde, 11 July 2015 [en ligne].

2 “Le Tchad interdit la burqa pour des raisons de sécurité après le double attentat‑suicide”, Jeune Afrique, 17 June 2015 [en ligne]; “Chad troops enter Nigerian town in pursuit of Boko Haram”, Reuters, 3 February 2015 [en ligne]; “Pourquoi le Tchad s’engage dans la lutte contre Boko Haram”, Le Monde, 6 February 2015 [en ligne].

3 All data are retrieved from UN Data, at

4 The days of the 2nd battle of N’Djamena saw the arrest at the hand of Déby’s forces of notable opponents (Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, Lol Mahamat Choua, Ngarledji Yorongar). In those very same days new censorial laws regulating press are issued, silencing journalists through new infractions, until 2010 when the National Assembly of Chad will amend the law in a lesser repressive way.

5 Post-9/11 global security discourses have converged to form what has been called the “War on Terror rhetoric”, an imprecise discourse which melts together informal economic activities and subversive plots to create a blurred category of threat and danger (Jackson, 2005; Kellner, 2007; Esch, 2010; McCrisken, 2011).

6 Bedoum L. Lionel, 2016 – Le conflit a des en dessus effrayants. Abba Garde, 153, 30 November‑10 December.

7 The figure of the chef de race (ethnic chief) was created after the World War II as a native representative appointed by the maire‑administrator for single ethnic groups. They are responsible for the settlement of questions regarding local disputes, family status and local customs and receive a pay from customary dues. For a broader view about the origins of local administration in Chad, see Lanne, 2000.

8 Interviews taking place days after the clash by the author of the present work with policemen confirm the following figures: 5 dead, 26 injured, including some 14 people unrelated to both families.

9 Interview with the maire premier adjoint of 9th arrondissement, 30 November 2016, N’Guéli. Chad.

10 This occurrence is linked to the arrest of some military officers from N’Guéli in connection to the June and July bombings in N’Djamena, accused of different criminal charges: embezzlement and concealment of weapons belonging to the Army, assistance in the organization of the attacks, weapons trafficking, criminal conspiracy and subversive association. Personal communications, N’Guéli, Walia, Chad, October‑November‑December 2016.

11 Interviews with residents, N’Djamena, Chad, November 2016.

12 Interviews with evicted residents, Toukra, Chad, November 2016.

13 Discussions with the Comité de Crise’s representatives, N’Guéli, Chad, October, November and December 2016.

14 “Tchad, l’AFD et l’urbanisation de N’Djamena”, Al Wihda, 23 December 2012 [en ligne]; “N’Djamena – Agenda 21: Synthèse de l’Étude” [en ligne].


16 Several discussions about N’Djamena, urban planning and the projects aimed to renovate the city’s transport and mobility system have been conducted with members of road transport trade unions, the Gendarmerie and employees of the 9th arrondissement. The majority of them cited projects to redraw roads and motorways in order to facilitate logistics for both economic and military needs as one of the main reasons for increased interest in urban development over the last years. N’Djamena, Chad, October, November, December 2016.


Politiste, doctorant à l’université L’Orientale de Naples (Italie).

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