Israel and Chad may have a perceived enemy of Jihadi extremists in common — the rationale behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation to Chad’s Idriss Deby to Jerusalem last week and the decision to renew diplomatic ties between the two countries - but when it comes to global attention the two states could not be more dissimilar.
In Israel, even the most picayune matters and conflicts get coverage. Chad, on the other hand, is on the dark side of the journalism moon: it’s hard and expensive to get to, journalist visas are no small obstacle, and working without one can land you in prison alongside thousands of its regime’s critics, a fact that makes people reluctant to talk. Chad’s roads are rough and in some remote parts terror groups are active. Its dark, dusty capital, N’Djamena, is plagued by street crime; at dusk, markets close and most people stay indoors.
The most recent situation report by the United Nations Children’s Fund states that 4.4 million of Chad’s 12 million people are in dire circumstances, including 1.6 million who need water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. This year, 2.5 million children need humanitarian assistance, with more than a quarter million children under five suffering from hunger. Others maladies include tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, staph infections, and an assortment of congenital diseases.
In spring, a measles outbreak swept through the landlocked former French colony, taking more lives. Lake Chad used to provide food and livelihoods for Chad and its neighbors. But drought and other factors have depleted it to less than 10 percent of what it was in the 1960s, when the lake was about the size of Israel.
Raids by Boko Haram, which dreams of a caliphate in neighboring Nigeria, have made it hard for fishermen to fish. Farmers, fearful they won’t be able to stay to harvest crops, have stopped planting. Some 600,000 refugees and Chadian returnees, many fleeing an ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic on Chad’s southern border, have filled camps around N’Djamena.
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Somehow, amid all this grimness, the headline news out of Chad this year was its import of six rhinos to Zakouma, a luxury bush lodge. Two of the rhinos since died from unknown causes; that also made news.
Such is the paradox of extremely poor countries, that in one place you can have mass hunger and in another tourists arriving to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime. Don’t judge them: given the scant coverage, how could they know?
So let us use Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of Idriss Deby, the man most responsible for Chad’s deplorable circumstances, to call out some flaws that Netanyahu has to know about.
Deby became president in 1990 with the help of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, displacing Hissen Habré, the strongman who came to power in 1982 with American and French support.
Deby later fell out with Gaddafi, who had thoughts of adding Chad to Libya. Bereft of ideas, Deby relied primarily on revenue from oil. The country, which has little else but some uranium mines to the north, has never prospered, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2015 was devastating. Frequent strikes have included hospital staff, leaving an underserved population at greater risk.
Having failed his country, Deby rewarded himself earlier this year by pushing a new constitution through parliament that allows him to stay in office until 2033 and expands his presidential powers.
Netanyahu’s misplaced warmth is a moral question, and perhaps a practical one as well.
It is impoverished, despotic and failed nations that export the large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers currently worrying Europe, the Promised Land for Africans. Africa’s problems, so remote and irrelevant, are likely to become ever more present and immediate in Europe and elsewhere. Israel has plenty of its own recent experience with migrants from Sudan and Eritrea escaping harsh conditions there.
Despots like Deby increase global insecurity. They are effective recruiters for terror groups. They create conditions — unemployment, boredom, hopelessness, brutality — that nourish the terrorist cause. Paradoxically, the threat of terror is useful to them, as it has been for Deby, by excusing and stopping scrutiny of performance and keeping foreign aid and support flowing.
In September, I joined a group of aid workers and volunteers as they delivered nutritional supplements and educational supplies to N’Djamena. One stop was the Mother and Child Hospital’s 31-bed pediatric intensive care unit. Between the stifling heat and the grim scene, it was almost hard to breathe. The scene illustrated how, when a society falls apart, the heaviest consequences land on its most vulnerable people.
These included a 3-year-old named Ezechiel, who lay on his side, his skin lined and cracked as if there wasn’t quite enough of it to cover his frail bones. Rapid, shallow breaths filled and emptied the sack of his belly. His eyes were wide, his gaze distant and detached. Ezechiel’s parents had left him, and by the time his grandfather arrived, hunger had all but eaten him alive.
A few days later, unable to pay the hospital bill — fees range from $25 to $175, a veritable fortune for people with nothing — Ezechiel’s grandfather took him away to an unknown fate. Another 3-year-old, Fatimé, had 1st-degree burns, a consequence of a folk remedy to treat diarrhea by searing children’s backs and anuses with hot irons. The next day, septic shock took her life. Eighty percent of the tiny patients would probably survive, but most would have permanent developmental injuries.
Such are the tragedies within the statistics, but they are the human equivalent of trees falling in forests with no one around to hear. It is, then, perhaps worth pausing to listen as Netanyahu welcomes Deby, who has led his country to circumstances in which such scenes are too commonplace and expected to be considered news.
Todd Pitock is a Philadelphia-based journalist who writes frequently on Africa. His work appears in publications including The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Politico and others.