The Sultan’s Truck

“…several of the men I was sitting with would be dead in six months.”

The old man occupied a blanket on the scraggly lawn and eyeballed me with what seemed like amusement. His movements were slow, not because of his age, but because he was devoid of urgency. His white man-dress, though dusty like everyone and everything else around here, suggested he had some status but it was the cast of henchmen around him that gave away his real importance.

I sat amongst his men a few feet away while they plotted to undertake some task for their boss. I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying but I knew what planning and teamwork sounded like. Judging by the oldtimer’s occasional comments and gestures, the day’s activities had something to do with the truck that was parked in the yard. Further inspection revealed it had sunk into the mud at some point and then frozen there as the dry season set in. With the summer rains now reaching this part of eastern Chad, the ground was probably just soft enough to free the big vehicle without getting it immediately stuck again. I watched with a smile as the plan came together but still I was a bit impatient. I had business with the old man but…he was the Sultan of Dar Tama and I would have to wait until we got his truck unstuck.

Slavery and Politics

The natural geography of the Sahel forces politics and commerce into an east to west orientation across the continent. Ethnicities are divided between those that dwell in the vegetated south and those from the semi-arid north. The latter tended to be nomadic, Arabized, and after the 13th Century, Muslim. Life in the Sahel existed – and still exists – on the hard edge where rainfall meets starvation. In good years, tribes from the north raided cattle and otherwise plundered what they needed from their sedentary, pagan, southern cousins. In the bad years however, they watched those cattle expire of starvation before picking up and following the green line south with the rains. Without an anchor to the land, identities revolved around tribe and clan but something unique happened in the 10th Century that threatened to change it all.

Empires formed along trans-Saharan caravan routes used to transport slaves raided from the Great Rift Valley and the Congo Basin to Turkish-ruled cities in the Maghreb. Sitting astride these routes, the Kanem, Baguirmi, and Ouaddai empires existed in relative equilibrium for hundreds of years, bound together in trade and occasional conflict by the movement of goods and people from east to west across the Sahel. The slave trade became so lucrative for Ouaddai and Dar Tama that its people slowly abandoned their nomadic ways in favor of a more martial existence. Within this system, Dar Tama’s geography gave it a unique role in Sahelian politics. A subsidiary of the Ouaddai Empire, the “House of the Tama” occupied the critical northern link between Benghazi and the Ouaddai capital, Abeche. Though Dar Tama’s principal city, Guereda, was under Ouaddai control, Tama tribal lands spread beyond Ouaddai’s eastern frontier into the strategic heart of the colonial struggle between Great Britain and France.

Sahel Ouaddai Chad Dar Tama
Geography of the Sahel. This was an area of colonial competition between France and Great Britain. Note that Dar Tama tribal lands span the border between modern Chad and Sudan. The Ouaddai Empire commanded the slave trading routes to Benghazi.

In the late 19th Century, British and French policies of co-opting traditional leaders for colonial purposes elevated inter-tribal squabbles in obscure corners of Africa to matters of strategic importance in European capitals. While Great Britain sought to link South Africa with Egypt in an unbroken chain of east African colonies, French influence was spreading eastwards across the Sahel with the goal of linking the Niger and Nile Valleys under a single administration responsible to Paris. The colonial aspirations of Britain and France collided in the contested eastern reaches of the Sahel where the Tama, the Fur, and the Zaghawa tribes engaged in their own struggles. At times, tribal fortunes rose and fell in correlation with colonial ones.

Abeche Camel Caravan
Camel caravans still ply the routes from Abeche to Benghazi. This one was photographed in Abeche in 2005.

Moving into the upper Nile valley from the Congo basin, French forces began to encounter their British counterparts coming upriver after their final defeat of the Mahdi at Omdurman. Without national policies to guide their actions, these meetings were generally cordial and symbolic but escalated until 1898 when Britain forced the issue by surrounding a French expedition in Fashoda. Though the engagement occurred without violence, it ignited fears of war in Europe and resulted in the end of French aspirations for rule over the Nile. The unification of upper and lower Nile in the form of Sudan and the establishment of its border with neighboring Chad locked the Ouaddai Empire into the French sphere. It also left the Tama, the Zaghawa, and the Fur fractured and isolated; a condition with violent consequences to the present day.

Family Matters

The decline of the slave trade reduced the fortunes of the Tama even farther though they have fared relatively well due to a clear succession for the last 150 years. Rather than splitting into rival clans as the Zaghawa did, the Tama remained intact and have, over time, largely migrated away from Sudan towards their ancestral lands in eastern Chad. Though they benefit from remnants of the French administrative system that complemented rather than replaced traditional leadership, the tribe suffers occasionally at the hands of the Zaghawa which now wields power in Chad. Violence flared in early 2006 when the alleged murder of a Zaghawa woman by a Tama man triggered a brief but bloody tribal war in Guereda. The incident, like so many similar events in Africa, unleashed pre-existing animosities that reside just below the surface.

I found myself thrust unknowingly into this environment in mid-2005. The tension was not obvious but it was serious and building. In fact, several of the men I was sitting with would be dead in six months. Still, it was hard to imagine as I casually sipped tea with the Sultan. His family history of slave-raiding and alleged rebellion against Chad’s Zaghawa-led government did not concern me. I needed him to give me access to Dar Tama and I did not want any entanglements with Chadian (Zaghawa) intelligence like the one I had in Tine. I discussed a few ideas with him but he interrupted me repeatedly to give instructions to the eight men and a camel that were now tugging at a shockingly thin rope tied to the truck’s bumper. Attempting to move the conversation, I gave him some pointers which he promptly relayed to the recovery team. As I watched the truck roll free of its muddy prison, I knew I had succeeded. My sojourn in Dar Tama was about to begin.

Stranger PicLino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He is seeking investors to establish a towing company in Eastern Chad.

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