The cruel death of my friend’s cousin during the demonstration of students from high school and university in N’Djamena on 9 March, hits hard, the photo of the tortured body sent via whatsapp showing useless violence. The family will bury the young man in the village after they refused the 3 million Francs CFA (4,573 Euros) offered by the government that some interpreted as money to silence them.
Another killed youth was accompanied to his burial ground on 11 March by students from N’Djamena. They left in a peaceful protest-walk and had no intention to become violent, which they symbolized by putting their hands on their heads. Again, the police could not resist using their hot water cannons and teargas to disperse these young people. Useless violence.
I recapitulate what happened on 9 March. It started on Monday morning when students in a college in N’Djamena were suspected of organizing a demonstration. It is not clear if they were. Some media reported that they were organizing a demonstration; from my friends I hear (via whatsapp, messenger, and phone calls) they were writing their exams. The reason for the students to be angry: the imposition of helmets for bike riders. And probably the police and gendarme had already fantasized about a big uprising, for which the Chadian government must be afraid after the examples of Ouagadougou and Kinshasa. The streets speak in Africa! The result was that the police entered the school and started shooting. According to a witness 30 empty ball-bearings were found in the school. The first report on this incident stated that there were 27 wounded, of whom two very heavily wounded. Later, it was admitted that three students had died and many were wounded and/or arrested. The arrested ones are in prison and it is whispered that they are being severely tortured, as is also shown in short videos circulating on Facebook (see Jeunes Tchad post 13 March 2015: ‘Torture des élèves par la police au Tchad à la suite d’une manifestation lundi 09 mars 2015′). One of the protesters was warned by his grandma not to go, as it could be dangerous – fear that the young people no longer feel! It is time to make oneself heard! On 9 and 10 March SMS exchange with N’Djamena was not possible and telephone and internet were hampered.
Many observers from outside Chad might consider this a minor demonstration that is about a trivial case: the imposition of a new law requiring the wearing of helmets for bike riders. However, it is clear that there is a lot more behind this protest. This 9 March protest is part of a sequence of youth and student demonstrations in N’Djamena and other Chadian cities about other ‘trivial’ cases like the prices of fuel, the salaries of teachers, and the non-payment of the students. The violence that is used to suppress the youth will only feed their anger.
I returned form Chad on 1 March, where I had shared life with the N’Djamenakois. A daily life that is fed by hidden emotions that have to do with anger and the wish to live a decent life that is so openly denied to the population. I did not stay in one of the more official hotels, but in a small auberge in the quarter Chagoua. Chagoua is one of the popular quarters, where mainly southerners live. Chagoua is also one of the quarters where the distribution of electricity and water is not high on the priority list of the administrators. I share this daily plight in the auberge, though the owner has a generator and thus I am privileged. A few years ago, Chagoua’s main roads were asphalted, but inside the quarter it is still the same dusty roads, dilapidated houses, and heaps of garbage in the streets. The best commerce is beer. The bars are numerous and they are frequented from early morning. Many young people with diplomas do not have a job and have been eagerly waiting (for months) to be integrated in the labour market. They depend on their family’s care and are unable to start their own life. Those who still frequent school see the empty future their elder siblings have. Where can they find hope for a future? Their parents lived through the various wars and oppressive regimes and have lost all energy to fight the situation, or probably they are caught by fear. Too many people have disappeared, there have been too many attacks on demonstrating youth and too many impossible acts of the government; a too small minority has become increasingly wealthy. Life here is about poverty, uncertainty and lack of a decent living where water and electricity are simply provided for as can be expected in an oil producing country.
Helmets are the straw
The helmets as such are not the problem. Most people realize that this might in fact be a good idea. But the imposition of helmets is experienced as another way to extract money from the population. Since the law was announced, people have been arrested in the streets and fined by gendarme and police without a receipt. Helmet prices are skyrocketing. A helmet should not cost more than 8000 FCFA (12 Euros), but prices have gone up to 25,000 FCFA (38 Euros), and it is forbidden to buy a cheap helmet in Kousseri in Cameroon at the other side of the border. These prices hit students especially, who are 80% of all moto bike users. Many students also pay for their study costs by driving a moto as a benskin, a moto-taxi. This new measure feels like a punishment instead of aid. Is the helmet the straw that breaks the camel’s back? The government has closed the schools and university until further notice. Student meetings are forbidden and if they do happen, will be scattered. Can they face the violence? Further actions will certainly follow.
Anthropologist Mirjam de Bruijn is a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, as well as a Professor of Contemporary History and Anthropology of West and Central Africa at Leiden University’s Faculty of Arts. She is also an honorary fellow of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. This text has been previously published on her blog: Counter voices in Africa