It’s Saturday night, and the Piccolo, the most notorious nightclub in Chad’s capital, is packed with the flotsam dragged in by the tide of war: French military crew trying to get drunk enough to imagine they’re in the suburbs of Paris, Ukrainian mercenaries flying aircraft for the government, battle-fatigued diplomats, arms dealers, and upmarket sex workers who’ve made their way across the border from even poorer Cameroon.
The bouncers are busy keeping the mob away from from the reserved tables at the far end of the dance floor, for guests who show up past midnight: a gaggle of Chinese businessmen armed with $100 bills, and girlfriends who appear to have paid a recent visit to Paris’s most expensive boutiques.“The white man used to be king here,” says Mark Franc, a retired French soldier who now runs a taxi service in N’Djamena. “No more.”
In less than a decade, an estimated $7.3 billion in Chinese investments have transformed Chad into a regional power — and, in turn, given the Asian superpower a foundation from which to project power across the Sahel. China powers the country’s growing oil industry, and is involved in constructing roads, public buildings and N’Djamena’s new airport. France, the former colonial power, now provides 16 per cent of Chad’s imports; China provides over 20 per cent.
By way of contrast, India’s only major investment in the oil-rich country is Airtel’s mobile phone network — and that, business analysts say, is struggling against the odds.
The names of the hotels tell the story of China’s growing presence in the country: there’s the Guangzhou, the Beijing, the WoHo, the Asia. The staff at the primly-named Salon de Thé, where N’Djamena’s European expats would once gather for tea and tarts, now offers visitors so-called happy-ending massages, administered by sex workers brought in from Shanghai and Hong Kong.
“Lilly”, waiting outside the Piccolo, won’t share her real name, but makes no secret of why she’s there. “The men get paid well,” she says, “and there isn’t a whole lot here for them to spend on.”
Like so many sordid geopolitical power struggles, China’s rise was linked to oil. Though Chad’s hydrocarbon potential was discovered in the 1970s, chronic insurgent violence and the low quality of the oil stopped it from being tapped until the last decade. In October 2000, though, an Exxon-Chevron-Petronas consortium began pumping oil through the Chad-Cameroon pipeline. But to build the pipeline, Chad had needed a World Bank loan — and it came with the condition that the oil revenues would be used to fund health and education in a country where just a third of adults can read, and where three in five still live on less than $1 a day.
President Idris Deby, who had come to power in a brutal 1999 coup, was mired in a long-running battle against Sudan-backed tribal insurgents — and in 2006, it looked like they might win. France, a diplomatic source said, refused to help directly — though it did discreetly facilitate the transport of Ukrainian-made shells for Deby’s ageing T-72 tanks. Then president Jacques Chirac, the diplomat said, offered to evacuate Deby but the Chadian ruler refused, instead leading his force of tanks, which slaughtered the opposition.
Wiser for his friends’ unwillingness to help, Deby began pumping more funds into his armed forces. Now, with helicopter gunships and even an ageing Soviet ground-attack aircraft flown by Ukranian mercenaries, Chad has the most powerful military in the region.
The spending, though, led the World Bank to cut off funding — and that’s where China stepped in. Though western governments were reluctant to subsidise Deby’s military build-up, the Chinese government showed no interest in the country’s internal affairs.
It hasn’t been a frictionless relationship: in 2012, China’s state oil company was ordered to suspend pumping oil, after a giant spill destroyed swathes of land. Yet, China is key to Chad’s plans to treble its production by the end of this year, and is investing in long-term infrastructure like highways.
Now, Deby also has the satisfaction of again being wooed by France and the US, which need his support for counterterrorism in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel.