African Studies Quarterly

Africa's Thirty Years' War: Libya, Chad and the Sudan 1963-1993. J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999. Pp. 300.


Chad was part of the former French Equatorial Africa. Its population was divided between black Africans, either Christian or traditionalist in religion in the south, and northerners, largely Muslim and either Arab or one of the ethnic groups which, while not Arab, accepted Islam.

This war has received comparatively little attention. Indeed, the only book this reviewer can recall seeing is Conflict in Chad (1981) by Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff. Authors Burr and Collins have used a great variety of sources including newspapers, Congressional reports, material in the various French and English language journals dealing with Africa, and diplomatic documents where available.

Chad, named from the lake of that name, had been part of the French imperium since the scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Libya had, for about a generation, been part of the Italian empire while the Sudan had been under joint Egyptian and British administration for about 50 years.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) had taken the position that the boundaries of Africa, inherited from the colonial period, should be accepted on general principles since the majority of the new countries of Africa had ethnic groups divided by national borders. The problem with Chad was that in 1935, in order to appease Mussolini, a French diplomat had signed an agreement with the Italians to cede a strip of territory on the northern boundary of Chad abutting the border of Libya. Named the Aozou Strip, it was essentially 45,000 square miles of sand with a fringe of mountains. This frontier the authors describe as "not only one of the most remote regions of the earth but one of the most worthless (p.15)." Geological formations, akin to those in Niger, immediately to the west, did suggest that it might contain uranium. France bought its uranium from Niger and of course Colonel Qaddafi wanted the rare mineral since it could make Libya an atomic power. The ownership of this barren strip of land was at the heart of the thirty years war.

The agreement with Mussolini relinquishing this portion of Chad had never been ratified by the French government. Further, Libya disagreed as to where the southern boundary of the strip should be, placing it to the south of the accepted line. (See the boundary as shown in the 1977 Libyan National Atlas as reproduced on p.XIX in this volume.)

The leadership of each of the three countries played decisive roles in the shifting fortunes of the military participants. Libya, after her oil revenues made her a good customer, found it useful to buy military hardware from the Soviet Union. With tanks by the hundred and military vehicles by the thousands, came Soviet military advisors. Soviet fighter planes came as well, until the Libyan military was larger than that of France. Unfortunately for Libya, money cannot buy skilled leadership and Qaddafi's senior officers often proved no match for Chad's leadership in the field, whose training at advanced schools in France combined with their knowledge of the terrain and the skills of traditional nomadic warfare gave them an important advantage.

Chad had the advantage of being a member of the community of French speaking African states. Under President Charles de Gaulle the French military actively supported their African clients, but once "le grand Charles" left the political scene, Chad was often nearly ignored. In part this neglect was a consequence of French dependence on Libyan oil; in part French disgust with the corruption of Chad's leaders. Chad did frequently call on France for aid during the war; normally, at least some French forces stationed in the country. The United States also helped the Chad government, but discretely because of French sensitivity.

The Republic of the Sudan was involved because refugees from famine, drought, or the fighting in the Sahel fled from time to time to Darfur Province of the Sudan. Libya discreetly sent forces into that area to recruit men for their military and to provide arms for guerilla forces ready to fight the Chad central government. Far from Khartoum, Darfur was the land of the Fur who tended to despise the Riverine Arabs who dominated the government at Khartoum, a feeling that was reciprocated in the capital.

Between periods of warfare, diplomats from the three countries met, either at one capital or another, or at meetings of the OAU. Protestations of a desire for peace by diplomatic representatives on these occasions seldom lasted more than days.

Chad's problem initially was the consequence of a politically inept chief executive, President Ngartha (Francois) Tombalbaye. Representing the African-sometimes-Christian portion of Chad, he failed to include representatives of the Muslim (Arab or otherwise) population in his government. Most of this Muslim population was nomadic or lived in small villages in the Sahel in the northern half of the country. By tradition, they were very independent, owing allegiance to their chiefs and raiding their traditional enemies was common. President Tombalbaye clearly intended to suppress their independence by force. In practice, neither the government at N'Djamena or Quaddafi in Tripoli found them easy to deal with, though various leaders from the area became agents of Libya, although they frequently deserted to the central government of Chad. After the fall of Tombalbaye--assassinated in 1975 by forces commanded by the army's chief of staff--the former commander of the armed forces, General Feliz Malloum, was released from prison and became the new president.

Over the years various new figures appeared commanding some group of forces from the north, sometimes with assistance from Libya, sometimes with stolen supplies from one side or the other. One of these was Hissene Habre of the Dazan Toubou people, a man educated in various French schools. While his training had not been in military tactics, he proved a daring and formidable leader of the northerners. Over the years Habre sometimes held positions in the central government, but his strength was among his fellow northerners whom he organized in an army named the FAN (Forces Armees du Nord). An amusing side-light is that while Qaddafi had conventional tanks and vehicles, courtesy of the USSR, Habre's forces had substituted Toyoto light trucks for camels, striking quickly with their machine guns and light artillery and dispersing to various depressions or valleys, just as they had in their days of raiding their tribal enemies on camel back. Frequently they took large numbers of Libyan prisoners and incredible quantities of equipage. In time, Habre became president of Chad, though he was ultimately replaced by another northerner, of the Zaghawa people, Idris Deby. Finding himself isolated, Habre fled to Nigeria. Virtually all the leaders of Chad had a wretched record on Human Rights; Habre's had been among the worst, which accounts for the tepid support he received from the French, in spite of his brilliant military successes. One legacy of the war was the million land mines scattered across the Sahel.

In the end, even Qaddafi tired of his preoccupation with the Aozou strip, but not before he had wasted fifteen billion in oil money on military supplies. While Qaddafi had supported Idris Bey, the latter made it clear that he had not bartered away territory for support (p.278). Habre had earlier taken the issue of ownership of the Aozou Strip to the International Court at The Hague.

In February 1994 the International Court of Justice ruled 16 to 1 that the Aozou Strip belonged to Chad and that all the military and political officials from Libya should be withdrawn by 31 May 1994 (p.278). Libya complied with the ruling.

A weakness of the volume is the lack of detailed maps. Frequently there are references to villages or towns which do not appear on maps, or the spelling in the text does not agree with that on the maps. This is particularly surprising, since J. Millard Burr was a geographical expert with the US State Department. Additionally, the intermittent warfare and diplomatic posturing between three countries, such as we have here, might be approached as from an international relations perspective. Instead, the authors-wisely I feel-approach the subject matter as a straight narrative history. As such, it is an excellent presentation and is recommended for college level work in international relations and contemporary African history.

Dalvan M. Coger
University of Memphis