GOZ BEIDA, 7 June 2007 (IRIN) - One Chadian whose opinions on the convoluted conflict in the east of Chad that diplomats and aid workers have come to value and trust is Said Ibrahim Mustapha, the former sultan of Goz Beida, capital of the Department of Dar Sila in the south of eastern Chad.
The area of Dar Sila is home to more than 100,000 of the 150,000 Chadians displaced by the unrest in the region.
"He helps us understand the complexities of social relations here and whether a project idea will work or not," said the head of one NGO in Goz Beida.
Daniel Augstburger, senior emergency officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told IRIN, "The [former] sultan has been one of the few voices of clarity and reason in the area."
Trained as a school teacher, Said had been the main leader of the Dadjo ethnic group which forms the bulk of the displaced population in the area. But he has equally blamed all groups for the violence, and pushed all sides to put down their arms and start talking.
"The only way forward," he said, "is for all of us to feel regret."
But in January his peacemaking efforts came to an abrupt halt, when he was forced to abdicate the sultanate. He says it was the government that forced him out; he accuses the government of fuelling the violence.
The ex-sultan speaks
In a talk with Said, the former sultan started by explaining what his former job, usually a position for life, had entailed. "I represented the interest of all citizens living in Dar Sila, whether black or Arabs, even though now they have turned mostly against each other."
Much of Dar Sila department has now been abandoned, he said. "The fact is that five of the nine cantons in Dar Sila are now empty. The population is all cramped together in four cantons," he added.
He said the pressures on the host communities are "terrible", pointing especially to the town Goz Beida where the population has grown from 5,000 to 50,000, but the supply of goods has not kept pace with demand.
Prices of basics foods like millet and sorghum are increasing and many people say they do not have money to pay for them. Water is a problem now. Wood for cooking has been depleted.
"Just look at the mountains surrounding Goz Beida. There are no more trees -- just dead stumps. Also much of our fertile land has been occupied by the displaced people and the refugees. It is simply unsustainable," he said.
Said explained that black and Arab communities had lived together in Dar Sila for centuries and that the sultans before him had been able to manage conflicts between families and communities more or less peacefully.
What has changed, he said, is guns. "Now all groups are armed and we can no longer control them."
He was unable to say where the weapons come from. "I don't know of any arms market in Goz Beida or anywhere else in the area," he said. "Maybe they somehow come from Sudan."
But a common accusation in the region among Arabs, blacks and aid workers, is that the Chadian government has armed and trained local militias to fight off Arabic groups on both sides of the Chad-Sudan border.
Said refused to answer that question directly: "I can't say for sure that the government is giving arms to my people but I do know they are influencing them with ideas [to take up arms]," he said.
Yet he was clear about his disapproval of members of his own Dadjo community who have formed armed civil defence groups. "This only makes matters worse," he said. "The militias have become puppets of the government."
Darfur in the equation
For Said, the problems in the Dar Sila region's stem at least in part from the ongoing bad blood between the governments in N'djamena and Khartoum and the violence in Darfur.
Until 2003, when refugees started flowing out of Sudan into Chad and the war in Darfur pushed closer to the Chadian border, Chadian Arab groups had mostly lived in peace with black communities, he said.
Then, Arab militias, known in Sudan as janjawid, began making raids across the invisible line in the sand that divides Chad from Sudan to steal cattle, kill people and burn houses.
Some Chadian Arab groups, and possibly some black groups, have been either coerced or convinced to join them. "This created hatred and distrust with the local black populations of Dar Sila starting to equate the Sudanese janjawid with Chadian Arabs."
Said also accuses the 250,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad, forced out of Darfur by a campaign of violence and murder by Sudanese-government backed Arab militias of having "intoxicated" the Chadian black communities with hatred against all Arabs.
Black groups have started arming themselves with guns, spears and bows and arrows in village defence forces locally known as the 'toroboro'. "The Sudanese helped convince the Chadians to arm themselves against Arabs," he said.
"This word 'janjawid' [Arab militia] didn't exist before in our vocabulary. Nor did the word 'toroboro' [black militia]. These words came from Sudan. We never knew them before 2003."
No end to hostilités
Said said his attempts to ease hostilities between the Arab and black ethnic groups of Dar Sila have failed mostly because the government "hasn't played its role".
His differences of opinion with the government over how to settle the crisis ultimately made his position as sultan untenable. "The communities that have come to hate each other need troops stationed between them," he told IRIN, but the government's troops are too occupied chasing down anti-government rebels to put in the time needed in communities.
Instead, Said said, the government actually encourages the black ethnic groups including the Dadjo to form civil defence groups to fight forces it sees as pro-Sudan. The youth in the region have been strongly influenced by that call, he said.
"I had to give up as sultan when the Dadjo militias asked me to endorse their plan to wipe out Arabs in the area and I refused," he said. "The militias are controlled by politicians and eventually it became clear that I had no choice but to abdicate."
After talking with the former sultan, IRIN went to the government Secretary General for the Department of Sila, Ali Rahama, who denied much of what the sultan had said."The government had nothing to do with the sultan's abdication," he said. "It was his own community that turned against him."
Rahama also denied that the government is arming or encouraging militia groups.
But he also told IRIN not to try to speak with the ex-sultan again. "From now on any journalist found speaking to him will be jailed," he said.
Afterwards another official tried to brush off the Secretary General's remark. "I think he was just joking," he said.
"Still, you'd better not go to visit the old sultan again for a while."