After years of preparation, oil extraction and exportation in Chad started in 2003. The 1112 oil installations are found in the south, most near the city of Doba. People expected a windfall, but got little in return. According to an Africa-Europe Justice and Faith Association’s report, between 2004 and 2007, taxes and dividends on oil production provided more than US$2 billion to the coffers of N’Djamena. 5% of these were supposed to be spent in and around Doba. A few roads were built, a number of other infrastructures started, but later left unfinished.
“The majority of the villages in the area of Doba – says the report – used to be supported by good agricultural yields, and most families owned cattle and other animals. Today that prosperity is an old memory and desperation is mounting. Oil has become a curse”. The extraction area is wide, and the consortium led by Exxon has acquired about 65% of the cultivated land of the area. Food production declined, oil spilling has polluted both land and the main aquifer. The government does not seem concerned, it is not even able to check how much oil is really extracted and shipped abroad.
The Catholic Church did not waste time to speak up. Michele Russo, a Comboni Missionary and bishop of Dola, often spoke of these realities with government officials and in his homilies. The entire Bishop’s Conference brought the question to the authorities’ attention. Two years ago, in Christmas message to the nation, the bishops claimed that “the flow of cash generated by oil exploitation did not solve our development problems, it has instead generated corruption, favouritism and the illegal transfer of public funds in private accounts, without consequences for those involved”.
It was with surprise, then, that on October 12th Bishop Russo received orders to leave the country. The High Council of Communication accused the bishop to “act in ways unbecoming a bishop”, and of broadcasting through the diocesan radio a homily which constituted “an attempt against the public order”. The expulsion was caused by a homily bishop Russo delivered on September 30. During that homily, the bishop criticized the management of oil revenues in the country denouncing an unfair distribution. “Mgr. Russo’s homily was broadcast by a local radio station, but in the translation from the French to the Ngambay language it gave a translation which does not perfectly comply with the Bishop’s words, using words that Mgr. Russo did not use” said a member of the diocesan team.
Joachim Kouraleyo Tarounga, bishop of Moundou, the neighbouring dioceses in the south, said he was “surprised of the decision, given that the bishops of Chad have spoken about these problems for years and at all levels”. It seems clear that Russo’s strong campaign for fair distribution of the national resources was not appreciated by sections of the government and oil companies. The homily was just a pretext to have him out of the way. A Comboni Missionary with 32 years experience in Chad, Russo is Italian and, as a foreigner, the easiest target. In the past, bishop Russo has, at the government’s request – facilitated the dialogue with southern rebels and risked his life in the process. His expulsion sends a signal to the whole Church. In the past years, the Catholic Church has been increasingly critical of President Idriss Deby, in power from 1990, not only on the matter of oil exploitation.