Descent into chaos

Africa is a continent accustomed to sad stories but few are as tragic as Ivory Coast’s.

Until the death of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who ruled the country from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993, Ivory Coast was a beacon of stability in a rough neighbourhood. Even as nearby Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-
Bissau and, to a lesser extent, Guinea seemed perennially at war with themselves and with each other, Houphouet-Boigny’s country was prosperous and stable, seemingly inured to the region’s problems, a poster-boy for a different way of doing things.

Houphouet-Boigny was hardly a democrat, at least not until his later years, and he was certainly an egoist. His $US300 million Basilique de Notre Dame in Yamoussoukro was modelled on St Peter’s cathedral in Rome (only a personal request by the Pope meant that the dome is slightly lower than Rome’s) and has 7,000 individually air-conditioned pews.

Yet Houphouet-Boigny’s reign was characterised by an acknowledgment that outside expertise—from unskilled migrant workers to French businessmen and engineers—was necessary in building a thriving economy. Ivory Coast became a model for prosperity, friendship with former colonial overlords and coexistence with one’s neighbours.

The president’s model for a new African success story outlived him, but only just. A succession of presidents and edicts in the aftermath of Houphouet-Boigny’s death divided the country between the predominantly Christian south and the Muslim north, between ‘true’ Ivoireans and ‘immigrants’ from neighbouring countries. It culminated in the country’s first coup d’état in December 1999 which ushered in a period of intermittent violence, further coups and disputed elections in which opposition candidates were barred from standing.

By May 2003, after a brief but debilitating civil war, France had brokered a fragile peace which temporarily quietened the guns but left the country divided in two. Ivory Coast disappeared from the international headlines.

The world’s attention moved elsewhere, and while Ivory Coast was no longer at war, nor was it at peace. Incendiary rhetoric from the government-held south was answered in kind by the rebel north. The rebels joined a coalition government provided for under the terms of the ceasefire, but former government ministers scarcely spoke to their rebel counterparts. It became a national unity government in name only and fell apart more times than it met.

Rebel forces—of which there are many—refused to lay down their arms until electoral and other laws which discriminated against immigrants (all immigrants, whether recent or third-generation, had been barred from public office) were repealed. President Laurent Gbagbo promised to repeal the offending laws, but then refused to do so until the rebels disarmed, a clear and provocative breach of the ceasefire. The ceasefire held, but only because French and West African peacekeeping soldiers occupied a buffer zone between the two sides.

George Packer, writing in the New Yorker on 3 November 2003, identified why Ivory Coast’s problems had begun to seem intractable. ‘Seen from a distance, Africa’s man-made disasters look senseless. But to the participants, who tend to be young and poor, these wars have meaning. The war in Ivory Coast began as a struggle over identity … the question of who gets to be considered Ivoirean.’

Young Ivoireans, rallying around the banner of a government-sponsored vigilante group, the Young Patriots, became the spokespersons for a whole generation educated at state expense but without work. They blamed the ‘immigrants’ and the French. Just across the lagoon in the commercial capital Abidjan, young men whose fathers were born in Ivory Coast but whose grandfathers hailed from Burkina Faso or Mali, lost the only nationality they had ever had in the only country they had ever lived.

The resumption of hostilities came suddenly, but was no surprise. Indeed, most Ivoireans wondered why it had taken so long.

In November 2004, the Ivoirean air force bombed rebel positions in Bouaké, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, and just north of the buffer zone. Dozens were killed, among them nine French peacekeepers. The French response was immediate with French planes destroying, in a single raid, the entire Ivoirean air force. French soldiers occupied the streets of Abidjan.

Anti-French, anti-immigrant riots erupted across the city. State radio and television fanned the flames with a hate campaign that screeched dangerously close to the dark invocations of racial violence which characterised the early days of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The French, long suspected of pro-rebel bias, were the main targets and, at last count, more than half of Abidjan’s Western population had fled the country.

Although the guns have momentarily fallen silent, conflict has merely been delayed. The rebels have vowed never again to discuss any settlement as long as President Gbagbo remains in office. In government-held areas, newly radicalised supporters of the president have vowed to retake the rebel-held north by force. And the French—former colonial masters whose intervention in November postponed the war and won the support of the United Nations and even regional African leaders—will no longer be able to act as honest brokers.

The Ivoirean dream is over. Once a symbol for Africa’s diversity and its potential for good governance, Ivory Coast’s government has retreated once again behind the rhetoric of xenophobia. Its defence—the time-honoured reflex of illegitimate governments—is to blame everyone but itself, lashing out at France as colonisers even as they themselves colonise the identity of ‘immigrants’ who had always been proud and loyal Ivoireans.

The prevailing, uneasy calm and a UN arms embargo on the country should offer the main protagonists one last opportunity to step back from the brink. But no one believes any more that Ivory Coast’s problems will be solved without going to war.

This month’s contributor: Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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