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The widening circle of fear

At my Abidjan hotel in January 2000, Pascal was keen to reassure me that his country was not spiralling towards conflict. ‘We are not like our neighbours. As Ivorians, we are proud that we are a stable country. We have many problems, but we shall never be like them.’

At the time, Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, was a nervous city. Three weeks before, on 24 December 1999, soldiers loyal to General Robert Guei had deposed the president, Henri Konan Bedie, in a coup d’êtât.

Nevertheless, Abidjan seemed peaceful enough. The risk of violence came from poverty-driven crime in Treichville or Adjame: two suburbs separated by Le Plateau, a startling edifice of skyscrapers and conspicuous wealth, and the centre of business for the world’s largest cocoa producer. Such threats as there were to the city’s stability lay less in military conflict than in the perennial issue of deprivation amid pockets of relative plenty.

For decades, Ivory Coast had been a magnet for economic migrants from across West Africa, drawn by abundant employment opportunities and a climate of relative tolerance. Many of the country’s inhabitants came originally from Liberia, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, and had lived in Ivory Coast for generations, considering themselves proud citizens of what had become their country. They formed the backbone of Ivory Coast’s agricultural workforce.

But in the 1990s, falling world cocoa prices and currency devaluations cast a shadow over the Ivorian economy. In this climate Bedie, who’d come to power in 1993, had put the demonisation of northerners and foreigners—he made little distinction between the two—at the centre of government policy. Known as ‘ivorité’, the policy openly favoured those residents who could claim a ‘pure’ Ivorian heritage—defined as having two ‘purely’ Ivorian parents.

In a country where up to 35 per cent of the population claimed an immigrant heritage, such policies were hugely divisive. It became commonplace to speak of an Ivory Coast divided between the largely Muslim north and Christian south.

Bedie’s rule was widely viewed with unease, as a distasteful echo of the xenophobia that had destroyed so many of Ivory Coast’s neighbours.

Thus the December 1999 coup—Ivory Coast’s first—was viewed as a worrying sign, but rationalised as a necessary corrective measure. Three weeks later, things had settled down, soldiers were nowhere to be seen and the upheaval caused by the coup was experienced only in highly localised areas. The remainder of the country remained calm.

In such surroundings, Pascal’s words to me seemed to have a ring of common sense. Ivory Coast did seem different. It was an Abidjan problem and had been solved through the maturity of a country that knew how to avoid the mistakes of its neighbours.

The presidential elections of October 2000 were supposed to return the country to civilian rule. However, a leading opposition figure, Alassane Ouattara, was barred from standing in the elections because one of his parents came from Burkina Faso. In all, 14 out of 19 opposition candidates were excluded. In the days after the elections, General Guei halted counting and declared himself the winner. Massive street protests followed. Guei was deposed and Laurent Gbagbo was installed as president.

It was an imperfect outcome, but democracy in Ivory Coast had nonetheless won a battered victory.

However, the underlying tensions between north and south remained unresolved. President Gbagbo, also from the south, took up where Bedie had left off, using xenophobia as a political tool in order to shore up his power base.

On 19 September 2002, 700 soldiers loyal to General Guei revolted. The soldiers, brought into the army by Guei, were protesting against government efforts to demobilise them forcibly. Some 300 people were killed in the first night of fighting. Among the dead was the iconic General Guei and his family.

The government’s reaction spoke of an obsession with threats from within and from external enemies, whether real or imagined. Government officials eagerly announced that in Guei’s pocket when he died was a speech about taking over the country, and business cards belonging to senior officials of the Burkina Faso government.

Burkina Faso was suddenly to blame for all of the country’s ills. In response, an entire district of Abidjan, known as Agban and predominantly home to immigrants from Burkina Faso, was razed. Through such tactics, the rebels, along with many refugees, were quickly expelled from Abidjan. Just six weeks after fighting began, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI) was formed in the north.

Around 30 of the uprising’s ring­leaders fled into Burkina Faso, where they were reportedly armed and funded. The strategically important northern cities of Bouake and Korhogo fell to the rebels. The French army intervened to protect its nationals and to set up a buffer zone to prevent the conflict spreading south.

Accusations of massacres proliferated, but the most credible reports were of a mass grave at Monoko-Zohi in central Ivory Coast, left in the wake of a government offensive.

Soon the Ivorian government found itself fighting not just the MPCI in the north, but also the Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) and The Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West (MPIGO) in the west of the country. The cities of Danane and Man were quickly overrun by fighters proclaiming their loyalty to the Guei faction.

The two new rebel groups were filled with fighters from the region’s other wars—Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. In the western areas under rebel control, there were credible allegations of widespread looting, rape and summary executions. Taking advantage of the resulting chaos, one rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), launched attacks against the Liberian government from Ivorian soil.

President Gbagbo accused Liberian President Charles Taylor of aiding the rebels, while Burkina Faso was denounced by the Ivorian government as a meddling conspirator. A wave of attacks took place on Burkinabe people and interests, including the embassy, which was burned to the ground. Burkina Faso retaliated by threatening to indict the Ivorian leader for war crimes.

The rebels for their part accused Ghana of collusion with the government, but reserved special anger for the French for their perceived support for Gbagbo.

It quickly became clear that the government of Laurent Gbagbo was floundering. Controlling just 40 per cent of the country, his government limped to Paris and signed a power-sharing accord with the rebels in January 2003. The agreement granted the highly sensitive interior and defence ministries to the rebels. Upon Gbagbo’s return, angry mobs roamed the streets, attacking French interests—army barracks, the embassy, departing French citizens at Abidjan’s international airport—claiming that the French had coerced Gbagbo into an unacceptable agreement. Gbagbo duly reneged on the agreement after the army refused to accept it.

In the meantime, the human toll was catastrophic. Up to one million people were displaced in the first five months of the war. At least 180,000 people of Burkinabe origin have now crossed the border into Burkina Faso, inundating villages and the southern city of Bobo-Dioulasso. Some 2.5 million Burkinabes remain in Ivory Coast.

In the west, Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leoneans who had fled their own civil wars are now being forced back to the war zones of their homeland. In Ivory Coast, it is now as dangerous to be from Liberia as it is to be from Burkina Faso. Many are presumed guilty of colluding with rebels because of their nationality. Over 100,000 have already crossed the border into Liberia and to an uncertain fate.

Accurate figures are impossible to come by. Anne Dolan, UNHCR’s field officer for western Ivory Coast, recently stated that ‘we know there are 8000 Liberian refugees missing in Grabo Zone. We’re assuming they’re being killed up there.’

One Ivorian official warned the world, ‘If we don’t stop the war in Ivory Coast it is certainly going to continue moving on—to the east there is Ghana, Togo, a little further Nigeria and then Cameroon.’ President Gnassingbe Eyadema, Togo’s leader for the past 36 years, expressed similar concerns: ‘After Ivory Coast, whose turn will it be next?’

Abidjan is again a nervous city. At the time I write, there is a widespread belief among the international community that if the French withdraw their troops, Abidjan will fall to the rebels within hours and the conflict will come full circle.

Long-standing residents of the city, alienated by the country’s new xenophobia, are being driven north as refugees. They are being replaced by occupying forces moving south, with revenge on their minds—the politics of fear played out as a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recently, I made attempts to find Pascal. At the hotel owned by one of his friends, they claim never to have heard of him. Like the idea of a tolerant Ivory Coast immune from the conflicts of its neighbours, it is as though he never existed.

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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