Rumblings

by Michael Peel | December 20, 2004

Outside the Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan, Cte d'Ivoire's main city, loyalist youths recently milled around the site where as many as ten protestors were killed days earlier in a confrontation with French peacekeepers. As I began talking to one of the young men--a member of the self-styled Young Patriots movement of pro-government militants--a small crowd quickly gathered, watching me closely. Fortunately, I passed the initial nationality test. "He's not French, he's British," one man called out.

Yards away, the plinth of a statue of Andre Latrille, a former French colonial governor of Cte d'Ivoire, was covered in fresh red graffiti. The message on one side asked Ivorians never to forget those who fell "under the bullets of the French army." Yet the anger at France is hardly the main story here, and the recent Western media coverage of white foreigners fleeing Cte d'Ivoire, formerly the region's most stable state, is actually just a sideshow. In September 2002, rebels in the Ivorian army launched a coup against the nation's president, Laurent Gbagbo. When that failed, they took over the northern part of the country, sparking a war that was halted last year by a French-brokered peace agreement. Now that agreement is failing, violence is erupting again, and the real danger is that the country could be heading toward pogroms against opponents of the regime and those not deemed sufficiently Ivorian. This is all the more dangerous because of Cte d'Ivoire's history as a nation built on immigrant labor. Unless the world acts, the country's millions of immigrants may now be in grave danger.
 

FIGHTING BETWEEN FRENCH and Ivorian forces in recent weeks has claimed most headlines about Cte d'Ivoire. The violence started again last month with a series of Ivorian government air attacks on the country's rebel-held north, the worst fighting since the war's official end in July last year. One bombing raid killed nine French peacekeepers, who were part of the contingent of more than 4, 000 who, along with 6,000 U.N. troops, are supervising the peace deal brokered by Paris between the government and the rebels. France responded by destroying most of Cte d'Ivoire's small air force, triggering mass anti-French demonstrations in Abidjan by loyalists incited by bellicose media broadcasts. State television continuously repeated an advertisement showing marching soldiers and announcing that the security forces had begun the process of reunifying Cte d'Ivoire, which has been divided in two since the rebels launched their failed coup in September 2002. And anti-French demonstrations by loyalists in Abidjan have been given heavy play in France, which once regarded Cte d'Ivoire as its jewel in Africa because of its stability and relative wealth.

On the ground, anti-French sentiment carries much weight. Loyalists at impromptu roadblocks around Abidjan's otherwise deserted streets stopped cars and frisked passengers. At one checkpoint, a bare-chested young man whose breath smelled of alcohol leaned in the window, saw I was a foreigner, and drew his finger across my throat. (Another man, who knew I was a journalist, quickly ushered him away.) A third man leaned in the window to repeat the loyalists' main claim: that France is in league with Cte d'Ivoire's northern insurgents in trying to overthrow the elected government. "The solution to the crisis is that France respects the sovereignty of Cte d'Ivoire," he said. "It's the French that support the rebels." Another day, as I left the Hotel Ivoire, a man heard my British accent and called me over to talk. He said he was a history professor at Abidjan's University of Cocody and began to explain how Cte d'Ivoire's troubles are all part of a French plot to retake the country.

The loyalists clearly have done horrible things to Westerners. Mobs rampaging through Abidjan have been burning expatriate businesses and schools and, according to the French government, raping French women. But the real causes of the violence are much deeper. Many Ivorians see the northern rebellion in part as a protest against the concept of Ivoirit (or Ivorian-ness) promulgated under the disastrous 1993-1999 presidency of Henri Konan-Bedie. Bedie promoted the idea that Ivorians from the north, differentiated from the south by its ethnic heritage and by religion (the north is primarily Muslim), were more likely to be of immigrant stock and therefore less "purebred."

Bedie's doctrine poisoned the political system. The rule of Gbagbo, a southerner, is challenged by some Ivorians in part because he won an election in 2000 from which the main northern candidate was excluded after it was alleged he was not Ivorian. This election, too, helped spark the rebellion. And, under Gbagbo, so-called "intellectuals" who promote the vision of Cte d'Ivoire's ruling elite as victims of outside forces, including northerners and Muslim immigrants, have been given free rein. The Ivorian media, mostly directed by the state, has become dangerously shrill and chauvinistic, almost like Rwandan radio stations before the 1994 genocide. A recent issue of Our Way, a leading pro-Gbagbo newspaper, carried a story headlined "rebels terrorize the people" and made the claim--attributed to anonymous sources--that immigrants from Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso were brutalizing residents of a town in western Cte d'Ivoire. Similarly, several weeks ago, state TV broadcast a stream of monologues by government loyalists encouraging war against rebels and immigrants. "If you are asleep, wake up," said one TV broadcaster. "If you are eating, stop eating. Rise up and liberate Cte d'Ivoire."

This crude regional differentiation has extra potency because of Cte d'Ivoire's cosmopolitan post-independence history. Flix Houphout-Boigny, the autocrat who ruled between independence in 1960 and his death in 1993, built West Africa's strongest economy on foreign labor. By encouraging workers to come from neighboring countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, Cte d'Ivoire became the world's largest producer of cocoa. Before the civil war began, immigrants, mostly African Muslims, were estimated to account for nearly a third of the population.

It is these immigrants that some loyalists are really after. Against a background of economic decline and conflict throughout West Africa, many ordinary Ivorians have responded enthusiastically to a simple xenophobic explanation for their terrifyingly complex problems. In recent months, government loyalists have begun systematically attacking groups they believe to be sympathetic to northerners. The Abidjan offices of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR), a political party with a northern power base, were recently gutted by arson; earlier, a worker for Alassane Ouattara, an exiled RDR leader, disappeared and then turned up, dead and mutilated, in Abidjan. A few weeks later, the offices of The Patriot, a newspaper that backed the RDR, was ransacked and set ablaze. A journalist from The Patriot said the damage was done by a mob of 150 loyalist youths armed with pistols, sticks, and machetes, chanting war songs in southern and central Ivorian languages. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has reported that, earlier this year, government loyalists unleashed a violent crackdown against opposition supporters in Abidjan, killing at least 120. And, all through 2004, loyalist militias have conducted lethal attacks against immigrant farmers throughout western Cte d'Ivoire.

Many northerners and Ivorians with perceived sympathies toward northerners or immigrants have now fled and are living in fear. At Abidjan's port--its loading cranes inactive because of the violence--three immigrant security guards leaned on the gate of their deserted offices and explained that they would face a catastrophe if peacekeepers left. They talked of the day-to-day official harassment they now experience, including home visits by government officials to check identity papers. They worried that, if they did not leave, they could soon be the targets of ethnic violence. Another man (originally from Burkina Faso), a guard at one of Abidjan's top hotels, told me how he now had to pay 1,000 CFA francs at police checkpoints around the city whenever he is stopped. He had lived in Cte d'Ivoire for almost 30 years and was growing terrified of the open hostility toward foreigners. "Before, [people were] the same, nobody was different," he said. "Now it's not like that."


THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY doesn't have much time to stop widespread ethnic violence from erupting. Cte d'Ivoire's reputation as a stable anchor in a troubled part of the world has already been destroyed. Worse violence could trigger another round of conflict in a region barely recovering from wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The arms embargo imposed on the warring parties by the U.N. Security Council this month is a start, as are the mediation efforts by South African President Thabo Mbeki this week. But they are only a start. The U.N. sanctions--which include the possibility of travel bans and asset freezes on individuals deemed to be undermining the peace process--sound tough, but past arms embargoes have been notoriously ineffective in West Africa. Since rebels have allies in surrounding countries and the government has access to ports, peacekeeping troops need the power and resources to block suspected weapons shipments.

At the same time, France may have to scale back its involvement to reduce the loyalists' ability to blame Paris for Ivorian problems. France's actions, after all, have angered some moderate Ivorians--French troops killed some 20 Ivorian civilians and soldiers in recent fighting. Instead, Cte d'Ivoire will need a larger, credible multinational peacekeeping force--perhaps the kind of EU rapid-reaction troops for Africa that Tony Blair has proposed. Only then could the peace agreement survive. But recent history suggests this is unlikely. The region has attracted only limited additional peacekeeping interest from the United Nations, and the European Union could take years to put Blair's ideas into practice. For now, it seems, the jewel of Africa could be permanently tarnished.

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