Cote d’Ivoire discussion on MetaFilter

The fine folks over at Metafilter are having an interesting discussion about current events in Cote d’Ivoire. MeFi user “kablam” posted an extremely graphic piece of video, hosted by the Ivoirian Embassy in the US, with the following accompanying text:

French Soldiers Machine-gunning Civilians… So much for the “moral high ground” of the French, as they slaughter civilians in the Ivory Coast.

I suspect “kablam” was trying to make a point regarding the French government’s unwillingness to support the US invasion of Iraq. But there’s enough controversy regarding the actual events in Abidjan to fill any number of blogposts. It’s deeply unclear to me that the footage incriminates French peacekeepers… and it disturbs me the extent to which the Gbagbo government is blaming the French for the situation in Cote d’Ivoire. My post to the comments thread on MeFi:

Some context for this video:

Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) has been extremely unstable since 1999, when Robert Guei took power from Henrie Bedie in a coup. Guei alienated many people from northern Cote d’Ivoire – primarily Muslims, many who had immigrated from Burkina Faso – by banning Alassane Ouattara from the 2000 presidential elections, because Ouattara had been born in Burkina Faso.

Guei lost power in an uprising in 2000, to Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo continued anti-northern rhetoric and kept Ouattara out of the political process. (Ouattara spent most of 2001 in exile, in France and Gabon.) In September 2002, Northerners in the army rebelled, plunging the country into civil war. These rebels ended up controlling the north of the country, and base themselves in Bouake, the largest northern city. Gbagbo’s government controls the south, including Abidjan, the largest city and Yamousoukro, the capital.

Civil war continues, off and on, into 2004. There are a number of ceasefires, an attempt at a power-sharing government, and, as recently as a few months ago, real hope that the situation could be resolved. As of March 2004, there’s a large contingent of UN peacekeepers – some African (largely Ghanaian), some French – maintaining a buffer zone between rebel and government held areas. (More info available from BBC, a timeline, and a country profile.)

On Saturday, November 6th, 2004, at least one Ivorian bomber attacked a detachment of French peacekeepers, stationed in Bouake. Eight Frenchman and one American aid worker were killed. The Ivorian government claimed that it had not been targeting the French – they’d been targeting rebels and had miscalculated. The French responded by ordering their troops to destroy the Ivoirian airforce – two fighters, two bombers and three helicopters – which they did, on November 7th. (BBC story here.

Gbagbo took to the airwaves and – accurately or not – announced that the French were supporting the northern rebels and attempting to overthrow his government to install a neo-colonial state. Mobs took to the streets in Abidjan, destroying French-owned businesses and burning French schools. The French began evacuating citizens – there were over 20,000 French citizens living in Cote d’Ivoire five months ago; there are estimated to be fewer than 3,000 today. (Article in Christian Science Monitor about Europeans evacuating from Cote d’Ivoire.)

On November 9th, a confusing set of events happened at the Hotel Ivoire. Peacekeepers were protecting a number of French citizens who had taken refuge at the luxury hotel. A large group of anti-French demonstrators had assembled outside. A rumor was spread that the troops protecting the civilians within the hotel planned to march on the presidential palace and overthrow the government. Violence broke out. It is unclear whether peacekeepers, Ivoirian troops or armed protesters fired first. It is also unclear how many people were killed. The Gbagbo government claims that peacekeepers fired into the crowd and that at least sixty civilians were killed. The French claim that Gbagbo loyalists fired first and that Ivoirian security forces returned fire, and that seven were killed. (Reports from the Boston Globe, the New York Times and the BBC.)

It is my best guess that the video we’re seeing here is from the incident on November 9th. It is not at all clear who is firing shots, nor is it clear whether it’s a single party, or a gun battle. Clearly civilians were injured and killed – which is tragic – but the video does not present evidence, to my eyes, that French peacekeepers (rather than Ivoirian security forces or loyalist citizens) fired the shots.

It is worth pointing out that the Gbagbo government has been working hard to portray the recent conflict as a French “invasion” of Cote d’Ivoire. Reporters Sans Frontiere (yes, they’re French, but they’re also one of the most respected journalist rights organizations in the world) argues that the Gbagbo government is using the TV and radio to incite people to riot, quite possibly with this footage, as the footage is hosted by the Ivoirian embassy in the US. Human Rights Watch is calling on Abidjan to rein in militias and ensure that the current anti-French violence doesn’t escalate into anti-Northern violence.

My point is simply this: the situation in Cote d’Ivoire is extremely complicated right now. It’s grossly unfair to accuse French peacekeepers of committing atrocities without clear evidence. It’s quite possible that this tragic footage is the result of shots fired by people other than French peacekeepers. The Gbagbo government very much hopes that people will draw that conclusion – it’s extremely unclear to me that that is the correct conclusion to draw.

I am disappointed, though not entirely surprised, that the discussion of this incident on MeFi should turn into a discussion of Iraq. Kablam invites as much, slamming the French for their alleged “moral high ground”. It would be far more respectful of the people involved in the incident if we discussed it in terms of the history of Cote d’Ivoire, rather than as a deeply imperfect mirror of American involvement in Iraq.

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