Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) was West Africa’s economic success story in the early 1990s. When I lived in Ghana in 1993-4, Ivory Coast was where people in the region looked for economic opportunity… and where Europeans in the region went for $10 hamburgers and ice skating at West Africa’s sole rink. (Agnesa Paris has a lovely memory of those happier times.) But it’s been a very different story since 1999.
When Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who ruled Cote d’Ivoire from independence in 1960 to his death, passed away in 1993, Henri Konan Bedie became president. He won a pair of disputed elections, in part by splitting the country along geographic and ethnic lines to prevent his challenger, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim from the north of the country, from running against him by declaring him a citizen of Burkina Faso. In 1999, Bedie was overthrown in a military coup, setting up six years of tension and violence pitting Ouattara and the (predominantly Muslim) north against Laurent Gbagbo and the (predominantly Christian) south.
French and UN troops have been keeping the peace in Cote d’Ivoire since 2004. But their presence is resented by President Laurent Gbagbo (elected in 2000), who blames many of the country’s ills on French colonialism and the close relationship France maintained with her former colony after independence. In November 2004, anti-French riots chased many European expatriates out of the country. Now similar violence is targetting the UN presence in Cote d’Ivoire. (The BBC’s timeline of events in Cote d’Ivoire provides lots more detail than I can provide here.)
The proximate cause of the violence was a report by international mediators recommending dissolution of the Iviorian parliament, which is closely allied with Gbagbo. In October 2005, Gbagbo was to stand for re-election – because violence made it impossible to hold elections, the UN put forth a plan that allowed Gbagbo to retain the presidency, but attempted to balance his influence by appointing Charles Banny, allied with the northern opposition, as Prime Minister. Gbagbo has proved resistant to ceding any power to Banny, and on Tuesday, his party announced that they were pulling out of the peace process, leading to speculation that Cote d’Ivoire is lurching back towards civil war.
One of the keys to Gbagbo’s staying power is a youth “movement” called the “Jeunes Patriotes” (Young Patriots). They’re a fiercely nationalistic group of students, soldiers and unemployed youth, led by the charismatic 33 year old Charles Ble Goude, who seems equally comfortable with hip-hop style as he is with anti-colonialist rhetoric. In late 2004, Ble Goude led mobs that attacked French troops and citizens in Abidjan and throughout the south of the country; now the target is the UN. On Wednesday, 2,000 of Ble Goude’s followers tried to storm the UN headquarters in Abidjan; Bangladeshi UN troops were forced to evacuate two bases in the west of the country. BBC’s correspondent reported yesterday that the Jeunes Patriotes controlled most major streets in Abidjan. Reuters is reporting today that Ble Goude has called off his supporters, declaring victory and asking them to disperse.
France would like the UN to increase the size of its peacekeeping contingent, increasing its effectiveness in preventing civil war from erupting again. US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, appears to oppose the move, stating, “When a UN peacekeeping force becomes part of the problem, we have to ask ourselves whether the UN is contributing to the solution or not.” One wonders what Mr. Bolton would propose as an alternative. More French troops, who appeared to increase tensions in late 2004? AU troops, perhaps pulling the few peacekeepers they’ve been able to deploy to Darfur? Or perhaps the US is ready for a rare African intervention?
Brian of Black Star Journal refers to the Jeunes Patriotes as “terrorist mafiosi” and warns that Cote d’Ivoire may be heading towards the sustained strife and violence that neighboring Liberia suffered for years. Milton Madison, who lived in Cote d’Ivoire a few years back is equally unsympathetic to the Jeunes Patriotes: “In essence, they claim that they want their country back, but what they really want is to restart the civil war and that will end up in the deaths of countless people.”
Would love to hear about more people blogging this situation – I’d be particularly interested to know about pro-Gbagbo blogs, either in English or French. If you know of anything I should be reading, please let me know in the comments.