News Analysis: Ivory Coast repeats a grim pattern

Posted in Other | 15-Nov-04 | Author: Somini Sengupta| Source: International Herald Tribune

Anti-French protesters confronted leaders arriving in Abuja, Nigeria, for talks on the crisis in Ivory Coast.
DAKAR, Senegal Long after the precolonial gold city of Timbuktu faded from glory and Dakar's status as the colonial capital of French West Africa expired, long even after Monrovia's vampy cosmopolitanism crumbled and the lights went out of Lome's once-thriving night life, there was Abidjan.

The commercial capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan was a port and a destination for millions of West African strivers.

For more than 30 years, its autocratic founding president, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, kept the doors wide open to French business interests in his country and turned Ivory Coast into the world's largest cocoa exporter.

The towering Hotel Ivoire, overlooking the steamy lagoons that course through the city, stood as a symbol of the aspirations of a modern West African republic.

Now, a week after clashes erupted between pro-government protesters and French troops - among the most vivid in front of the Hotel Ivoire - French citizens continue to clear out of Abidjan by the thousands.

The incinerated remains of shops and homes dot the cityscape. A jailbreak in the city's main prison have let loose as many as 4,000 hardened criminals.

A failed peace deal has left the door open to a new round of war between the regime of the Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, and the rebels who control the country's northern half.

Perhaps most worrying of all, ethnic tensions between the peoples of north and south make the country's reunification a daunting, if not impossible, challenge for the near future.

More and more, Abidjan looks as though it is going the way of Kinshasa, the onetime boomtown of the Democratic Republic of Congo whose wide tree-lined boulevards and hulking skyscrapers have lately surrendered to the tropical mold.

Indeed, the scenes from Abidjan over the past week looked like déjà vu to Hervé Ludovic de Lys, a native of Mali who was working for an American government-funded aid project in Kinshasa in 1991, when an army-led pillaging of that city prompted evacuations of foreigners.

"It recalls vivid memories," said De Lys, now the Dakar-based West Africa regional chief of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"In a matter of weeks, Kinshasa emptied of all its expatriate community. It's never fully recovered."

The fires that engulf Abidjan threaten not just Ivory Coast alone.

In a region cursed by porous borders, a contest over natural resources and a preponderance of guns and gunmen, no conflicts are self-contained civil wars and Ivory Coast's is no different. Virtually all its neighbors are vulnerable.

After more than a decade of bloodshed, Liberia and Sierra Leone settle into a hard-won peace but still struggle with the very flints that fueled conflict in the first place: a generation of frustrated young men for whom war signals an economic opportunity.

To the north, Guinea simmers with political and ethnic tensions. Liberian ex-fighters interviewed by Human Rights Watch over the summer said they had been solicited in recent months to fight in Guinea both for and against the repressive regime of President Lansana Conté.

It would surprise no one in the region if Liberian and Sierra Leonean ex-fighters were lured now into Ivory Coast for or against the government.

Despite millions invested in demobilizing child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, economic prospects remain dim for young men across the region.

"Côte d'Ivoire could really pull in these roving combatants who, despite significant efforts to incorporate them back into society in Liberia and Sierra Leone, still feel there would be economic gain," said Corinne Dufka, the West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"They are lured by the short-term promise of whatever benefits they can get from looting."

The regional price of war in Ivory Coast was not lost to West Africa's leaders, as they gathered Sunday for an emergency summit meeting in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

President Gbagbo was a no-show to the talks.

He sent instead one of the most incendiary members of his government: the head of the Ivorian Parliament, Mamadou Coulibaly.

After the meeting, the African Union said it was supporting planned sanctions against Ivory Coast, which are to be voted by the UN Security Council Monday, "notably an arms embargo," officials said Sunday.

Analysts of the region are skeptical of any swift resolution. President Gbagbo has made promises about political reforms but failed to abide by them. The rebels have said they are uninterested in peace talks with Gbagbo.

"Côte d'Ivoire has reached the bottom," DeLys said. "It will depend on how fast Ivory Coast finds a political solution to this crisis. The odds are quite low, actually."

The civil war that began in September 2002 has partitioned Ivory Coast between government-held south and rebel-held north.

Hopes for a détente were crushed when Gbagbo's government, in clear violation of a cease-fire agreement, began bombing rebel-held towns on Nov. 4.

Two days later, a government air raid against a French military base in the rebel-held north killed nine soldiers and an American civilian.

The French retaliated by crushing most of the country's air assets and in turn, unleashed violent anti-French melees in Abidjan for several days.

With reinforcements brought in over the last week, France now has roughly 5,000 troops in Ivory Coast. The French president, Jacques Chirac, said in Marseille on Sunday that France had no intention of withdrawing its peacekeepers from Ivory Coast.

Gbagbo, who has studiously avoided the foreign press for the last two years, was host to a parade of Western journalists in recent days. He heaped blame on French troops for attacks on Ivorians and promised an investigation into the airstrikes that killed the French peacekeepers.

In a state radio address broadcast Sunday, Gbagbo also declared that the French exodus was only temporary.

"They will come back," Agence France-Presse reported from Abidjan.

No matter the fate of the French in Ivory Coast, the latest crisis there does not bode well for West Africa.

Mali and Burkina Faso have already felt the economic pinch: Trade has slowed, the port of Abidjan has become harder to reach, migrants who once sent home money have returned home.

The political dangers are even more worrisome. For more than a decade, a cycle of violence and want has plagued the region: Poverty begets political violence, which in turn begets more poverty.