7 Apr 2011

Making sense of Africa’s Ivory Coast horror


As a spokesman for Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo tells Channel 4 News “the stage is set for genocide” Jon Snow asks what has gone wrong?

Making sense of Africa's Ivory Coast horror

I confess, I am an Africaphile – a condition forged by my time as a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) teacher in Uganda when I was 19. Yet it was a time of post colonial tension even then. There was an eternal state of emergency, yet I never heard or saw shots fired in anger.

Today even that initial love of the continent is shot through with the perennial images of war. Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Southern Sudan, Uganda itself, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and presently Cote d’Ivoire.

The crack of echoing urban gunfire; the bodies strewn on rural roadsides; the truckloads of raggedy soldiers draped in machine gun bullets brandishing huge and unwieldy weapons passing at speed.

The civil war in Cote d’Ivoire seems to suggest incurable disease; seems to suggest a necessary violent thread in the fabric of evolving African history.

Yet a decade ago, Ivory Coast, as we like to call it, was a haven of peace and prosperity in West Africa. But that very prosperity, built on cocoa exports and more, has proved part of the country’s undoing; part of the trigger that has set South against North.

Living standards rose far beyond those of the surrounding countries, attracting neighbours from some of the poorest nations in the world, Mali, Burkina Faso and beyond. The South began to regard Northerners as not truly Ivorian. The now defeated ex-President Laurent Gbagbo was amongst those populist Southern politicians who demanded action to protect Cote d’Ivoire’s identity. Northerners began to suffer discrimination.

Ivory Coast: special report
The bloody fight for political power which has torn the Ivory Coast apart and sent a million fleeing their homes.

In 2002 it came to war. Soldiers in the North mutinied and marched on prosperous Abidjan. They all but captured the country. They were stopped by French (the former colonial power) forces. 9,000 UN troops were sent to hold the ring. The elections last year were supposed to heal the rift.

Alassane Ouattara – a former Prime Minister had previously been banned from running for President upon suspicion that his parents came from Burkina Faso, next door. Permitted to run this time, he won against the serving President Gbagbo, a former history Professor – 54 per cent to 46 per cent. The rest is recent history – Gbagbo in his bunker besieged, Ouattara at his gates.

What is seriously new is the extent to which the UN and the African Union’s pro-active support for the electoral winner. Yet the UN is at the same time investigating both Presidential election participants for war crimes – massacres have occurred on both sides.

Has the UN motion on Libya in some way infected or embolden the UN in Cote d’Ivoire? What influence is France wielding? What role are rich cocoa brokers playing in funding one side or the other? Have the antics of local forces been exacerbated by drugs? How will it, how can it end?

How powerless we bystanders feel. How frustrated are we that these images of war become somehow emblematic of Africa in 2011.

Yet, as I am privileged to have learned at first hand, there IS another Africa of hope and achievement, but it is fast eclipsed by the nightly cascade of inhumanity that splurges, if often only briefly, onto our screens.

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