Rwanda Syndrome on the Ivory Coast

Two children look through barbed wire

Two children look through barbed wire in Bouake, Ivory Coast on November 14, 2004 (Photo: Phillipe Desmazes/AFP-Getty Images)

The crisis in the Ivory Coast bears a striking resemblance to events in Rwanda ten years ago. The world had better take notice.

The Ivory Coast — the source of much of the world's coffee, cocoa beans and palm oil — has been an oasis of stability in war torn West Africa since its independence in 1960. Now, as the former French colony sinks deeper into chaos, it threatens to take much of the region with it.

The Ivorian army is in disarray, rebel groups are preparing for war in the north, and a xenophobic media is egging on government-supported thugs to spill foreign blood. The only forces left to preserve order are a few thousand French soldiers and a hapless coalition of UN troops.

Many observers, from both inside and out of the country, are beginning to fear the worst.

"'Never again,' people said after the Rwandan genocide," observed Marie-France Cros in La Libre Belgique (Nov 8). "Yet, it seems that all conditions will soon be in place for a similar tragedy to take place in Ivory Coast. As in Rwanda, local authorities have adopted a double language: one of appeasement meant for the international community — by formally accepting a peace plan...[while] allowing the creation of militias of extremist patriots... As in Rwanda ten years ago, authorities in Ivory Coast mix up democracy and demagoguery...."

The commitment of French troops in Ivory Coast — the country's riskiest venture in Africa since Rwanda 10 years ago — has turned into a fiasco. After Ivorian jets bombed a French base on November 6, killing eight soldiers and an American, France destroyed the country's air force.

Mob violence forced the evacuation of more than 9,000 Westerners, including non-essential staff from UN and other humanitarian agencies. Militant "Young Patriots" — members of a militia with close links to President Gbagbo — were responsible for explosive anti-white riots in the streets of Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast.

"The Riviera 1, 2 and 3 neighborhoods [in Abidjan] where Europeans lived were taken by storm," reported Jeune Afrique L'Intelligent (Nov 19). There were rapes and beatings, all part of a manifest desire to humiliate the 'whites,' whoever they were — French, Belgians, British, Lebanese — and perhaps a few murders...the riot quickly assumed the character of a tornado."

According to Human Rights Watch, Muslims living in Abidjan have also been threatened and their houses ransacked while the police looked on. Most of them are from the north of the country. Tens of thousands have fled to neighboring countries.

"Without France, we would find ourselves in a second Rwanda," claimed Ibrahim Coulibaly, one of the rebels who took control of the north in September 2002, in an interview with Courrier International (Nov 17). He accuses Ivorian President Gbagbo of wanting to "internationalize the crisis and attract neighboring countries into his destructive adventure."

By sharp contrast, Cameroon's privately owned newspaper, Le Messager (Nov 17), insists that the French and UN peacekeeping forces are the problem, not the solution: "The more time that passes, the more the efforts of the former colonial power and the international community turn manifestly in favor of the rebels, the more radical the militias become. We know what has happened: it's become unbearable."

Michèle Alliot-Marie, France's minister of Defense, evoked Rwanda to justify the presence of French soldiers in West Africa during a recent press conference with foreign journalists, reported Nouvel Observateur (Nov 17): "It is clear that, by intervening in September of 2002 and in the following months, we avoided the kind of massacres that took place in Rwanda..."

"It won't solve anything for the French to leave," wrote Patrick Girard in the Paris weekly, Marianne (Nov 19). "It would give free rein to the "Young Patriots," who will turn their attention to the regime's opponents, against northern Ivorians, most of them Muslim, and against the numerous foreigners (Malians, Ghanians, Burkinabians) who are accused of being sympathetic to the rebels...[I]f the international community doesn't mobilize, the shadow of a second Rwanda will descend over the Ivory Coast."

Hate Media

It has been widely reported that the riots in Abidjan were not purely spontaneous but were in fact organized by the supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo.

In an analysis of Ivory Coast's "hate media," the BBC News Website (Nov 16) noted that "National television and radio has been broadcasting fervent, not to say feverish, messages calling on people to take to the streets.... Days of looting and occasional violence have forced thousands of Westerners to flee the country."

"Sometimes there was a religious dimension to the speeches," the report adds, "which is particularly significant in a country split in two by a war that many have portrayed as the largely Christian south against the largely Muslim north."

According to the UN Daily News (Nov 15), Kofi Annan's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Juan E. Mendez, "has warned that xenophobic hate speech could exacerbate already widespread violations of human rights, which in the recent past included extra judicial killings, torture, disappearances and sexual violence." The broadcasts reminded many observers of Rwandan radio during the genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days.

The Ivory Coast's opposition newspapers have been either destroyed or banned in the government-held south. The premises of the independent newspaper, 24 heures ( were burned to the ground.

Francophone Summitry

The troubles in the Ivory Coast cast a long shadow over the 10th Summit of French-speaking countries (La Francophonie), which took place last week in the city of Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso.

Sometimes compared to the British Commonwealth, La Francophonie was created to promote French culture and language, but in recent years its meetings have focused on international politics and topics like sustainable development. Members include countries from Canada to Vietnam. But the majority are former French-speaking colonies in Africa.

The summit leaders signed a resolution demanding that all sides in the conflict adhere to the terms of the French-brokered peace accord reached in January 2003 and that "the Ivorian authorities put an end to the incitements to hatred and violence circulated by certain media and to assure the protection of the foreign communities living in the country."

A commentary published in Le Monde (Nov 10) ahead of the summit emphasized how much France has to lose if the Ivory Coast goes under: "If the flagship country of French-speaking West Africa...were to disappear, it would signal the end of France's credibility as protector in around 20 of the continent's countries. The influence of the former colonial power in Africa still provides it with an important reservoir of voices on international bodies, in particular the UN."

But there is far more at stake than diplomacy. "One must never forget that Rwanda was a French-speaking country," wrote Professor Louise Beaudoin in Le Devoir (Nov 24), Canada's leading French-language newspaper. "If some [francophone] countries claimed they didn't know what was going on back then, no one in a French-speaking country, or anywhere else for that matter, will be able to say they didn't see it coming in a land [Ivory Coast] that has known relative prosperity and still represents 40% of the GDP of West Africa.