Letter From Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire:

The Art of Setting a Region on Fire

Soldier patrols Abidjan after rioters torched a bus in protest of the murder of two prominent opposition figures.
A soldier patrols Abidjan, Feb. 3, 2003. The bus in the background was torched by crowds protesting the murder of actor and opposition figure Camara Vakaramogo Yerefe (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP).

If the African belief that the dead watch over their children is true, then we can expect Côte d’Ivoire’s first president and revered “Father of the Nation,” Félix Houphouët-Boigny, to descend to rain some blows on the Ivorian political class. To put it mildly, Ivorian leaders have lost their minds.

But Ivorians, whom he addressed affectionately as “my children” might not be so tender with him as they were when he was in office. Since Houphouet-Boigny left office, Ivorians have tasted violence and Ivoirité—a political concept created by former President Henri Konan Bédié to separate “real” Ivorians, those from the predominantly Christian South, from their “fake” Ivorian compatriots from the predominantly Muslim North.

Still, many in Côte d’Ivoire and around the region say they are sure none of this would have happened with “Nanan (Papa) Houphouët” at the country’s helm. Theories abound about how Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled Côte d’Ivoire like a village chief, would have handled the crisis: He would have told the families of the rebels and the heads of their native villages to talk the rebels into putting down their arms; he would have invited the rebels to his village in Yamoussoukro and given them bags of money; he would have offered them full scholarships to institutions in France (where they will be under the watchful eyes of the colonial masters); he would have sent the ringleaders out as ambassadors or military attachés to Ivorian embassies in places like China, Japan, Argentina, and the Balkans.

One way or another, though, Houphouët-Boigny is gone. He has left Côte d’Ivoire in the hands of a group of irresponsible, power-drunk, and immature politicians who have succeeded in unleashing the demons of hatred on what was, just a few months ago, the Switzerland of Africa, a bastion of peace in a turbulent and unpredictable neighborhood.

What started as a mutiny on Sept. 19, 2002, by a group of soldiers protesting their imminent demobilization has escalated into a full-blown war that has divided the country. Three rebel factions—the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI), the Ivorian Patriotic Movement for the Greater West (MPIGO), and the Movement for Justice and Peace (MPJ)—control the north and west of the country. The government is left with the south, including Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, the respective commercial and political capitals. The French are providing a buffer zone between the rebels and the government.

The conflict has led to an unprecedented economic hardship. Multinational companies are closing their Ivorian operations. Satiric, the French-owned operator of the Abidjan-Ouagadoudou rail line, has retrenched its 900 workers. The African Development Bank has evacuated 1,100 workers from its Abidjan headquarters. The United Nations has likewise evacuated all non-essential staff.

It’s small wonder. The country is descending into violent anarchy. Heated protests against the peace accord have drawn thousands of demonstrators over the past weeks. Far from the front lines, opposition leaders and their family members have been summarily executed by a notorious militia called “The Squadron of Death,” which is rumored to be acting as a proxy for the government. There is a saying in Abidjan: “The fear of the ‘Squadron of Death’ is the beginning of wisdom.” Residents in government-controlled areas have taken note: Most keep their grievances against the government to themselves for fear of being picked up in their homes by armed men in uniform late at night, when the curfew has emptied the city, and found dead by the side of the road a few days later.

Monitoring agencies have reported widespread torture and rape in government and rebel-held areas. Mass graves have been found in the areas that have seen the worst fighting. The war has produced a humanitarian crisis that threatens to get worse. Since government troops set fire to the shantytowns of Abidjan, claiming that they could be used to hide rebels, the former residents—mostly West African immigrant menial laborers—have been left homeless. As the fighting progresses, more and more Ivorians are fleeing their homes, looking for other shelter, both within the country and in Côte d’Ivoire’s already-troubled neighbors. The Red Cross estimates that more than 1 million people have been killed by the effects of the fighting and that twice that many have been left homeless.

Meanwhile, the world seems obsessed with the question of whether the United States will attack Iraq. Aid agencies are lining up to provide relief to Iraqis. Yet as early as Nov. 14, 2002, Ross Herbert, Africa Fellow at the South Africa Institute of International Affairs, was warning that “unless far more forceful action is taken, there is real risk of unleashing in West Africa’s most prosperous nation a Liberian scenario complete with unwinnable ethnic warfare, economic meltdown, and untold damage to Africa’s image and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).”

Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbors, alarmed by the worsening crisis, have stepped up their efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution. President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)’s chief mediator in the Ivorian peace process, sums up the regions interest thus: “If your neighbor’s house is on fire, you better help in putting it out. If not, when his house has been razed, be sure that yours will be the next to go up in flames.”

Eyadema is not alone in his nervousness. Already, Mali, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Benin, Senegal, Ghana, Mauritania, and Nigeria, are feeling the impact of the Ivorian crisis to some extent.

On Sept. 20, 2002, one day after the conflict erupted in Côte d’Ivoire, a steady stream of refugees began crossing the border into Mali. Using bush paths and motor bikes, these people—most of them women, children, and the elderly—were often in a deplorable condition when they arrived at the border. As soon as the first batch arrived, the Malian authorities opened a camp in Zegoua, 50 kilometers from the border. As the fighting intensified and threatened to spill across the border, a more permanent camp was set up in Loulouni, 100 kilometers from the border.

As governor of Sikasso, Samassekou Boucary is responsible for Zegoua and Loulouni. “The Malian administration is overwhelmed by the influx of the people fleeing the Ivorian crisis,” he says. “Thousands of our compatriots arrive in a deplorable condition. A large number of them have been living in Côte d’Ivoire for a long time and they help their families back home by sending money. The Ivorian crisis will sooner or later have an effect on our economy. We have also received hundreds of West African refugees. It is very difficult for us to meet their needs.”

The Red Cross, UNICEF, and Medecins Sans Frontières have been assisting the refugees but the situation is still very bad. Loulouni is an arid land. Temperatures often rise above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Many refugees are suffering from malaria and respiratory diseases, made worse by the camp’s poor sanitation system and lack of electricity. Health officials only visit once a week. Locals must travel 6O kilometers to Sikasso when they require serious medical treatment.

In neighboring Burkina Faso, the Ivorian crisis dominates conversations wherever you go. In offices, bars, in mosques and churches: Everywhere, people discuss little else. Turn on the radio or the television, and the top news item is likely to be on Côte d’Ivoire. It’s not just a question of the war being next door. Official figures put Côte d’Ivoire’s Burkinabe population at 3 million. Many more are estimated to be in the country without documents.

Though the Burkinabe government started a repatriation program called “Opération Bayiri,” or “Return to the Fatherland,” there are no adequate means to provide for the returnees, some of whom are third-generation Burkinabes whose parents were born in Côte d’Ivoire. Aid agencies report that roughly 500,000 have been repatriated since the onset of the crisis. Their labor has been an important source of revenue for Burkina Faso: A 1999 government survey estimated that Burkinabes working in Côte d’Ivoire send home about US$3 million a year.

One can safely say that the Burkinabes disproportionately bear the brunt of the war in Côte d’Ivoire. Burkina Faso’s government has recorded a loss of more than US$100 million since the conflict began. In Burkina Faso’s second-largest city, Bobo-Dioulasso, bakeries have closed shop. There’s simply no wheat flour since fighting started. Burkina Faso, a landlocked country, depends on the port of Abidjan for its wheat imports. And not only wheat imports have been affected: More than 60 percent of Burkina Faso’s imported goods came through the Abidjan port via Abidjan-Ouagadougou rail line before Burkina Faso’s border with Côte d’Ivoire was closed. It is getting more and more difficult to find cigarettes, tinned food, coffee, and other basic necessities. The Burkina Faso Petroleum Corporation says it has kept a “substantial stock of fuel” in anticipation of a fuel shortage should the war in Côte d’Ivoire continue. In the capital city of Ouagadougou, the price of a liter has gone from 50 cents to 60 cents. “We now spend our time playing cards, ludo, and domino,” says Jean Kaboré, chief customs officer at the Niangoloko border. “This is also a great financial loss to the government. Before the crisis, more than 1,000 trucks carrying different types of goods passed through our checkpoints. All that has stopped now.”

Burkinabe companies are also feeling the conflict’s pinch. The Burkina Faso Flour Mills is waiting for three tons of wheat stuck in Abidjan. In the meantime, the mills are laying off workers. Filsah, the national cotton company, has retrenched half of its staff because it can no longer export its products to Ivorians, who used to buy almost 80 percent of Burkina’s 3,000 tons of cotton produced a month. Société Africaine de Pneumatique, a Burkinabe tire-manufacturing company, has been importing the rubber it needs to operate from Côte d’Ivoire since 1974. It has been forced to close shop temporarily while making arrangements for a new source of raw material. The list of Burkinabe companies going through difficulties as a result of the war is very long.

War-torn Liberia alone has received more 69,000 refugees and returnees since the onset of the Ivorian crisis. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), roughly 39,000 of these people had come to Côte d’Ivoire fleeing war in their homeland in the first place.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Conakry, Guinea, more than 28,000 Guinean nationals arrived in the country between Sept. 27 and Dec. 18, 2002. Most of them entered Guinea were fleeing heavy fighting between the MPIGO rebels and the government the western Ivorian region of Danane.

In Ghana, the government is watching developments in Abidjan “with keen interest.” Like any other West African nation, Ghana has been flooded with refugees since the crisis started. For people fleeing fighting in the government-held territory in southern Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana is the only way out. Disease and prostitution have followed the flow of refugees. The World Health Organization and partner agencies have reported cases of cholera, measles, yellow fever, meningitis, and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS during the massive population movement. They fear an outbreak.

With the failure of the Lomé peace talks, all hopes were on the French-brokered peace talks in Linas-Marcoussis. But the allocation of the Defense and Interior Ministries to the rebels has proved sufficiently unpopular in government-held territories to spark massive anti-French rallies. The protesters claim the deal, brokered as it was by the country’s former colonizer, is a threat to democracy in the region. If it is implemented, they say, the rebels will have brilliantly demonstrated that with determination and support from as-yet mysterious backers, a group of half-baked intellectuals and military boys can push a democratically elected government around… and enjoy the sympathy of the world. This would indeed be a bad precedent to set for a “young” African democracy.