On the Ground in Côte d’Ivoire

Rebel soldiers patrol the streets of Sakassou, Cote d'Ivoire
Rebel soldiers patrol the streets of Sakassou, Côte d’Ivoire, Oct. 1, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

It was 3 a.m. on Sept. 19 and a colleague was shouting at me through his mobile phone. “Baba, Baba, Baba, where are you? There are gunshots everywhere in town, especially in Cocody, Deux-Plateaux, and around the presidential villa. I think these military boys have come again. Do you have an inkling of what is going on? Anyway, brother, make sure you stay indoors and let’s keep in touch.” I replied calmly that the first gunshots woke me up, and that I was on my balcony, trying to figure out what was happening.

He was furious that I was so calm and that I had not called him immediately after I heard the gunshots. Gasping for breath, he berated me: “I think you are crazy. Even if you have witnessed several coups d’état and civil wars and have lost that human feeling, you have not seen anything yet. This one will surprise you, brother. You better get into your apartment or you’ll get your head blown off…”

Then, suddenly, he screamed, “They are coming toward our building!” The connection went dead. That was our last conversation. I learned later he had been killed by a stray bullet in his apartment, which was close to a military base attacked by mutinying soldiers on Thursday, Sept. 19.

As more calls flooded in, I learned that people from across Côte d’Ivoire had also woken up to heavy gunfire that morning. Mutinying soldiers were simultaneously attacking Abidjan, Bouaké, in the west, and Korhogo in the north. They were reportedly protesting their impending demobilization from the army.

By daybreak, telephone lines had become saturated. I tried to call Jean-Baptiste… no luck. The next thing was to turn on the television and the radio at the same time.

I’ve come to depend on foreign radio and television stations in such situations. The Ivorian radio stations continued with their usual programming as if nothing was happening. On the other hand, that fact alone suggested that the armed men had not captured the national media.

Jean-Baptiste, or “JB” as everyone knew him, was right on two counts.

Over the course of my life in West and Central Africa, I have become accustomed to shooting. Now when I hear the first salvoes, I don’t even think. I just hide if I’m on the street, or stay glued to the floor of my apartment if I’m at home. I have stayed in that position for hours, for days, and for weeks.

I experienced my first coup d’état at age 6, in Nigeria. Growing up, the kids in my neighborhood were so used to coups that we would joyfully shout, “Coup d’état! Coup d’état!” whenever a car tire burst or a policeman fired a warning shot. And whenever the real thing happened, we would pour into the streets, dancing and praising the new military leader. That was the time we were living in.

JB was right about something else. Despite my jaded attitude, the madness that took over Côte d’Ivoire that black Thursday caught me off guard. Yet the violence had been a long time in the making.

From 1960, when Côte d’Ivoire won its independence from France, until 1993, the country enjoyed a reputation of being a bastion of stability and economic growth under Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s rule. Though many called him a “benevolent dictator,” Houphouët-Boigny was able to unite the Christians and Animists in the country’s south with the Muslim population in the north. He ruled the country like an African village chief and was feared and revered by all. With some help from the country’s former colonial masters, and with the right balance of carrots and sticks, he was able to keep the military in check throughout his long tenure in office.

Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, after the latest attempted coup first broke
Abidjan: The charred remains of shantytown formerly home to immigrants and refugees driven out of their homes by police and loyalist soldiers after Ivorian officials alleged that neighboring governments were behind an attempted coup (Photo: Tope Akinwande/International Red Cross).

When Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, Henri Konan Bédié, the former finance minister and president of the national assembly, succeeded him, in accordance with Article 11 of the constitution. Many had tipped one of Houphouët-Boigny’s former prime ministers, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, to take over, and were bitterly disappointed when the job went to Bédié.

Bédié lacked the charisma and the political clout of his predecessor, and found that he could not contain the opposition coalescing behind Ouattara and his Republican Party. In 1995, Bédié called for elections, declaring Ouattara to be ineligible as a foreigner under the terms of the constitution and placing further restrictions on the rest of the main opposition parties. The main opposition parties boycotted the polls in protest.

Over the following years, Côte d’Ivoire was beset with political and economic scandals, industrial strikes, riots, and spiralling unemployment. Students and opposition leaders were imprisoned. Accusations of human-rights violations in Côte d’Ivoire made headlines around the world.

On Dec. 25, 1999, Gen. Robert Guei, the army’s chief of staff under Houphouët-Boigny and Bédié, overthrew the weakened civilian administration in Côte d’Ivoire’s first coup-d’état. Ivorians initially cheered the coup, even nicknaming Guei, “Father Christmas in Military Fatigues,” and calling his takeover a Christmas gift. Rallies and thanksgiving services were organized to honor the “Christmas Savior.” Musicians released records praising the “Military Saviour Who Has Come to Sweep the Country Clean.”

Guei claimed he had never been interested in ruling, but had seized power only to “sweep the house clean” and would go back to the barracks after holding democratic elections as soon as possible.

According to a seasoned Ivorian military analyst, “The best way to prevent a military coup d’état is not to organize one,” or, phrased differently, one coup deserves another. Once Guei set the precedent, rumors of coup and counter-coup became routine in Côte d’Ivoire.

On Sept. 17-18, 2000, heavy shooting between government forces and those loyal to two serving generals who had allegedly tried to topple Gen. Guei’s junta paralyzed Abidjan. The accused generals escaped death by seeking refuge in an embassy in Abidjan. According to local news reports at the time, the generals said they had acted because of Guei’s “unwillingness to leave office as promised to the people when he took power.”

In any case, the promised elections began on Oct. 22, 2000. Contrary to his “Christmas promise” to return to the barracks, Guei announced his candidacy and ran against socialist candidate Laurent Gbagbo. After early results showed Gbagbo in the lead, Guei twice suspended polling, finally calling off the election completely and declaring himself president on Oct. 24.

Gbagbo, in turn, called on “real patriots and democrats to take to the streets to stop the general from stealing their victory.” Over the next few days, Ivorians responded in force. Soldiers opened fire on protesters and many were killed. By midday, Oct. 25, the fierce fighting had reached Guei’s residence, forcing him to flee by helicopter. That evening, Gbagbo declared victory.

Gbagbo had not finished unpacking his bags after arriving in the presidential villa when opposition leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara called for fresh presidential elections and ordered his supporters to “stop an unconstitutional government from ruling them.” Fresh fighting erupted, leaving still more people dead or wounded.

In the words of a prominent Ivorian journalist, Côte d’Ivoire had become “a respected member of the coup d’état nations.” People scampered for cover at the slightest noise, expecting another military takeover. They did not have to wait long. On Jan. 7, 2001, armed assailants attacked government buildings, military installations, and radio and television stations to announce a change of government. Loyalists of Gbagbo’s regime riposted with heavy artillery. It was another bloodbath and many people were arrested.

It was in this tense atmosphere that President Laurent Gbagbo organized a Peace and Reconciliation Forum in November 2001 to “give every Ivorian the opportunity to pour out his or her heart, heal the wounds of the past, and move the country forward.” He even called a meeting of the “big four”—President Gbagbo, former prime minister and opposition leader Ouattara, former military ruler Gen. Robert Guei, and deposed President Bédié—to settle their differences and work toward peace and stability in the country.

Despite Gbagbo’s best efforts, what sounded like heavy artillery fire was coming from all directions outside my apartment on Sept. 19. I concluded that these were not the usual Ivorian coup plotters, or that if they were, they had perfected their art. It appeared to be more than an ordinary mutiny. The shooting continued for several hours until the minister of defense came on the air to say that the government had foiled a coup attempt orchestrated by Guei who had been killed during the gun battle. He also alleged the involvement of neighboring Burkina Faso. The official TV and radio stations reported that more than 300 had been killed and 300 more had been wounded. Minister of Interior and Decentralization Emile Boga Doudou and other high officials were among the first killed.

Meanwhile, fighting continued in Bouaké and Korhogo. There, rebels did not have any difficulty in capturing the two cities. French and then U.S. troops flew in to evacuate foreign nationals. The government declared war on the rebels. The rebels replied they were prepared for a total war, and would march on Abidjan very soon.

By Sept. 29, the conflict had become regional, as Nigeria and Ghana offered military assistance to President Gbagbo. The next day, leaders from members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met in an emergency summit in Accra, Ghana, to coordinate their response. At the end of the summit, the leaders of Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo announced they had created a mediation mission to prevail upon the rebels to immediately cease all hostilities.

The next day, Djessan Philippe Djangone-Bi, Côte d’Ivoire’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that the rebels included “a bunch of mercenaries and deserters” from neighboring Burkina Faso, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Djangone-Bi said there was one country, “to remain nameless for now,” which was known to be backing the rebels. The allegation was widely understood to mean Burkina Faso, which has long had strained relations with Côte d’Ivoire because of what Burkina perceives as the oppression of fellow Muslims in its neighbor to the south.

When Ivorian Pime Minister Pascal N’Guessen made similar allegations the previous week, his remarks sparked further unrest in Abidjan, as police and loyalist soldiers set fire to shantytowns populated by immigrants and refugees. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimates that 6,000 have been left homeless and in dire need of aid.

On Oct. 3, rebel leader Tuo Fozie and the government agreed to sign a cease-fire brokered by ECOWAS mediators at 4 p.m. GMT the next day. But as day broke, reports suggested that neither side was really ready to commit to peace. The government was reportedly reinforcing its troops around Bouaké, apparently in preparation for a fresh military strike. Owners of four-by-four vehicles are being told to hand them over to the army. Radio reports have called on people to volunteer for training. Rebels leaders reportedly told a BBC correspondent that they were concerned that the cease-fire agreement stipulated that they should lay down their weapons and return control of all areas to the government. By 6 p.m. GMT, neither side had showed up to sign the cease-fire.

Two days later, after another failed attempt to get the rebels and the government to sign a cease-fire, the ECOWAS mediators left in a rage, and Ivorian troops began their attack on Bouaké. "There is firing from all sides," one terrified woman told the Associated Press news agency by telephone. "The house is shaking."

ECOWAS mediators clearly have their work cut out for them. Yet they had better succeed. Many fear that without sustained international mediation, this peaceful country, known for its warm and exceptionally hospitable people, will remain caught within the cycle of coup and counter-coup.