An African country falls prey to the tribal wars it had formerly been spared.
Forces loyal to Alassane Ouatarra, the Côte d’Ivoire opposition leader who claimed victory in last November’s presidential election, said the mass graves they uncovered in Duékoué, a large town in the Côte d’Ivoire’s west near Liberia, are filled with the bodies of civilians massacred by soldiers or militias loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president who says he won in November. They said there were about 800 victims.
However, a Catholic humanitarian organization, Caritas, which had observers in Duékoué, noted that the Ouatarra forces controlled the town when the killings occurred. After some denials, the spokesman for the Ouatarra forces, Guillaume Soro, said there would be an investigation. By then the count was over 1,000 and rising.
Similar discoveries have been reported elsewhere in the country.
Monitors and observers working for the United Nations and human rights watchdogs have backed up several of the mass graves reports, usually with the caveat that they could not establish court-room type proof of the perpetrators. Some of the atrocities have been reported by the Ouatarra forces, some by the Gbagbo ones. The latter claim the graves in the western part of the country must be blamed on their enemies, because, as an informant said on the phone from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city and economic capital, “the Forces Nouvelles [Ouatarra’s militia, lately renamed Forces républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire] are the ones advancing and taking control of cities and towns.”
They broke out of their northern bases about a week ago and are presently in Abidjan. Abidjan is a small city, built on an island. The Forces Nouvelles fighters, backed up by French air power, were reported in the neighborhood of Cotonou yesterday, where the President, or ex-President, depending on your view, Laurent Gbagbo lives. He lives in the presidential palace, which is blocks away from the French embassy.
There was a time when African presidents dashed out of their palaces to the French embassy to seek refuge. In the era of humanitarian intervention, this may no longer be correct etiquette.
GUILLAUME SORO’S Force Nouvelles have controlled most of northern Côte d’Ivoire since 2003, above a line at about the eighth parallel, with their main base at Bouake, which is right in the middle of the country. The “north” goes roughly from Touba in the west near Liberia through Seguela and Katiola, a few kilometers north of Bouake, and ends at Bondoukou near Ghana in the east. Their strongest base was in the Malinke and Senoufo regions.
The northerners’ champion is Alassane Ouatarra, last prime minister of the Old Man, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who guided the country since independence from France in 1960 until his death in 1993. They thought he deserved the presidency, and the past 10 years in this country have been, from their point of view, a long campaign to reach the presidential palace, evict the usurper, and install Ouatarra. Such a bitter saga, with its columns of refugees trying to escape the fighting (unconfirmed reports suggest the victims of the Duékoué massacres were not locals but people fleeing from elsewhere), was not supposed to happen here.
The Ivory Coast under Houphouët was widely considered a success story. A medical doctor and a prince of the Akoue tribe, a sub-group of the Baoule, he fought for justice in a very practical way, for example by helping organize plantation workers and developing legislation (he served in the French parliament in the 1950s) against forced labor. He promoted a gradual and smooth transition to independence, disapproved of the somewhat dreamy programs of some of his anti-colonial comrades, such as Sékou Touré in nearby Guinea (Guinée). For all France’s faults in the colonial era, he thought, there was no point burning bridges that could be used.
The question asked by Laurent Ggabgo, a history professor a few years younger than Alassane Ouatarra (they are both in their 60s), was this: who is using these bridges, us or the French? Houphouët, while promoting free enterprise and inviting mass immigration from across West Africa in order to turn Côte d’Ivoire into the region’s economic locomotive, was also one of the architects of what soon came to be called neo-colonialism. The old “metropolis” controlled the currency, staffed the government administrations (in the form of advisors behind every ministry and bureau), got its big companies all the major infrastructure and service contracts, dominated or had major parts of retail in the cities, tourism, transportation. There were far more French cadres in Côte d’Ivoire — without even counting the military and security advisors — after 1960 than before. There are about 12,000 today, down from a peak of close to 100,000 in the early 1990s, and President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered airborne troops to secure the Abidjan airport in case they have to make a quick run for it.
He did not speak of restoring order or protecting French interests, just getting people out — averting a humanitarian catastrophe. He did not ask for U.S. support. However, the U.S. Africa Command, established in 2008, lists among its missions humanitarian intervention in the face of political or natural disasters.
LAURENT GBAGBO WAS JAILED by the Old Man in the 1980s for demanding democratic reforms. The Ivoirian miracle was increasingly turning into a mirage, as the French whispered then. They did not say it out loud because it was so pleasant and profitable for them, whether they were benefitting from overseas salary adjustments and a broad menu of cost-of-living subsidies and tax abatements or, if they were politicians, receiving money from slush funds skimmed off the lucrative government-regulated-and-subsidized vertical French-Ivoirian economy.
There was more trade between France and Côte d’Ivoire than between Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, which is next door. If you wanted to fly there, you had just as well go to London or Paris from Abidjan and then back to Accra, on French-piloted Air Afrique planes. Otherwise you took your chances with a Russian pilot stoned out of his mind on vodka and flying an old Ilyushin that was as likely as not to crash in the jungle and never be seen again. Gbagbo himself ended up in French exile for several years, making friends with members of the Socialist Party (center-left, in power in the '80s) and organizing from afar his own Socialist Party (Front Populaire Ivoirien) as well as university affiliates. The idea was to be ready for the inevitable succession battle.
Because the Old Man did not prepare his succession; the idea was anathema to him. Despite his career, he was a superstitious old tribal chief who ruled like a dictator and killed his opponents when he could not buy them off or get them out of the way, in prison or exile. Côte d’Ivoire was economically dynamic, as West African countries went, and one of the reasons was that Houphouët had understood that letting people do what they wanted, including farming, was much wiser than trying to become a modern industrial country quickly, if ever. Cocoa and coffee were grown on private farms and plantations, with the export system controlled by the state, which also fixed prices. It worked for a while, and not too many people cared whether Houphouët thought of the “Caisse” — the cocoa revenues — as his purse or the state’s.
Then it no longer worked.
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