Now it's happening in the Ivory Coast
Now it's happening in the Ivory Coast
Retour de Laurent Gbagbo en Côte d’Ivoire : une nouvelle occasion de réconciliation
Retour de Laurent Gbagbo en Côte d’Ivoire : une nouvelle occasion de réconciliation
Op-Ed / Africa 2 minutes

Now it's happening in the Ivory Coast

As the world struggles to come to grips with the slaughter taking place in western Sudan, indiscriminate bombings in Spain and Uzbekistan and threats of terrorism pretty well everywhere, it just doesn't appear to have the will to focus on the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. Yet West Africa is currently one of the world's most unstable regions, and a vicious conflict is being waged largely unnoticed in its heart, in the Ivory Coast.

Just how vicious was made clear last month, when protesters took to the streets of the country's commercial capital, Abidjan, to call on the government to implement the peace accords it signed back in January 2003. President Laurent Gbagbo's government has banned such expressions of dissent and responded by deploying tanks, helicopters and fighter jets to quash the protests. When the protests went ahead, the security forces and pro-government youth militias opened fire on the demonstrators.

What happened afterwards is still coming to light, but it appears that many protesters were shot dead, and many more were rounded up in the days after the protests by militias and then executed, often in police stations. The government says there were 37 killed, but there have been 120 or so bodies identified already, with more lying in local morgues. With reliable reports of mass graves and disappearances coming in, the opposition's claim of perhaps 500 deaths is sounding more and more credible. If verified, this would represent a truly awful slaughter, a government-sponsored attack with many more killed than the horrific bombings in Madrid.

And yet the world has, so far, been largely silent.

The French, who have 4,000 peacekeepers in the country, have kept quiet, partly through fears for the safety of French citizens there, partly because of their past support for Gbagbo, and partly through their relative helplessness to prevent future slaughters.

As with most conflicts in Africa, this one has a long and complex history, with political, religious and ethnic factors at play. In its current manifestation, it dates back to September 2002, when a group of about 700 soldiers attempted a coup. The coup failed and soon degenerated into a war between loyalist government forces and breakaway army troops.

Soon after, two new insurgent groups appeared and started attacking towns in the west. The French pushed the warring groups to attend peace talks and, following intense negotiations, an agreement was reached creating a transitional "reconciliation" government to lead the country to elections in 2005. This power-sharing arrangement, however, has been in deep trouble since September 2003, when one of the main opposition groups walked out in exasperation.

The conflict is not limited to the Ivory Coast. Some of the rebels have had support from neighboring Burkina Faso. In the past, President Gbagbo has supported and armed the Model rebels in Liberia, who have helped him win back the west, as have some left-over fighters from the Sierra Leone war.

The conflict is largely over who is regarded as a "true" Ivorian, with the government distinguishing between Ivorians of "authentic" local origin and those whose heritage is "mixed," who account for about a quarter of the population. It accuses immigrants from countries to the north of trying to take over the economy.

Ivory Coast remains at risk of an eruption of political violence with nasty ethnic overtones. When UN peacekeeping troops are deployed in greater numbers in July, the risk of conflict will be reduced. But, as we have seen before, most recently in Kosovo, the presence of UN peacekeepers can do little to prevent a population hell bent on retribution for real or perceived grievances.

What is certain is that if the world continues to pay as little attention as it is currently paying to the dispute, it will soon wake up to mass killings and violence on a scale it can't ignore, and at a cost far higher than immediate international condemnation of the massacres would impose.


Former Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer
Former Program Director, Africa

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