Calm Ivory Coast, Unresolved Conflict Remained

"The situation is calm now but it can explode at any time."
( [email protected] ) Nov 22, 2004 02:22 PM EST

Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, accounts for an estimated 40 percent of economic production in French-speaking West Africa and is the site of two key ports. It also hosts millions of guest workers from impoverished neighboring countries.

A 1999 coup, its first , and a 2003 outbreak of civil war shattered decades of stability. Events of the past two weeks put the downhill slide on full plunge: Gbagbo reopened the 2-year-old war against rebels on November 4, sending his newly built-up air force on bombing runs against the insurgent-held north.

A November 6 airstrike killed nine French peacekeepers and an American. French forces responded by wiping out Ivory Coast's new air force and thousands of Gbagbo loyalists unleashed a frenzy of rioting and looting, urged on by Gbagbo-allied state media.

By the end of this week, 9,000 panicked foreigners including the majority of the remaining French population in this former prized French colony had fled.

The chaos subsided as quickly as it began when popular leaders such as Ble Goude, whose "Young Patriots" militia swept Gbagbo to power in a 2000 uprising, went on state television to appeal for calm. Just like that, rioters turned to picking up the debris.

The pastry shops and luxury boutiques are open. Children in neat blue and white uniforms are back in school. And vendors selling everything from parrots to air freshener have returned to streets choked with cars.

But beneath the surface calm, unresolved ethnic, regional, political and religious rivalries still roil after a week of unprecedented violence. The next burst of bloodletting in a country that was long a model of peace and prosperity in Africa is likely only a matter of time, diplomats and U.N. officials warn.

"It is a downward spiral," said Alan Doss, the United Nations' deputy special representative in Ivory Coast. "Each time, the violence gets more nihilistic. People may think they control the mobs, but sooner or later, that mob will take on a life of its own."

President Laurent Gbagbo's fellow African leaders fear that the consequences for their fragile region, in which many countries are still emerging from their own turbulent pasts, could be devastating.

The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Ivory Coast, threatened it with further sanctions and ordered it to resume the implementation of peace accords, under which Gbagbo appointed a power-sharing Cabinet to oversee disarmament, reunification and elections in 2005.

But after months of watching the two sides haggle over details, Western diplomats privately question whether either side is willing to make peace -- unless outside powers leave them no other choice.

France, at sword's edge with what was once its main African partner, is unlikely to take the lead. The United Nations, which already has 6,000 peacekeepers manning a buffer zone between the rebel north and government south, has been suggested for a larger role -- but Gbagbo's hard-liners accuse it of bias. Gbagbo has asked the United States to intercede, but U.S. officials say they will not take over France's role.

Gbagbo emerged from his residence under heavy guard this week to preside over the first Cabinet meeting since the crisis began. But opposition members did not show up, so Gbagbo said he was temporarily replacing them.

"Peace agreements per se don't necessarily make peace," Doss, the U.N. envoy, acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press. "There has to be a modicum of trust and confidence."

The roots of suspicions run deep in Ivory Coast, and with each new round of violence, become stronger.

Political influence and wealth have been concentrated in the mostly Christian and animist south, home to plantations that produce coffee and 40 percent of the world's cocoa.

Ivorians from the predominantly Muslim north, along with West African immigrants who have lived and worked here for generations, have long felt excluded by the government in the south.

Those tensions exploded into violence with the military coup in 1999, an event that unleashed a series of takeover attempts, ethnic clashes and finally all-out war.

Even as calm returned to Abidjan this week, troubling signs remained.

Hundreds of Goude's followers remain camped in front of Gbagbo's residence and the national television and radio station, persuaded French forces will try to unseat him. French officials privately say there have been requests for them to do so, but insist it is not an option.

With many Westerners gone, there are fears the heavily Christian, pro-government militias could again turn their anger against the "outsiders" remaining: the northern Ivorians, Muslims and immigrants they accuse of supporting the rebellion.

Already, there are reports of ethnic clashes in the west of the country, causing thousands of Ivorians to stream into neighboring Liberia.

"We, the people of the north, are targeted just like the whites, but no one comes to protect us," said an Abidjan truck driver, too afraid to give his name. When government forces raided his home in March, looking for opposition supporters, they dragged away seven relatives and shot them, he said.

"The situation is calm now," he said, "but it can explode at any time."