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Posts Tagged ‘civil war’

On a flight home from Kenya last summer, I sat next to a young man from Burundi. His country was just holding elections, and we got to talking about them. I’d heard people calling the elections a sham because the opposition boycotted them, and there was only one candidate (from the ruling party) to even vote for. I asked what he thought about that situation and the current president. He said ‘Well, you know, we Africans…. sometimes these guys have their own style of doing things which others may not understand.’ We got to talking about politics in countries near Burundi and African big men who don’t want to step down. He kept joking, with each subsequent leader: ‘Hey… well, you know, I guess he has his own style too.’  Seems there is a lot of personal style to be reckoned with.

Consider Laurent Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire who’s refused to step down as president and whose conflict with internationally recognized president-elect Ouattara is bringing (has brought?) the country to civil war. I’m about as far from a Cote d’Ivoire expert as you can get, never having visited the country and not having a great handle on the history or much knowledge about the current situation. So I went digging for some news articles and opinion pieces so I could understand things better.

Alex Thurston gives a good round-up on Sahel Blog and John James describes the day-to-day in his article Ivory Coast’s Descent into Madness (heard through @scarlettlion). This sobering article, West Africa lurches towards war, from March 11, explains how the Cote d’Ivoire conflict could impact the whole region. The International Crisis Group sums up the situation like this:

‘The election was part of a peace process that began after the September 2002 rebellion and was endorsed by several accords, the latest the 2007 Ouagadougou Political Agreement that all candidates, including Gbagbo, accepted and that set out compromises on organisation and security for the balloting. Ouattara won the run-off with a margin of more than 350,000 votes over Gbagbo.

The UN certified that result, but Gbagbo used the country’s highest court to throw out votes arbitrarily so he could stage a constitutional coup. Since then, he has relied on violence and ultra-nationalist rhetoric to cling to power. Over 300 people have been killed, dozens raped and many more abducted and disappeared by security forces. ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) have recognised Ouattara as president-elect and asked Gbagbo to step down, but he is apparently prepared to resist to the end, even if it means throwing Côte d’Ivoire into anarchy, war and economic disaster with terrible consequences for the entire region.’

Aaron Bady of ZunguZungu goes deeper and analyzes the historical roots of the conflict in his post Our deafening silence on the Coast of Africa: Cote d’Ivoire and our Myth of Continents, which I’d encourage you to read in full.

‘This is, in other words, about the political power structure working to limit who gets to politically represent and be represented in this “African” nation, precisely by drawing a line to separating “North Africa” from “West Africa,” in politically interested ways, to maintain political control for the ‘real’ Ivoirians in the south. Without denying that there might be other bad guys in this story, the fact remains — virtually unspoken — that ten years ago, Ouattara’s ethnic origin as Burkinabé — his parents were from Burkina Faso — was used by politicians from the predominantly Christian southern part of the country to disqualify him from running for the presidency; a political campaign of “Ivorité” worked to distinguish between “indigenous Ivorians” and “Ivorians of immigrant ancestry,” as a thoroughly programmatic effort to dis-enfranchise the (largely Muslim) north by lumping them all together with the (many) immigrants in the north who originated Burkina Faso. The current violence started with a disturbingly analogous move: after Ouattara was declared to have won the presidential election — by the UN, ECOWAS, the AU, and all international observers — the Gbagbo controlled Constitutional Council threw out 660,000 votes from the north and gave the election to Gbagbo.

It’s all very complicated. But for now, my point is simply to note that these geographical categories are not only part of the problem in Côte d’Ivoire itself. In this case, they are part of the reason why we find it so difficult to even talk coherently about the problem.’

*****

The organization where I work operates in Liberia, and so I’ve been getting updates about the situation on the Cote d’Ivoire-Liberia border, where we’re providing some support to the large number of refugees streaming into Liberia. These updates describe a deteriorating situation. Ghana, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso haven’t received as many refugees but are still starting to feel the effects of the conflict heating up. The past week saw a spill-over of violence onto the Liberian side of the border as armed Ivorians entered the Liberian territory and attacked Liberian and Ivorian nationals who were found along the North Eastern Liberia-Cote d’Ivoire border.  UN security troops were deployed to put an end to the fighting and gain control. Serious shooting has also been reported along the South East Liberia-Cote d’Ivoire border, accelerating the influx of refugees into the counties of Maryland and Grand Gedeh. One report says that in Cote d’Ivoire, rapes, abductions and killings are being committed by people supporting both sides and influential leaders appear to be deliberately stimulating attacks against political opponents, other ethnic groups, nationals from other West African countries, as well as UN staff and operations.

I was Skyping Wednesday with my boss, who lives in Burkina. She oversees our programs in the West Africa region, including emergency and humanitarian crises. She said there are over 80,000 refugees who’ve come into Liberia already, ‘and it’s only going to get worse.’

On top of those who have fled into Liberia, there are at least 300,000 internally displaced. ‘The area where the refugees are in Liberia is totally undeveloped,’ she said. ‘It’s 26 villages with no infrastructure which now have to cope with the influx of people. People don’t want to go to a camp. They prefer to stay in the villages. There are security worries as there is fighting very close to the border and armed men from Cote d’Ivoire are crossing the border to Liberia and started firing on the Liberian side of the border. They were shut down by UN troops, but it’s worrying.’

Since she and I talked the situation has gotten worse still. Foreign Policy Blog reports:

‘This is the real thing. In a message on state television last night, Gbagbo — who has refused to step down after losing an internationally certified election in November — asked civilians to get involved in the fight to “neutralize” his opponents. That’s about as close as you get to saying pick up your machetes and join me. Or forget machetes; Ivory Coast is still heavily armed from its civil war last decade. Gbagbo certainly hasn’t been shy about using military force lately; his forces are thought to have been behind a mortar attack on a market yesterday that left 40 people injured. Earlier this week there were reports of his using helicopters and tanks to mow down suspected opposition supporters.’

My boss also worries there will be a cholera outbreak. The rains started early and the hygiene conditions are bad. Ghana has a cholera outbreak right now, and it’s likely that with much people movement, rains and inadequate sanitary conditions, there will be an epidemic. ‘And people from Cote d’Ivoire are hungry,’ she said. They haven’t had access to cash for weeks as all the banks are closed and food stocks are used up. We are feeling this even here in Burkina as food coming from Cote d’Ivoire starts to get short and prices increase…. And many of the refugees are adolescents. We are worried about them being hired into armed forces, so we are looking into options to try to organize the youth to simply give them something to do.’

On March 3, the International Crisis Group issued the steps that they see as necessary to avoid a civil war and conflict that will shake the whole region:

‘The requirements to avoid a disastrous new conflict include Gbagbo stepping down; Ouattara offering to negotiate, with civil society help, an agreement for unity, national reconciliation and an interim transitional government with him at its head (but without the irreconcilable former president); the UN peace-keeping mission standing firm to carry out its civilian protection mandate; and the international community unequivocally supporting any decisions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including deployment of a military mission.’

I wonder if these actions will actually be taken, or if the escalating situation will allow for them to be taken, as each passing day seems to throw the country further towards a seemingly impossible-to-resolve situation.  It’s tempting to think that people are not paying attention to this crisis because of other crises happening right now in Japan, Egypt and Libya. I’m not convinced. Aaron Bady’s post, referred to above, spells out other possible reasons for the lack of attention to the situation, including the common narratives about Africa, ‘the dark continent’, that color our perceptions and reactions. Again, I’d really encourage you to read the whole piece, but here’s a bit of it:

‘It isn’t that “we” don’t want to understand; it’s that we don’t know how to see beyond the initial same-old-story-ness of this story, when we hear it. Which is why, I would suggest, we end up where we started: a sense that, because there is violence, we should pay attention to what is happening, followed by the discovery that there is no news there; just the same “turmoil in Africa” narratives we sort of quietly presume to be going on across the continent all the time, and nothing we can think anything new about.’

I’m someone who rants quite a bit about the negative images we associate so often with Africa and Africans. But looking at the information available about the current situation, I’m having a hard time finding any hope there. I wonder what solutions there really are, where they come from, and if and when these cycles will end. Is it because I haven’t visited Cote d’Ivoire myself that it’s hard to see beyond the negative narratives? Is it because I don’t personally know the day-to-day ‘place of friendly people, amazing fresh fruit, long and unspoilt tropical beaches ‘ that John James describes? In my mind, I keep coming back to the narrative about Africa’s ‘big men’ and their ‘personal styles’.

Seems I’m also caught in the thinking trap that Aaron laid out.

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