The Ivory Coast is perched on the blade of a knife. The main source of the world’s chocolate, it has voted to replace its president. But the guy won’t go. So the world pushes harder from the outside.
International election observers tell Laurent Gbagbo to go. The African Union says he should go. Even the U.S. State Department chimes in with its latest threat of sanctions. They will doubtless hurt the nation’s poor rather than its political elite. But it’s what we do when small countries won’t listen to us. (No sanctions on China).
The roots of the problems in Ivory Coast are far deeper and wider than one small nation – even one that feeds our addiction to chocolate.
In Ivory Coast -- as in Nigeria, Sudan and many other African countries -- the northern region closest to the Arab world is Muslim; the southern region is largely Christian and animist. The people belong to different tribes and speak dozens of languages.
When I visited Ivory Coast as a reporter and as a journalism trainer, the seeds of dispute were already being cultivated by those seeking power. Alassan Ouattara, already a candidate back in the mid 1990s, was accused by the President Henri Conan Bedie – a southerner -- of not being Ivorian enough.
The southerners – fearful of being swamped by immigration from poorer Muslim neighbors Burkina Faso and Guinea -- had raised the bloody flag of ethnic nationalism. To run for office and even to have a driver’s license, one had to prove that one’s grandparents were “Ivorian.” Since the Ivory Coast only was born as a nation in 1960 when granted independence from France, how could anyone’s grandparents have been born in a nation that did not then exist?
Nevertheless, police and vigilante mobs would pull over a taxi driver and if he could not prove Ivorian enough – meaning he spoke Malinke and was a Muslim from either northern Ivory Coast of the neighboring nations – they could seize his taxi and possibly drag him to the police station.
When I interviewed Ouattara in his office at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, where he worked for several years, it was hard to image this bureaucrat in a business suit and fancy office not being Ivorian enough for the thugs of Abidjan.
Bedie himself had simply seized power when the previous leader died. He went to the national television station with some soldiers and ordered the anchorman to announce he, Bedie, was now president, bypassing the constitutional process. When the anchorman refused, he was replaced on the spot. It was rough and tumble democracy.
I also met Gbagbo at that time who was hoping to gain power someday. He did, during a 2002 coup, as the country was split in two along north-south divisions.
The apparent election victory by Ouattara last week marks a profound change for the nation of 20 million. If a Muslim can rule and bring together Christians and Animists as well as Muslims, this former jewel in the crown of French colonies could regain some of its luster.
Then it might deal with the deep problems that keep its people poor – especially the ripping off of farmers who grow cocoa and coffee beans but get a tiny share of their value. Instead speculators and middlemen divide up the market and buy the crops cheap for export to Switzerland and Belgium where they bring top dollar.
If Ouattara can change that, and tamp down the endemic ethnic conflict he will pave a route for other African leaders to follow.
If, however, Gbagbo decides to stay it will be a sign that Africa’s multi-ethnic, multi-tribal, multi–challenged countries seem destined to walk another few years along the knife blade of history – where leaders clinging to power drag everyone down to failure with them.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at email@example.com.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.