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Road to Violence

Ivory Coast's president divided his country.

By Douglas Farah
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page A19

The decision last Monday by the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Ivory Coast -- with the possibility of further sanctions -- was necessary to slow the spiral toward chaos in what once was West Africa's oasis of stability and relative prosperity. The simmering conflict in Ivory Coast threatens the region, already buffeted by brutal war and crises. It is also a broader security concern because terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and Hezbollah, have established sanctuaries in West Africa. More unrest will offer them new opportunities to become entrenched.

To understand events in Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, one must understand the destructive role played by the nation's president, Laurent Gbagbo, and his xenophobic inner circle.

Cars burning during recent protests in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Reuters)

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In late November 2000, the newly elected Gbagbo met privately with the ambassadors of France, the United States and Britain. With his country teetering on the edge of civil war, Gbagbo agreed to allow the main opposition party, excluded from the presidential contest and made up mostly of Muslims from the north, to participate in scheduled parliamentary elections.

Gbagbo had narrowly defeated a despised military officer in violence-marred elections in which less than 30 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. His openly anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric and promises to purge Ivory Coast of foreigners were largely lost in the chaos of the moment.

Gbagbo promised to announce the agreement in a televised address to the nation. But a cabinet minister appeared instead to announce that the opposition was banned and also to challenge the right of its members to citizenship. It was the first step in Gbagbo's effort to undo four decades of policies that had successfully encouraged racial and religious harmony.

The ambassadors were stunned by Gbagbo's duplicity. But it was only the first of many deceptions that have led to Ivory Coast's near-pariah status.

I was in Abidjan the next day when angry Muslims took to the streets to protest, only to be met by armed, government-sponsored mobs that rampaged through Muslim sectors of the city. They systematically attacked immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and other impoverished countries who had been invited into Ivory Coast as laborers. Human Rights Watch documented the atrocities of Gbagbo's forces, including massacres of unarmed youths buried in common graves, rape, torture and the razing of mosques. The Muslim staff members of The Post's bureau were threatened and their houses ransacked while the police looked on. They joined tens of thousands of others who fled to neighboring countries.

The vigilantes, with Gbagbo's encouragement, attacked the French, the former colonial masters, who maintained strong economic ties there.

As the situation deteriorated, Gbagbo spent scarce resources to purchase helicopter gunships and the Ukrainian crews to fly them -- a deal he repeatedly denied making. Even so, the French took the lead in stationing several hundred peacekeepers in Ivory Coast after last year's brief civil war, separating rebel forces in the north from Gbagbo's troops in the south. They helped negotiate a cease-fire and start peace talks.

When Gbagbo's forces violated the cease-fire this month and used the helicopters to attack peacekeeping positions, killing nine French soldiers and an American aid worker, the response was swift. The French launched a lightning strike, destroying the Ivorian air force, including the gunships.

The move may have smacked of colonial hubris, but it did not come in a vacuum. Gbagbo's past record caught up with him. Even other African nations are unwilling to listen to his explanations this time. In response, Gbagbo did what he has done repeatedly: unleashed armed, government-sanctioned thugs to loot, pillage and terrorize.

When the African Union called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation, Gbagbo skipped the event. Instead, he stayed home and named as head of the armed forces the very commander whose forces launched the attack on the peacekeepers. In an interview with The Post, Gbagbo questioned whether French troops had really died.

The tragedy for Ivory Coast is that the damage to the fabric of society, as well as to the economy, will be almost impossible to reverse. The businessmen fleeing the country provided thousands of jobs that are unlikely to return. Foreign investment has shriveled while unemployment has skyrocketed. The remittances sent by the immigrant workers to their homelands sustained hundreds of thousands of families. Muslims and Christians, northerners and southerners are separated by anger and fear.

The rebels who control the northern half of the country are not the solution. They are an unsavory mix of disgruntled Ivorian officers, remnants of Charles Taylor's thuggish security forces and other guns-for-hire from around the region. Criminal networks trafficking in weapons and diamonds span the border area of Ivory Coast, Liberia and Guinea, creating what one senior Pentagon official called a "fluid mass of anarchy." But the rebels gained a foothold because of Gbagbo's single-minded determination to split his country along ethnic and religious lines while entrenching himself in power.

The unanimous and swift U.N. action may give Gbagbo pause. The arms embargo, coupled with the threat of travel restrictions and economic penalties on those who continue to fan the violence, offers a chance to keep the crisis manageable as the international community, led by the African Union, seeks a solution. Gbagbo will undoubtedly make new promises to escape the sanctions. The United Nations should respond according to his actions, not his words.

The writer was The Post's West Africa bureau chief, based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, from March 2000 until June 2002. He is on leave from The Post.

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