ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Christophe Gnonrou Sibi, 28, drives a cab and lives in a shantytown on the edge of this muggy West African city, Ivory Coast's commercial capital. But last week, he was manning the barricades of a street rebellion against French troops that gave him a new sense of purpose, power and patriotism.
During several days of protests, Sibi's defiance grew. First, he said, he watched a woman being shot by a soldier in a French military helicopter. Then, at another rally, bullets grazed his arm. Finally he fashioned a roadblock near the president's home, using a tree limb, a pair of tires and some construction rubble. Nine days later he was still there, checking every car and waiting for the French to attack.
Christophe Gnonrou Sibi, 28, a taxi driver who has set up his own checkpoint near the residence of the Ivory Coast president, said the rebellion has given him a sense of purpose.
(Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
"Before they pass here," vowed Sibi, a slender man with a wispy beard and a long silver necklace, "they have to kill me."
The outbreak of demonstrations and clashes left some parts of Abidjan in smoldering ruins and sent thousands of French civilians into flight, threatening to destroy the tenuous post-colonial relationship that Ivorian society had made with the French expatriate establishment.
But rather than the raucous rioters depicted in news reports, Sibi and other young Ivorians described themselves as waging a nonviolent struggle against an armed opponent and as seeking to complete their country's breakaway from its colonial masters. Ivory Coast gained formal independence from France 44 years ago. The demonstrations were initially urged by a group called the Young Patriots after French warplanes bombed an Ivorian airfield Nov. 6. The group, which backs President Laurent Gbagbo, warned that French military forces intended to stage a coup and called on young Ivorians to stop it.
French officials have said the bombing was carried out in retaliation for an Ivorian air attack on French military post the same day that killed nine French troops and an American agricultural researcher, Robert Carsky of Syracuse, N.Y. "The colonial time is finished," declared one Young Patriot, Ibrahima Baye Boliga, an unemployed 26-year-old who helps Sibi guard the checkpoint near Gbagbo's home. "Now the Ivorian wants to take his future in his hand."
The man at the nerve center of the Young Patriots is Charles Ble Goude, 32, a former student activist with a hip, savvy demeanor. His young admirers call him "the general" and greet him with fist-pumping salutes.
The organization has no formal structure or membership list, and Ble Goude said he had no idea how many followers he has. For the most part, he communicates with the masses via government-controlled radio and television stations, which have become a propaganda arm for the movement. When he convokes a rally, young men pour into the streets.
Ble Goude is close to Gbagbo, and their rhetoric is almost identical, but he holds no official position and insists the government is neither bankrolling nor commanding the Young Patriots. Its aims, he said, are nationalistic and anti-colonial, not just pro-Gbagbo.
"It's a revolution for my country to confirm that we are independent, to tell the French government that we are no longer living in colonial times," he said in an interview. The French in Ivory Coast, he said, are losing only money. "We are losing our country. We are losing our freedom. We are losing our dignity."
Ble Goude compares himself to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and insists that his movement is nonviolent. Any looting or other crimes committed during the protests, he said, were the work of criminals who took advantage of a chaotic situation. Young Patriots are not armed, but they collaborate with government troops, trading shifts with them at roadblocks since the protests began.
At a rally Monday, hundreds of Young Patriots overflowed a large auditorium in Abidjan's city hall to hear Ble Goude speak. Onstage, a screen flashed images of dead and wounded Ivorians, including one person Ble Goude said was a Young Patriot whose head had been blown off by bullets from French troops.
"French soldiers must withdraw!" he shouted to the cheering crowd. "It is our duty to free our country!"
The rising Ivorian fervor against French colonialism seems puzzling at first, given Ivory Coast's gentle birth as an independent nation in 1960. The world's largest producer of cocoa, the country remained prosperous, peaceful and pro-French for several decades under the presidency of Felix Houphouet-Boigny.