Lessons From Ivory Coast's Descend Into Anarchy

By Gabriel I.H. Williams

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 6, 2002

Reports from the Ivory Coast indicate that the West African country, until recently regarded as the most peaceful and prosperous in the region, is rapidly descending into anarchy reminiscent of the civil wars in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.

With proliferating armed factions and rapid breakdown of law and order, Ivory Coast's unfolding disintegration reflects the wisdom in an old saying that was recently echoed by Togolese President Gnassaygbe Eyadema that when your neighbor's house is on fire, it is wise to help quench the fire. Eyadema, who is chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediation committee aimed at peacefully ending the Ivory Coast crisis, was attempting to sum up the collective fear within West Africa, and the urgent need to contain the armed insurgency before it spreads beyond that country.

As the Ivory Coast, one of the most developed countries in Africa, degenerates into a war theater, the effects are already being felt in neighboring countries.

Tensions are reportedly high between Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, which the Ivorian government accused of supporting the Patriotic Movement for Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI), the original rebel group that launched the armed uprising September 19, and is in control of the northern part of the country.

On November 28, two previously unknown rebel groups emerged in western Ivory Coast near Liberia, and they seized two strategic cities. Man, the main regional city, is further toward the center of the country, while Danane is 20 kilometers from the Liberian border. The Popular Movement for the Greater West (MPIGO) and the Movement for Justice and Peace (MPJ) are reported to have seized two other western towns toward the south, bringing the war closer to the main cocoa producing region, for which the Ivory Coast is known as the world’s largest cocoa producer.

The new rebels groups have reportedly unleashed a campaign of terror against the civilian population, and are engaged in widespread looting and destruction. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) quoted eyewitnesses fleeing Man as saying the streets of the city are littered with bodies. Eyewitnesses describe bodies everywhere, scenes reminiscent of the brutal civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Amid reports of heavy fighting near the Liberian border with thousands of terror-stricken Ivorians and Liberian refugees in the Ivory Coast fleeing into chaotic and war-ravished Liberia, there is no doubt that the Ivorian crisis is taking on a dimension with very profound implications for regional peace and security.

To understand the volatility of the situation in a region where ethnic groups with common languages are found across national boundaries created by colonial powers, one has to consider how Liberia’s brutal civil war easily spread and consumed Sierra Leone and also almost completely destabilized neighboring Guinea.

The extent to which the Liberian war spread to neighboring countries brings me back to what President Eyadema said regarding fire on your neighbor's house. And I would add to that by indicating that it is very dangerous to help fan the flames burning your neighbor's home because you might have your own home burnt down in the process. Once the fire is lit, you may not be able to control the spread of the sparks or flames. This statement is true to the unfolding civil war in the Ivory Coast, which contributed, to a large extent, to the destruction and slaughter of hundreds of thousand of people in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone during both countries' civil wars.

The Ivory Coast also enormously benefited economically from the plunder and sale of resources from the two countries by collaborating with rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF)

With the support of the Ivorian government of now late President Felix Houphuoet-Boigny, the Libyan trained NPFL, led by Charles Taylor who is now president of Liberia, attacked Liberia from across the Ivorian border December 24, 1989. From then onwards, Libyan arms and other supplies intended for the NPFL were flown to Burkina Faso, from where they were transported by road through the Ivory Coast to Liberian territory occupied by the notorious NPFL armed gang. Foday Sankoh, leader of the brutal and barbaric RUF, comfortably resided in the Ivory Coast, from where he directed his campaign of terror and plunder of diamonds and other minerals in Sierra Leone. While Liberia and Sierra Leone literally bled to death, the Ivory Coast was booming as the central point for the sale of looted goods and natural resources such as diamonds and timber from both countries.

The Ivorians were also engaged in attempts to undermine the peace efforts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, which was led by Nigeria under the auspices of ECOWAS. The Ivorian government was seriously opposed to the roles of the Nigerian-led ECOMOG peacekeeping forces in both countries. No wonder why Nigeria, the regional power, has been very reluctant to get involved in any peacekeeping operation in that country, known to have long undermined progressive African activities to serve foreign interests.

With more information about the two previously unknown factions, it is becoming clear that both groups have their roots in Liberia and that many of their fighters are former NPFL and RUF rebels. Eyewitnesses are reported as saying that many of the new rebels speak English and not French, which is the official Ivorian language. According to accounts from witnesses in the area attacked by the new rebels, some of them have accents that suggest that they were from Sierra Leone.

It has not been confirmed as to whether the two factions enjoy the backing of the Liberian regime, even though Monrovia has quickly denied any connection with the dissidents. One thing that is clear for now is that the "Frankenstein monsters" the Ivorians helped create through their criminal collaborations with Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh may be turning on them with vengeance. With nothing much apparently left to plunder in Liberia, while Sierra Leone has become impossible because of the presence of British and United Nations peacekeeping forces, the ex-NPFL/RUF rebels have now turned on one of their benefactors with all the barbarity for which they have become known.

The new rebel groups, the MPIGO and the MPJ, say that their aim is to avenge the death of General Robert Guei, the former Ivorian military leader, who was killed on the first day of the original uprising in September. Fighters of the new factions are reported to be predominantly from the Yacubaa ethnic group, which is also called the Gio ethnic group in Liberia. This ethnic group, from which General Guei hailed, was split between Liberia and the Ivory Coast as a result of colonial boundaries, but the people still speak a common language and they maintain kinship across the border.

Fighters of the NPFL were predominantly of the Gio and Mano ethnic groups. After coming to power, Taylor transformed the brutal and barbaric NPFL into Liberia's military and paramilitary. A recent United Nations panel of experts report states that about 1,500 RUF thugs reside in Liberia, and they are part of Taylor's security apparatus. In May 2001, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Liberia, including a travel ban on Taylor, his immediate family and senior Liberian government officials, for Taylor's reported involvement in gunrunning and diamond smuggling with the RUF in West Africa. The UN has demanded the expulsion of all RUF rebels from Liberia, apparently to no avail.

The original rebel group (MPCI) has signed a cease fire agreement with the Ivorian government, which is being monitored by French troops, and is engaged in peace talks under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The MPCI fighters, who are from the predominantly Muslim Dioula ethnic group in the north, claim that they have been discriminated against by the Ivorian government, dominated by Christians from the south.

The Burkinabe regime of Blaise Campaore, which is also known to bear great responsibility for the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone by also providing training bases and mercenaries to the NPFL and RUF, has been named by UN investigators for involvement in the Liberian-led gunrunning and diamond smuggling. While Taylor and Liberia are being punished by the UN for the campaign of death and destruction in West Africa to plunder resources, Campaore, who murdered his best friend and comrade, then Head of State Thomas Sankara, to seize power, has largely gone unpunished.

Campaore and Taylor are known to be poster boys for the destabilization of West Africa by Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, who has been a key supporter of revolutionary struggles to rid Africa of Western imperialism. Armed and financed, both men, who many regard as murderous criminals, are serving as proxies for Libyan adventurism in West Africa. There are emerging reports of a possible Libyan connection in the Ivorian crisis. Having succeeded in destabilizing Liberia apparently to teach the US a lesson, Gadaffi may now be drawing his attention to the Ivory Coast, France's closest ally in the region, the last bastion of major French investment and heavy colonial influence in Africa. During the Cold War era when Liberia was a strategic center for CIA and other US security operations in the region, the country was reportedly used as a base to destabilize or overthrow the regime of Col. Gadaffi. For its part, the Ivory Coast has been the leader for Francophone West Africa, encouraging activities that are found to be in the interest of its colonial masters in Paris.

Burkina Faso appears to have taken advantage of the Ivorian government's recent xenophobic policies. According to the UN information service, IRIN, about four million of Ivory Coast's 15.37 million people are foreigners, 2.2 millions of which are Burkinabes. Burkina Faso has been in dispute with the Ivorian government over the alleged ill-treatment of African immigrants, particularly Burkinabe migrants who, like most of the immigrants, came to the Ivory Coast largely for jobs and better living conditions. Ivory Coast was known to host the largest number of refugees in West Africa, including hundreds of thousands that fled civil upheavals in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s. Burkinabes are also known to have settled in the country for decades and integrated, but Ivorians of Burkinabe descent, who are also predominantly Muslim, are reportedly treated as foreigners.

It is against the background of grievances bordering on discrimination or ill treatment that brought about a series of civil disturbances which culminated into the September 19 uprising. However, unlike the original MPCI-led rebellion which was regarded to be generally orderly and disciplined and the population spared, the new rebels, as already reported, are terrorizing civilians and looting their homes, reminiscent of the savagery of rebels in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. Both civil wars caused the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and left the two countries almost completely ruined.

Reports indicate that the commanders of the MPIGO and MPJ rebels recently resided in Liberia, from where their forces were trained and armed. Both men, who were members of the Ivorian army, are said to have fled to Liberia when General Guei was forced from power in a popular people's uprising that turned bloody in October 2000, when he rigged an election and declared himself president. Some members of the presidential guards, who fired on civilians in an attempt to suppress the rebellion, were known to be Liberians. Guei seized power in a military coupe in December 1999.

For many years during Liberia's civil war, Guei was head of the Ivorian armed forces, and he was known to have a close relationship with Taylor. After he was driven from power and forced to barricade himself in his hometown near the Liberian border with several hundreds of his loyalist troops, Guei is said to have shuttled regularly between Monrovia and his hometown. He was named in UN panel of experts' reports for involvement in armed struggling with Taylor.

Ivory Coast's destructive influence in Liberia has its genesis in the 1980 bloody military coup in Liberia, led by then 28 year-old Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. President William Tolbert, who was killed while in bed with his wife at the Executive Mansion (official presidential residence), was an in-law of then Ivorian President Houphuoet-Boigny. Tolbert's son, Adolphus Benedict Tolbert, was married to the Ivorian leader's forster daughter, and the president reportedly pleaded with Doe to spare the life of A.B. Tolbert. Despite his plea, the young and bright Tolbert, who was a member of the House of Representatives during his father's presidency, was reportedly buried alive by Doe's security forces. These developments seriously heightened tensions between Liberia and the Ivory Coast, prompting other regional leaders to get involved to bring about reconciliation. But relations between both men were known to be lukewarm at best.

Doe's regime, which received $500 million US aid for its pro-American policies, shut down the Libyan Embassy and expelled Soviet diplomats, contrary to the foreign policy of Tolbert, who established diplomatic relations with many Eastern Bloc countries. Tolbert had attempted to make Liberia, which was then vital to US strategic interests, more non-aligned in a serious Cold War era, something that was seen to be a major factor in his downfall. Doe also became increasingly corrupt and brutal in order to remain in power. His opponents were jailed, driven into exile or murdered. Many of those exiled Liberians, including Taylor who escape prison in the US and fled to West Africa, found a common cause with countries like Libya, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast to remove the military dictator by force of arms.

By collaborating with criminals in their desire to see an end to Doe's regime, the Ivorians put themselves in a position where there is no way to duck or dodge the unfolding calamity they helped to create in the region. As the old saying goes, when your neighbor's house is on fire, it is wise to help quench the flames. But doe we Africans really learn from the lessons of history?

About the Author: Gabriel Williams is a journalist and author of the recently published book, LIBERIA: THE HEART OF DARKNESS. The book provides extensive accounts about roles of Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Libya in Liberia's brutal civil war and its destabilizing effects in West Africa.

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