U.N. And U.S. Must Join French Intervention to Stabilize Strive-Torn Ivory Coast and the West African Region

By Gabriel I.H. Williams

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 24, 2002

The deployment of more French troops in strive-torn Ivory Coast, with orders to shoot anyone seriously violating a cease-fire in the West African country, is timely. The increased French military presence in its former colony is aimed at preventing the country from degenerating further into a war theater. France has called on the United Nations to also intervene, noting that the fighting threatened the entire region, and, therefore, justifying collective mobilization.

The UN Security Council's recent condemnation of the rebels for attempting to overthrow the Ivorian government must be followed by concrete actions to stabilize the country and the region. It is also imperative that the United States seriously consider the need to back an urgent UN intervention, to prevent one of Africa's most developed countries and the third largest economy in sub-Sahara Africa from decimation.

With proliferating rebel groups and rapid breakdown of law and order, the disintegration of La Cote d'Ivoire, as the country is called in French, is taking on a dimension with very profound implications for regional peace and security. Three rebel movements threatening to remove the Ivorian government from power by force of arms occupy the northern and western parts of the country. As fighting flare, mass graves have been discovered, while bodies have littered about in some cities and towns.

French troops are enforcing a tattered cease-fire between Ivorian government forces and the Patriotic Movement for Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI), the original rebel group that launched the September 19 armed uprising, and is in control of the northern part of the country. As peace talks under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional body reach a stalemate, both sides are reportedly engaged in mass recruitment and are mobilizing for war. The UN High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) has announced that it is probing reports that both the army and the rebels were trying to force refugees to fight for them. Cote d'Ivoire has been known to host the largest number of refugees in West Africa, including hundreds of thousands that fled civil wars in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s.

In a dangerous calculation that could undermine the 16-nation ECOWAS mediation efforts and widen the scope of the conflict, the MPCI has accused West African leaders and France of siding with the Ivorian government, demanded the withdrawal of French forces, and has threatened to fight against them. Seemingly disgusted with yet another armed uprising to further destabilize the sub-region, ECOWAS leaders have offered a firm endorsement of Ivory Coast's nominally democratic government. The MPCI rebels, who are from the predominantly Muslim Dioula ethnic group in the north, claim that northerners have been discriminated against by the Ivorian government, dominated by Christians from the south.

For their part, rebels who emerged in western Ivory Coast have already exchanged fire with French forces resulting to rebel casualties, and they have also threatened to wage war against the French and the Ivorian government. According to reports, the two previously unknown armed factions, the Popular Movement for the Greater West (MPIGO) and the Justice and Peace Movement (MPJ) have their roots in Liberia. Many of their fighters are said to be former Liberian and Sierra Leonean rebels. The MPIGO and MPJ are not part of the cease-fire agreement and stalled peace talks. Both groups say 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 September uprising.

According to the UNHCR, more than 100,000 people have fled the Ivory Coast to neighboring countries since the crisis began. At least 250,000 people are reported to be displaced.

The Liberian government news website has reported that more than 70,000 Liberian returnees and Ivorian refugees and asylum seekers have fled into Liberia. Refugees from other African countries that are reported to have crossed into Liberia include Ghanaians, Sierra Leoneans, Nigerians, Burkinabes, Mauritanians, and Cameroonians. The influx of refugees into Liberia is said to be creating a serious humanitarian crisis due to little or no food, shelter and medical means. According to the report, some 30,000 Liberian returnees in a border town slept in the open field for days before being evacuated by the UNHCR.

While the rebels are said to be planning for a showdown with French and Ivorian government forces, tensions are reportedly high between Ivory Coast and neighboring Burkina Faso, which the Ivorian government accused of supporting the MPCI rebels. At the heart of Africa's continued instability is the double standards that characterize international relations, in which former colonial powers or imperialist countries collaborate with some African leaders to destabilize other countries to impose a friendly regime or to plunder resources. Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire, with the acquiescence of their French masters, supported rebels that plundered Liberia and Sierra Leone, and all three countries enormously benefited economically.

For an understanding of the double standards, one has to consider the following questions: Where are the rebels getting their arms and how is the weaponry routed into the Ivory Coast? Who's supplying the rebels with funds or who provided them bases for initial recruitment and training? Until Africa and the international community find answers to these questions and institute appropriate actions to cut off the rebels' sources of support and sanction the collaborators, as was in the case of UN sanctions against Liberia for aiding Sierra Leonean rebels, Ivory Coast is doom. The country could end up like Liberia and Sierra Leone, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, where various African armies and rebel movements, all with external sources of arms supply, are confronting each other amid the plunder of one of the richest countries on earth.

As the world's largest cocoa producer, the Ivory Coast's descend into anarchy is certainly impacting the world economy. Disruption in cocoa shipments is reported to have caused increase in the price of the commodity. About 60 percent of the goods imported by Francophone West Africa – countries that are former French colonies - pass through the port of Abidjan, the commercial capital that is also called the Paris of West Africa for its beauty. Abidjan is also the financial capital of Francophone West Africa. The country is home to some of Africa's most prestigious financial institutions such as the African Development Bank and the West African stock exchange, and regional headquarters for several international institutions. Ivory Coast's $10 billion economy is reported to be more than four times the size of its land-locked neighbors Burkina Faso and Mali, which rely heavily on Abidjan.

It goes without saying that any state of anarchy reminiscent of the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone would not only revert that country to the primitive age but it would also be a serious blow to Africa's modernization efforts. With the stakes so high, it is imperative that France move swiftly in building a military coalition involving ECOWAS and the UN, to contain the criminal gangs spreading terror across the Ivory Coast. Left alone, the rebels would destroy that country simply to take political power and plunder resources, as have been the case in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ivory Coast must not be allowed to fall in the hands of murderous criminals masquerading as fighters for freedom and justice. Given the history of those who are emerging as backers of the rebels, the international community should not wait for a repeat of the chaos in other parts of the region.

ECOWAS leaders' decision to begin deploying a 1,500-strong peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire from December 31 is commendable. Nigeria should help provide leadership for the peacekeeping operation, even though Nigeria is seen to be reluctant to get militarily involved in part apparently due to the Ivorian government's slight toward African leaders at the beginning of the crisis.

When the Ivory Coast rebellion started in September, Nigeria had acted swiftly, reportedly dispatching three Alpha jets, which came to be known as "dudu birds" in Liberia. During Liberia's civil war, the mere sound of those jets sent rebels and civilians alike fleeing for dear life. The fighter jets were put to effective use in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo declined the offer of assistance, saying his country did not need foreign assistance to contain the rebellion.

Even though several ECOWAS countries have pledged troops for ECOMOG, which will be led by Senegal this time, there can be no question that only Nigeria has the men and capacity to deploy rapidly in a way capable of making a difference. Oil rich Nigeria reportedly spent billions of dollars on its own to sustain ECOMOG in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and is reported at one point to have contributed over 12 battalions, sizeable effective air support and the necessary weaponry and logistics for ECOMOG's operations.

Recent news report quoted a Nigerian official as saying that his country's position against sending troops to Ivory Coast is because Nigeria spent approximately $8 billion in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and that it has not been compensated. He said the U.S. and Britain should have been at the forefront in collaborating with the UN to see how to provide some compensation in the form of debt waiver to the Nigerian government. The official said Liberia and Sierra Leone are progenitors of the US and Britain, respectively, adding that his government is weighed down with debt at the moment and did not see the need to add to its burden.

Major Western countries such as France, US, Britain, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, which have pledged to provide assistance for the ECOMOG peacekeeping force, must act with urgency. Given the prevailing situation in that regional economic hub, the international community must demonstrate a willingness to do more to prevent a collapse of Ivory Coast's economy. Let the Ivory Coast crisis not be like the brutal wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the African peacekeeping countries needed resources and logistics to contain the armed rebellions but were quite often not given the desired support.

I, however, do not wish to overlook the fact that US financial, logistical and diplomatic support was crucial to the creation and success of ECOMOG, including the approximately $500 million the US spent for emergency relief and the peace process in Liberia. However, there is widespread disappointment about US involvement in resolving the crisis in a country long regarded as its closest traditional ally in Africa, which was used as a strategic base during the two World Wars and the Cold War. The US has been a part of Liberia's unresolved past, for example, by supporting dictatorship and using the country to destabilize Libya, which in term aided rebels to ravish Liberia, founded in the 19th Century by freed black American slaves as a haven for people of color. In my recently published book, LIBERIA: THE HEART OF DARKNESS, which also deals with issues regarding people of African descent and race relations, I did echo a question that has been often raised in recent times: would Americans have abandoned Liberia and left when the civil war erupted if Liberians were white people? The answers to this question may lie in America's own struggle with race relations, as reflected in recent pro-segregation comments of now former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

While Washington placed its stepchild, as Liberia is called, on the back burners during its civil war because it was no longer important in the post Cold War, Paris' endorsement of the Charles Taylor-led National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels resulted to major economic benefit to France. During the civil war, NPFL-occupied Liberia reportedly became France's third largest supplier of tropical timber. A UN panel of experts that investigated warlord-turned Liberian president Charles Taylor's involvement in gunrunning and diamond smuggling in West Africa reported in 2000 that 37.7 percent of timber export from Liberia went to France. As the criminal regime in Monrovia plundered Liberia's rainforests, the largest remaining pristine forests in the region with unique animal species, the UN Security Council decided not to include a ban on timber export in a series of sanction measures against the regime. Timber was not included in the sanctions because France and China, which is also benefiting from a large percentage of timber export from Liberia, threatened to veto the resolution if timber export was not excluded. The campaign to save whatever is left of Liberia's rainforests continues, with international environmental advocacy groups such as Global Witness and Green Peace leading the charge.

Now that French interests in the region are seriously threatened, we hope that Paris would now see the need to review its imperialist policies in Africa, and seriously back international efforts aimed at halting the proliferation of arms on the continent. This message is also intended for all other countries that have been or are involved in the destabilization and plunder of Africa. Arms proliferating in Africa have their origins in Europe and other parts of the world, from where arms dealers, companies and governments regard mineral rich Africa as a lucrative market and a zone to test new weapons.

Paris and the international community must work with the Ivorian government and those aggrieved by acts of the government in finding solutions to the problems of discrimination and inequity that brought about the crisis in that country. Even though it has been an independent country since the 1960s, Ivory Coast has essentially remained a French administered colony and a paradise for French vacationers. While many Ivorians are suffering, as the rebels claimed, the technical and administrative jobs were left in the hands of French nationals who lived the good life in various parts of the country. Some 20,000 French were reported to be in the country when the crisis started.

As a journalist who traveled to the Ivory Coast several times before and during the Liberian civil war, I have a sense of the disparity between the rich and the poor. During the Liberian crisis, I accompanied the delegation of interim president Amos Sawyer as a reporter to a Liberian peace conference hosted by then Ivorian president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who was regarded as the father of Francophone West Africa. The conference was held in Yamoussoukro, President Houphouet-Boigny's hometown turned capital of the Ivory Coast, for which a Liberian peace accord was named. Yamoussoukro is a beautiful city with world class hotels and beautiful landmarks, including a lake with live alligators, as well as a palace and a cathedral said to be larger than the Basilica in the Vatican, both of which President Houphouet-Boigny reportedly built at an estimated cost of $300 million. The presidential compound, which I described as a mini-city in my accounts of the Yamoussoukro summit as contained in LIBERIA: THE HEART OF DARKNESS, also included a magnificent conference hall and villas that housed the heads of state and government.

While eating at the palace as a member of the Liberian presidential delegation, I remember seeing a French national busy coordinating activities in the dining area and kitchen. Out of curiosity, I asked a colleague resident in Abidjan as to who the French fellow was, and we later learned that he was a presidential butler. The hotel where we were lodged during the summit was crowded with tourists and European car racers, who had just completed a race through the Sahara desert. Despite the country's economic boom, one only needed to get around to realize that many Ivorians were still being left way behind in the progress march.

To resolve the Ivorian crisis, lessons must be taken from the solution of a similar problem in the region. A decisive military intervention by the British in Sierra Leone, along with the deployment of UN and ECOWAS peacekeeping forces, eventually led to the disarmament and demobilization of Sierra Leonean rebels. Britain and the US also led efforts for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Liberia and others that aided the Sierra Leonean rebels. Once their main lifeline was cut, the rebels withered.

And also, in order to end Africa's seemingly endless state of instability, Africans must realize that we live in a predator's world, which would be changed only by what we do to protect our commonwealth over and above sectional or parochial interests. With education and technology no longer the exclusive domain of any particular race or group of people, Africans must organize and work toward capacity building and self-empowerment. However snail paced, the developed world is now making some effort toward integrating Africa in the global economic market. The challenge is to take advantage of the opportunities by demonstrating a willingness to change through political and economic reforms that would create the conditions for stability and progress. Africans have to work to change the negative perceptions of us we have helped foster by the way we conduct our affairs. Ever the unstable place struggling to attract foreign investment, Africa has shot itself in the foot again by the unfolding state of anarchy in the Ivory Coast.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Journalist and Author Gabriel I.H. Williams is a member of the Business Advisory Council, a high level body that works with Congressional leaders for US economic progress. He is also a member of the Mano River Media Forum, a Boston-based emerging media think tank aimed at improving the standard of journalism in the Mano River Union region, which comprises Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

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