Ivorian protests cool, but damage takes toll

Demonstrators have stayed off the streets since a presidential appeal for calm on Friday.

Curfew here starts at 10 p.m., but last Friday, the streets were deserted much earlier.

"TV, TV," pants Aristides Diomande by way of explanation as he dashes home, clutching his hat. Policemen, out in force at makeshift roadblocks to check identification papers, need not have bothered. By 8 p.m., the only movement in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial capital, was that of plastic bags blowing in the hot wind.

Almost five months after a failed coup attempt here, and two weeks after parties to the conflict signed a controversial French-brokered peace deal, everyone - from the rebels holed up in their northern headquarters of Bouaké, to the loyalist student demonstrators in Abidjan, to the 3,000 French soldiers scattered around the buffer zones - was glued to radios and TVs to hear President Laurent Gbagbo's long-anticipated address to the nation.

Since September, close to 1 million people in what was once West Africa's most prosperous and stable nation have been displaced, and hundreds have been killed. The country is divided and tense, schools and businesses have closed, and foreign nationals are fleeing. And Mr. Gbagbo had a seemingly impossible task at hand, caught between supporters who demanded he renounce the deal and rebels who refuse to renegotiate.

"Let's try this medicine," the president pleaded in his 45-minute address. "If we get better, then we keep it. If not, we try something else."

Those words had a soothing effect here, observers say. But the way forward is far from clear, and a great deal of damage has already been done.

Gbagbo cleverly balanced his address: saying he would accept the Marcoussis deal, named for the town outside Paris where it was signed - but could not accept all of it. The rebels, he assured his supporters, would not get jobs in the defense or interior ministries, as had been rumored. But Gbagbo promised he did not intend to reject the "spirit" of the deal.

The next day, there were no demonstrations in Abidjan, and student leader Charles Ble Goude, who had been revving the loyalist crowds into a frenzy for weeks, admitted he had been "seduced" by Gbagbo's words. Guillaume Soro, secretary-general of the main rebel faction, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (MPCI), said he needed more time "to think about," the address. But his fighters remained quiet. The country felt frozen in place.

"It seems Gbagbo confused everyone sufficiently to buy time," says a senior Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That is good for the moment - but the problems have not gone anywhere."

The biggest problem, suggest observers, may be the long-term damage to this country and the region which has already been done.

That damage may remain even if Gbagbo and his new prime minister, Seydou Diarra, manage to work out an acceptable new compromise with the rebels using the extra time to strengthen the army and conclusively beat the rebels.

Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa-producing nation. Chocolate producers, such as Hershey and Mars, helped make it the fourth-richest economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Migrant workers flocked here from neighboring countries to work in busy ports and cocoa farms.

Today, the port in Abidjan is silent, and the port of San Pedro is heavily guarded for fear of rebel attack. Warehouses are empty, and commercial traffic is being routed to the ports of Ghana and Guinea.

Meanwhile, foreign companies, businesses, and regional aid organizations are moving out. This weekend, Ivory Coast's leading foreign employer, the African Development Bank, announced it had begun evacuating staff from Abidjan.

"I thought Ivory Coast had too big an investment in prosperity for [a war] to happen here," admits Carolyn McAskie, the UN's humanitarian envoy to Ivory Coast, on a visit this week. "But short-term political gain usually takes precedence over long-term investment."

While neighboring port countries might gain in the short term from the additional traffic, they , too, will suffer if the Ivory Coast's woes continue.

Tens of thousands of refugees have trudged down Ivory Coast 's well-maintained tarmac roads with bundles on their heads towards Ghana, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and even war-torn Liberia in recent months.

"As Ivory Coast goes down, the whole region is getting sucked down with it," says Ramin Rafirasme, the World Food Program's information officer in West Africa. "This is a grave regional problem."

Even worse, argue some observers, is that the crisis has again legitimized rebel movements in this unstable region of the world. "From now on, to enter into a government you just need to base yourself in one region and take up arms," Mr. Ble Goude, the student leader, said last week.

The international community's readiness to accept the Ivory Coast rebels, argues a Western diplomat, "...is an oil spill that will stain the region."

But Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, disagrees, arguing negotiators in the Ivory Coast had little choice.

Mr. Rotberg suggested the unrest was "payback time" for the Muslim north, that has long been discriminated against. "The only way to have ended the rebellion was to pay appropriate attention to groups that have felt disenfranchised," Rotberg says.

A night after Gbagbo's address, young Ivorians hung out at sidewalk bars and tapped their feet to deafening music pumping out of loudspeakers.

But at 8:30, the street party began to break up. Curfew was nearing and people had to make their way home. In better days, sighed student Yacouba Sangare, they would stay up until dawn. "Of course it is all relative," says Mr. Sangare as he shuffled to leave. "Today is better than yesterday. But still these are bad times."

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