Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Civil War Comes Calling in Ivory Coast

A dictator holed up in the presidential palace who refuses to give up power, whose soldiers fire mortars into urban neighborhoods and shoot at peaceful protestors, who is out of touch and claims his people support him… An army advancing toward the capital to force him out…

But this is not Quaddafi in Tripoli. It’s Laurent Gbagbo, the Baker of Ivory Coast, holed up in the presidential palace in Abidjan. Four months have passed since he lost a remarkable election. The vote in Ivory Coast was the third election in the world to be certified by the United Nations (after East Timor and Nepal), the first in Africa. The results were independently tabulated by the United Nations. There’s no question who won. The election had only one major flaw: no concession speech.

A former history professor and pro-democracy activist (could I make these things up?), Gbagbo refused to admit he lost. Instead, he lodged a complaint that his voters were intimidated in the northern part of the country, where his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, won 93% of the vote. Gbagbo’s allies on the nation’s highest court ruled in his favor, toyed with the results, and subtracted the northern regions. When you subtract the votes from those areas, le voila! Gbagbo wins. It’s a constitutional coup d’état. There is no legal recourse to reverse a decision of the highest court.

No credible evidence supports Gbagbo’s claims of intimidation in the north. There were, in fact, more irregularities and more violence in the western part of the country, which Gbagbo carried. But he hasn’t suggested throwing out those votes. In fact, the Constitutional Council, the court that issued the ruling, has overstepped its authority. According to the Ivorian electoral code, the court must either validate an election or declare it void and call for a new one within 45 days. It doesn’t have the authority to throw out some votes and keep others. If Gbagbo gets away with this, it’s a huge setback for democracy in Africa. But four months in, his world seems to be falling apart.

While the Security Council discusses whether to ban heavy arms in Abidjan, Gbagbo continues to fire them at civilians. They call him the Baker because he rolls his enemies in flour. It doesn’t sound that bad. But that’s the whole point. Blinded by flour, you don’t realize what is happening until you’re popped into a hot oven.

The commune of Abobo, in northern Abidjan, has suffered the most from Gbagbo’s forces. It is now controlled by insurgents that everyone calls the Invisible Commandos. The newly-constituted Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, made up of former rebels and defectors from Gbagbo’s armed forces, is moving quickly toward Yamassoukro, the official political capital. From there, it’s only a couple of hours to Abidjan. It’s not on the world’s big screen, but it is civil war.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Abobo, including the friend I call Gnéré, who has found sanctuary with a relative outside the city. When I finally reach her, she sounds like her old self. “I got the children into school!” she tells me excitedly. After months of being cooped up in the apartment, her three boys are finally back in elementary school. Next she will try to find places in middle school and high school for her younger sister and brother. “I’d like to go home,” she says. “But we’ll stay here for now and see what happens.”

I reached her husband in Abobo last night. Gbagbo’s forces were firing mortars into the neighborhood. I could hear them popping in the background as we spoke. I asked him how he manages to get out of Abobo, to his job, and back again. “I used to pray to God every time I left the house,” he said. “As I drove, I would pray not to cross the tanks. But now, nowhere is safe. Sometimes the mortars explode in the air. But sometimes they land on houses. Now we have to pray all the time, wherever we are.”

The city is dead, he said. Businesses closed, the port nearly empty. I called and called the student I know who is trapped in another part of Abobo. His family nickname is Old Man because he is named for his grandfather. A mortar landed in his area yesterday, according to an article on the Internet. Old Man’s cellphone rang and rang, but there was no answer. Network error, said the message. I’ve been trying to help Old Man get out of Abobo. But Western Union and Moneygram are closed because they operate through banks. Just when people need it most, their relatives and friends abroad can’t send cash.

Meanwhile, thousands of unemployed young men who support Gbagbo have volunteered to join his brutal loyalist security forces. Even Barack Obama, who never uses overheated language, called them “thugs.” They have given the army their phone numbers and are waiting for the call to arms. It’s civil war by cellphone. We can only hope their calls don’t go through.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

While the World Watches Libya, Abidjan Flees

While the world watches Libya, the people of Abidjan are fleeing their homes. Their city is a war zone. Forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo shoot mortar rounds into their neighborhoods.

And it is about to get worse: thousands of young men who support Gbagbo have turned out to enlist in the army. These “Young Patriots” want to join the brutally repressive security forces that keep Gbagbo in power despite the fact that he lost a well-organized election.

For the past four months these young men have listened to nothing but pro-Gbagbo propaganda, an inflammatory plume of self-justifying, anti-northern, anti-French, anti-American, anti-UN, toxic xenophobic exhaust. Young, unemployed, mostly illiterate, and misled by Youth Minister Charles Blé Goudé, they are the raw human energy that can power a civil war.

The propaganda on state television tells them they need to “liberate” Ivory Coast from westerners, the United Nations, rebels and terrorists. How will they identify the rebels and terrorists? They will be northerners with northern last names on their identity cards or immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Benin, or other countries. Hundreds of Ouattara’s political activists have already died. They received the fatal knock on the door, the deadly visit in the night.

The friend I call Gnéré for her protection, a young mother and schoolteacher from a village in the north, is trying to get out of Abobo. “The tanks come in day and night now…shooting! The children are frightened. We can’t stay here any longer.”

A bus ticket to Bouaké, on the other side of the line, controlled by the New Forces and peaceful, costs 15,000 FCFA, about $30, and Gnéré needs seven. The banks and Western Union are closed. She has heard that you wait two days at the station for a seat. And Bouaké is only halfway to her village and her family. She can’t make it.

The refugees at her church are leaving for the north today but she can’t afford seven seats in their convoy, so she is going to try to make it to a town near Agboville about fifty miles away, where she can stay with a relative of her husband.

Another friend (let me call him Yacouba) is leaving today, too. He plans to buy gas with every penny he has and try to make it north to Korhogo, where his extended family lives. Marcory, Yacouba’s neighborhood in Abidjan, is considered strongly pro-Gbagbo although the presidential vote was nearly split there: 36,000 for Gbagbo and 33,000 for Ouattara. And split equals volatile.

Several nights ago, someone knocked on Yacouba’s door at one in the morning. When he asked who was there, a man he knew answered. No problem, the man responded, he just wanted to see him. But when Yacouba stepped out, thirty men were waiting. They were Ebrié. The Ebrié live in villages along the lagoons and are considered the original inhabitants of Abidjan. They are fiercely pro-Gbagbo. In Abobo, the Ebrié were accused by Ouattara’s supporters of harboring Gbagbo’s death squads and three Ebrié men had been murdered.

If what happened in Abobo happens here, their spokesman told Yacouba, we will hold you responsible. Whatever happens to any of our community here, the same will happen to you.

“They know my last name,” Yacouba said, his voice trailing off. Both his first and last names mark him as a northern Muslim, although Yacouba has spent his entire life in Abidjan and is Catholic. Four northern neighbors he spoke to had also received the threatening night visits.

“Have you seen the videos on the internet of the young men burned alive?” he asked me. To my negative response, he replied, “They’re horrible.” When he saw the images of crowds of Young Patriots joining the army, he knew it was time to go.

“Why doesn’t the United Nations act?” asks a student in Koumassi, a northerner come south for an education. “The United Nations has every resource. And yet they show up the day after to ask questions.” His suburb Koumassi is relatively calm. “Even if we don’t have much to eat, at least we are not in danger here.” But he worries about his older brother in Abobo.

“Gbagbo…” says their father in the north ruefully. A farmer, his harvest has been good and life is peaceful. But two of his sons are trapped in Abidjan. When the electricity is cut off in Abobo, the older can’t charge his cellphone and they have no way to contact him. “Gbagbo…” Their father’s voice is filled with bewilderment. “If he kills all the people, he will be president of what? The animals?”

Hundreds of people have already been killed and half a million have fled their homes. More are fleeing as you read this. The people of Ivory Coast, especially those in the city of Abidjan, need help fast. The International Crisis Group is urging ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, to intervene. ECOWAS needs international support and they need to act quickly to prevent mass killings. The Young Patriots are lining up for Kalashnikovs. Once they have them, it will be too late.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The High Price of Onions in Abobo

Thursday morning, I called my friend Gnéré in Ivory Coast. She is trapped in Abobo, caught between the soldiers of the former president determined to stay in power at all costs, Laurent Gbagbo, and the so-called invisible commandos that are fighting back. Abobo is a city within a city, a densely-populated suburb of Abidjan, with its own city hall, mayor, and deputy in the National Assembly. Over four hundred people have been killed since Laurent Gbagbo lost the election. Because it is known as a Ouattara stronghold, more of those people have been killed in Abobo than anywhere else. Some two hundred thousand people have fled the area.

But Thursday morning? Just the way Gnéré answered was reassuring. She sounded more like her old self than she had in weeks. The strain and exhaustion was gone from her voice. After days and nights of fear, Abobo was calm. No gun shots. No mortar fire. They had slept all night. And after two weeks when she was afraid to go down into the street, she had gone to the market early that morning and had returned with onions and salt and cayenne pepper for her sauces. “The onions that are normally 100 francs were 200 and the pile that is normally 200 francs cost 400!” But even her outrage about the prices sounded cheerful. What a relief to be outraged about something as ordinary as the price of onions for a change.

I asked her about the bottles of gas she uses for cooking. None to be had in Abobo, she answered. “The trucks can’t get through the barricades. Gbagbo’s soldiers have cut off Abobo completely. You can’t even take the road to Adjamé to go to the market there.” She had a little charcoal left and was using that to cook with, and she still had rice, and for the sauce, peanuts. The peanuts were grown by her family who are farmers in the north; the last time she returned home for a funeral, she brought a burlap bag back with her. The peanuts were turning into a lifesaver now that Abobo was in a state of siege. We laughed about how much better her sauce would taste that night with the onions and salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Her husband would be pleased.

Eleven people share her small apartment and all of them had spent the last two weeks cooped up inside. That includes three active little boys who usually play soccer in the dirt streets whenever they aren’t doing homework.

Abobo’s deputy in the assembly ought to speak up about the commune’s problems—how it is cut off and surrounded by soldiers, how a densely-populated neighborhood is no place to wage an urban battle between government troops and “invisible” insurgent commandos whose identities and loyalties are not entirely clear. But the government is not functioning and even if it were, Abobo is represented by Simone Gbagbo, wife of the president-who-refuses-to-leave. Simone has never lived in Abobo. For the past ten years, she has presided over the presidential palace, and she flatly refuses to move out. So the palace’s rightful residents, the newly-elected President of the Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara, and his wife live in the Golf Hotel, a multi-story hotel whose landscaped grounds are bordered on one side by a lagoon, and on another, by the American Embassy. They cannot leave. Gbagbo’s soldiers blockade the road.

Obviously, a good night’s sleep and the ordinariness of the trip to the market had done Gnéré good and I hung up relieved. But neither Gnéré nor I were yet aware that the calm interlude was already over. At the market where she bought her onions, the most terrible tragedy yet had just taken place. Gbagbo’s soldiers fired mortar rounds into the marketplace. About thirty-five innocent people were killed. Witnesses say they were mostly women and children and that at least another forty were wounded. The United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have all condemned this “blind violence” against civilians. So has the United States government.

When I called back on Saturday, we revisited that conversation. How brief it had been, our interlude of shared outrage at the high price of onions, how pleasantly mundane.

“I was so lucky!” Gnéré said. “Right where I was that morning!”

We appreciated and savored the luck of her good timing and lingered over our thankfulness. But once that was done, our outrage darkened and turned bitter again. How else can you feel about a man, a former democracy activist turned tyrant, who terrorizes innocent civilians to hold onto power?

Cross-posted on Open Salon March 20, 2011. Editors' Pick.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Dark Nights in Abobo

On a Sunday afternoon in late October, a week before the first round of the presidential election in Ivory Coast, I strolled the streets of Abobo with a young woman I will call Gnéré. She is a schoolteacher and the mother of four young children. I have known her since she was a schoolgirl herself in a village in the north. Abobo, where she lives now, is a densely populated neighborhood of Abidjan.

There was only one topic of conversation that day—the election. In a school classroom, voters crowded onto wooden benches and listened intently as campaign workers demonstrated how to mark the ballot by touching your finger to an inkpad. Nearby, a large crowd attended a rally for opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara. “We have nothing!” cried the young speaker. “It’s time for change!”

I felt the current of hope and determination running through Abobo that Sunday. And naïvely American, I had every confidence that Ivorians would succeed in putting their divided country back together peacefully at the ballot box. Gnéré, who lived through the violent 2000 election, was more realistic. She said she would prefer to vote early and spend Election Day at home with the children, just in case of trouble. But the country needed 60,000 literate poll workers, so she had agreed to work.

“The United Nations is here,” I reassured her.

“I hope they come to Abobo,” she answered with a determined smile.

I tried to picture peacekeepers in the maze of unpaved roads where we were. No street names, no house numbers. When I visit Gnéré, she meets me at the paved road so I don’t get lost.

By the time the run-off between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara was held on November 28, I had returned home. When I called election night, Gnéré said that in Abobo, people voted and then went straight home. But there were no problems at the polling place where she worked. The voting and the vote count had gone smoothly.

Over eighty percent of Ivorian voters turned out. No one was surprised when Ouattara won Abobo with 59% of the vote to Gbagbo’s 41%. Nationwide, Ouattara received 54% of the vote to win the election. For one day, Ouattara’s activists in Abobo danced in the streets.

But Gbagbo refused to concede. His allies on the nation’s highest court overturned the results and proclaimed Gbagbo the winner. On the phone, Gnéré said that as soon as they heard the news, they ran straight home. They feared violence from Gbagbo’s street militias, the so-called Young Patriots.

“But the world is with you,” I replied. “The international community recognizes Ouattara. The president of South Africa is coming.”

“No president can convince Gbagbo to step down,” said Gnéré’s husband. “We who live here understand this.”

A few days later, the terrifying night visits began. Under cover of the curfew, hooded armed men in unmarked SUVs drove into Abobo and knocked on doors. Not just any doors--those of opposition activists.

“It’s very dangerous here,” whispered Gnéré into the phone. “We don’t sleep. We think people are getting killed.”

Some nights the hooded armed men robbed their neighbors of all their possessions. Another dark night, with the electricity out, a soldier knocked on a door disguised in a long boubou. When the family opened up to what they thought was a neighbor, the soldiers entered. The sound of shots rang out. The night terror continued. The United Nations estimates close to four hundred people have been killed. Many more have been beaten or have disappeared. Most are young activists for Ouattara.

Saturday night February 26, heavy arms fire kept Gnéré and her neighbors awake most of the night. Their neighborhood was under attack by Gbagbo’s security forces. “This time they sent tanks. Tanks! It sounds like they are right outside the door,” she said on the phone, “although they are on the paved road. The noise alone could give you a heart attack.” The children were terrified, but leaving was dangerous. Pro-Gbagbo militias were said to be on the lookout for strangers arriving in their neighborhoods and a northern last name like hers put you at risk.

About forty people took refuge in the courtyard of Gnéré’s church. When the streets are calm, she takes them food. But she is on her last bottle of cooking gas. She has a little charcoal and will cook with that as long as it lasts. Food prices have doubled and everyone makes do by eating less.

As we talked, I could hear someone crying. It was Gnéré’s younger sister, who left their village and came south to get an education. A week ago, going to middle school, she was caught in the firing and had to run for her life. She hasn’t been to school since.

On est la-dé,” Gnéré said bleakly. “We are here-dé.” The adds emphasis. “No one will come to help us. We are in God’s hands.”

On Thursday, March 3, about nine in the morning, hundreds of women were desperate enough to go into the streets of Abobo to demand Gbagbo’s departure. Gnéré dressed to join the demonstration, but her husband asked her not to go, so she stayed inside. When the women reached the paved road singing and waving leafy branches, Gbagbo’s security forces shot directly into the crowd. Seven women were killed and many more were wounded.

Gnéré says the wail of shock and grief that went up in the neighborhood was awful to hear. “Why,” she asks, “didn’t the United Nations protect them?”

The country is on the verge of civil war. The United Nations says 200,000 people have fled Abobo. But on Gnéré’s street only one family has left. The rest have no place to go.

Posted at Open Salon. Editor's Pick March 14, 2011.