Monday, April 11, 2011

Gbagbo Arrested!

Laurent Gbagbo has been arrested and taken to the Golf Hotel. He is being protected by United Nations peacekeepers. (Yes, it's ironic.)

Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to be ex-president of Ivory Coast, is called The Baker because somehow he always manages to roll his enemies in flour. To roll someone in flour means to dupe them. A smooth-talking swindler looks you in the eye and tells you exactly what you want to hear. If you are gullible, you get taken in, made a fool of......Rolled.

Laurent Gbagbo tells you sincerely that you must respect the Ivorian constitution, turns those big round eyes on you and explains that Ivorians need to resolve this among themselves. He finds it absolutely astounding that they are gambling on his country's future in foreign capitals, and he needs a ceasefire in order to negotiate the terms of his departure. But be careful, because while you listen, The Baker is popping you into the hot oven and slamming the oven door closed. Rolled.

Is he crazy? Like a fox. His strategy is always to play for time. He knows politics is a high-stakes poker game and he bluffs with the best. When he tells you he’s about to fold, he’s stalling. His troops, moved into position during the ceasefire you foolishly gave him, gained ground in Abidjan and even attacked his enemy’s headquarters. Rolled. The Baker’s response to the outcry over the attack? Wasn’t us. You must have imagined it.

Tell that to the residents of the upper-class neighborhood around the hotel who are fleeing. Many of them supported Gbagbo. Unlike his opponents, he isn’t bothered by the fact that his best cards—massacres, food shortages, urban civil war -- require terrible suffering from his fellow Ivorians.

For three days in the Koumassi section of Abidjan, there was no water. Women were going from house to house with their basins, asking their neighbors to share what they had. Salifou, a student there, said his household was lucky because they have a well in the courtyard. But the well water is dirty, and usually they use it for washing, so drinking it meant they risked getting sick.

Last Wednesday, when a French television station said that Gbagbo had surrendered, Salifou and his neighbors went out into the streets, thinking the four-month ordeal was finally over. But the news turned out to be false. “At that moment,” he said, “we were so disheartened.” Rolled again.

Their greatest fear isn’t hunger or thirst, but the armed young men who prowl the streets. “The pro-Gbagbos have killed one young man near us and badly wounded another. He will die, too. There is no medical care.”

His voice droops. “If only he could have gone to the hospital…”

But he isn’t speaking of the wounded neighbor. He is talking about his older brother who died last Saturday in another part of Abidjan because he became seriously ill and it was impossible to take him to a hospital. Salifou couldn’t cross Abidjan to attend his burial. It was simply too dangerous.

Some of the armed men in pick-up trucks are looking for stores to loot, some for revenge. Some are pro-Gbagbo, others are pro-Ouattara. Some are Invisible Commandos, who owe allegiance to their commander, a former rebel leader. And some are just taking advantage of the chaos. The armed groups take over neighborhoods and defend their turf.

President Ouattara, trying to take office for the past four months while Gbagbo did everything possible to keep him out, has been forced to turn to former rebels and rebel-allied militias. If they do manage to help him take control of Abidjan, he will owe them big time. Ouattara and his Prime Minister/Minister of Defense have said the right things. They have asked their troops to refrain from acts of vengeance and they have promised to return the cars and money their troops looted as they entered the city. But words only go so far when people are desperate.

Gbagbo has used his faux African-liberation anti-imperialist rhetoric to adroitly maneuver Ouattara into a corner. If Ouattara turns to France and the United Nations, the most reliable sources of help and the ones that will demand the least destructive things in return, he proves Gbagbo right: he’s a foreigner, a puppet of the West, an “imposter.” This makes it difficult for Ouattara to win over Gbagbo’s supporters, who believe Gbagbo's fear-mongering conspiracies.

An old friend who has left the city says they have stopped discussing Gbagbo. “We don’t even know what to say any more. But we can’t hold on much longer. Even here, in this town an hour from Abidjan, food is scarce and prices are rising. When people finish the little food they have stored, what will they do? There will be a famine here.”

In Abidjan, a flat of eggs, which used to cost about three dollars costs twelve. Small plastic bags of atieké, ground processed manioc ready to eat, that women prepare and sell on the street, used to cost about a dollar. Friday they were up to six dollars.

In one part of Koumassi, the pro-Ouattara soldiers that control the neighborhood open up the large stores, owned by Lebanese merchants, so the residents can take rice. “I don’t think it’s stealing,” said one resident. “This rice is labeled PAM (World Food Program). It was supposed to be given to the poor, but Monsieur Gbagbo’s government made deals with the merchants and sold it to them instead. The merchants re-packaged it and sold it. It was sent here for us but it wasn’t given to us. Well, now we need it to survive.”

Residents of this neighborhood, which is mixed politically--roughly 60% for Ouattara and 40% for Gbagbo—have heard that sometimes, underneath the sacks of rice, large piles of machine guns turn up. The soldiers take them.

“People keep saying the international community supports Ouattara,” said Salifou. “But what about the nationalcommunity? We support Ouattara. A majority of us voted for him. But we have been taken hostage by Gbagbo and his minority. We need help. We are worn out. People are dying. We just want peace.”

Down in his comfortable bunker, Gbagbo is protected from these realities by the president he refuses to recognize, who wants him taken alive. The United Nations says it will not be a party to any plan to starve him out. People of good intentions are always at a disadvantage with someone like Gbagbo, who talks out of one side of his mouth. He does not care how many Ivorians die, and the more chaos the better. It strengthens his hand. He still thinks there is a deal to be made, some way to roll his enemies in flour one more time and pop them into the oven. He seems to enjoy turning up the heat.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Zoumana Koné nicknamed Chékoroba (Old Man)


Old Man was the one we all worried about. He was stuck in Abobo, the neighborhood Gbagbo’s militias targeted and terrorized. The running water and electricity were often cut off and he couldn’t charge his cellphone. When I did get through, Old Man told me softly that life was difficult in Abobo. So difficult. He had not gone outside for two weeks. There was shooting every night and even during the day. You never knew when it would start. During the shooting, he stayed in his room. But sometimes, when the shooting stopped, there were bodies in the street.

He was sensitive by nature and far from his family, and I could hear the strain in his voice. “I can’t go to school,” he said. He sounded sad, wistful, but also apologetic, probably because we were helping to finance his education. I told him he should stay home; there would be time for school later. “You are witnessing the history of your country as it happens,” I told him. It was the sort of serious idea he liked and he promised to tell me everything in detail the next time I visited.

Chékoroba, which means Old Man in Dyula, was a family nickname because he was named after his grandfather. Old Man was in fact a young man, but a serious, thoughtful one, and he chose his words carefully, which made him sound older than he was. He was exactly the same age as my son, twenty-six. Same cohort, his father liked to say. His father and mother have been our friends for thirty years. But our son had graduated from college by the time Old Man was able to start last year.

Last Thursday when I called, Old Man answered. The fighting had moved to other areas of Abidjan, and Abobo was finally calm. The electricity was back on. He told me that he had been sick but was better. He had talked to his younger brother across town and heard that I had managed to get some money to his father for the two of them. When his father was able to send the money, he said, he was going to buy a bus ticket and go home to Korhogo. He was worn out with living in a war zone and being sick. He just wanted to be home with his family.

In just one more week, I replied, there should be peace. Then we can get the money to you and it will be safe for you to travel. I thought that once he was home where it was calm, and eating well again, he would be fine.

But on Saturday, Old Man suddenly got much worse. He was having trouble breathing. The family he lives with took him to the Red Cross clinic in Abobo. The Red Cross said he needed to go to the hospital across town. But with the battle for Abidjan raging, it was too dangerous. His father called to tell me the worst of all possible news. Saturday night Old Man died.

Everyone is crying here, his father said, as we cried across the scratchy phone line, not only the family, but also all the neighborhood children that he tutored over the years.

His father was not able to go south for his son’s funeral. Even his younger brother could not cross Abidjan to attend. Although the fighting was concentrated in a few places, the rest of the city was in chaos.

The family he had been living with notified the pro-Ouattara soldiers that control Abobo, and four soldiers came with a dump truck, the kind used to transport sand. Since the cemetery of Abobo was closed, they took them to a cemetery in Anyama. Another family also made the journey, to bury a member of their family. Escorted by the armed soldiers, they had no problems going through the barricades.

As they buried Old Man Sunday, they could hear the shooting downtown in Plateau, where soldiers were battling for control of the Presidential Palace. In the north, his family gathered in their beaten earth courtyard in Korhogo to say the Muslim prayers.

The Red Cross is appealing to the population of Abidjan and the fighters on both sides to let it continue its work so that it can save the lives of hundreds of people—those who are seriously wounded, gravely ill, pregnant women, and people who can’t get access to food or water. The official number of people killed in the violence is terribly high, but the actual number is much higher. One of those uncounted is a young man I have known his entire life, a young man who was bright, hard-working, and full of sweetness and promise.

The last time I saw Chékoroba was on a Sunday in late October. He was wearing his school uniform—black pants a little too short, white shirt, bright red tie. He and his brother met me for Sunday lunch, and while we worked our way through a platter of roasted chicken at an outdoor restaurant, he told me proudly how much he was learning in his computer science classes. He had to leave the house every morning at five-thirty to cross the sprawling city by bus and he rarely returned before six or seven in the evening. There were only a few computers at the school, but now that he was starting his second year, he would get a chance to work on them. I worried that he was working so hard to learn what children in wealthier countries learn in elementary school, but he was delighted with his program and hopeful that when he graduated, he would find work and be able to help his family.

Ala den balo, his mother and I say to each other each time we part. May God keep your children alive. Amina, we both reply. Now across the mysterious cellphone network that connects our voices, I had to offer the blessing you never want to say about your friends’ child: Ala ka hinara. May he go to heaven. His father, the person who thirty years ago taught me to say this, replied in a broken voice, Amina.

Friday, April 1, 2011

As Gbagbo's World Crumbles, State Television Played On

Thursday, as pro-Ouattara Invisible Commandos emerged from their hiding places in the neighborhoods of Abidjan and the head of Gbagbo’s armed forces abandoned him, the state television station RTI broadcast a story about bread. Trays of crusty baguettes were pulled out of large ovens. What could be more appropriate? Laurent Gbagbo is nicknamed The Baker because he rolls his enemies in flour, always managing to come out on top. But the city was encircled by the newly constituted Republican Forces, loyal to Ouattara, and his own soldiers and policemen were disappearing. The Baker was going to need a very large sack of flour to get out of this one.

After baguettes, RTI moved on to an interview with a socio-economist who said that all of Ivory Coast’s problems were caused by The West, which wanted to control the Ivorian economy for its own profit. “We need two things,” he said. “An independent economy and leaders who work for Ivory Coast and not for themselves.” This last comment caused the economist to disappear in a not-so-subtle edit. He reappeared a moment later praising “the president,” who at that hour on RTI was still Laurent Gbagbo. The next story was about a statue of the Virgin Mary in a traffic circle. The statue was delicate, white, and wore a bright blue sash. A young Muslim girl had seen the statue move its folded hands. “A manifestation of the Virgin,” said a priest. “The Virgin chose this Muslim girl.”

I skyped a student in the pro-Ouattara section of Koumassi, a suburb of Abidjan. The sound of machine gun fire was so loud it was difficult to talk. He said four Invisible Commandos armed with machine guns walked down his street earlier, reassuring residents that they meant them no harm and urging them to stay inside. He and his neighbors had gone out to see the smoke, which seemed to be coming from the police headquarters nearby. The shooting sounded like it was coming from near the airport. Huddled inside, they weren't sure whether to be hopeful or terrified.

I checked back in with RTI. In a soap opera, a man had been offered a post as minister in the government. He asked his wife if he should accept. “I just don’t want any bad things to come into our life because of this,” she demurred.

Her concern was reasonable. Two of Gbagbo’s ministers trying to flee to Dubai had just been stopped at the airport.

After the soap opera, finally, the news. Gbagbo’s spokesman said that President Gbagbo was closely following the situation, but because it was evolving so quickly, he had postponed his planned address to the nation.

Then there was a music video called “Let’s Respect the Constitution.” Texts of constitutional articles appeared on the screen as singers rapped and dancers danced. Anyone can use the military for a coup d’état. Gbagbo’s genius was to do it constitutionnally, using the nation's highest court.

As the city around them was in chaos, a panel of pro-Gbagbo journalists and academics summarized Ivorian history. Westerners had sent Alassane Ouattara to carry out their programs for their benefit. Gbagbo was a hero for democracy in Africa. Old footage played over and over of his younger pro-democracy activist days.

RTI’s sound became scratchy. Witnesses said there was shooting near the television station, which is close to Gbagbo’s residence. It seemed he had chosen to go down fighting. Finally, Thursday night, the screen went dark.

In the real world outside RTI, Ivorians are fearful, exhausted, and hungry. They huddle in their houses, hoping to survive. In the four months that Gbagbo has refused to step down, the suspicions and resentments between political parties, between northerners and southerners, and between ethnic groups have deepened and darkened. Ouattara’s young fighters want revenge for the killing of their friends and relatives. Gbagbo’s "young patriots" have nothing to lose and could wreak havoc.

In Abidjan, so much is at stake. Can hotheaded young men and hardliners on both sides be restrained? If so, perhaps Ivorians can break bread tomorrow in peace and security--without The Baker turning up the heat on the oven.