/ 18 March 2011

Côte d’Ivoire: Teetering on brink

The men wear roughly improvised balaclavas, some plain black, others patterned with skulls and crossbones. One is clad in a heavy-duty jacket that bears the circular logo of CND. They have fashioned a checkpoint out of battered car doors lined up across the road.

This is the gateway to the ‘autonomous republic of Abobo”, usually one of the most populated suburbs of Côte d’Ivoire’s commercial capital, Abidjan.

It has in effect declared independence from the disputed presidency of Laurent Gbagbo. Now a lawless place of terror, bloodshed and desperation, it typifies the slow-motion implosion of a country into a failed state.

No one is safe in Abobo. Women were slaughtered in a hail of machine-gun fire at a demonstration. Men have been beaten and burned alive because they were judged to belong to the wrong tribe or nationality. United Nations peacekeepers have been shot at and Western journalists have been roughed up and threatened with lynching.

The Guardian‘s vehicle was stopped at the makeshift roadblock and its occupants ordered out. The masked guards, going by the name ‘invisible commandos”, conducted a thorough search of the glove compartment and under the seats. A local observer said men with AK-47s were waiting out of sight in case the mood soured.

Normally busy with traffic, Abobo is emptying as thousands of residents flee the anarchy. Burnt-out hulks of cars and pick-up trucks litter the scorchmarked roads. Vast piles of rubbish are expanding and threatening public health.

‘Life in Abobo is catastrophic,” said resident David Kouassi, an IT technician. ‘You have people who cannot get to work, so they are being fired. The electricity company is threatening to cut people off for not paying their bills. It’s hard to find food or medicine. I will use one word to describe what will happen if people don’t take care of this situation: chaos. Abobo will become a place where no one can live.” Kouassi (28) had a narrow escape when youths questioned him about his tribe: fortunately his was the ‘right” one.

‘Families could be killed’
He is trying to move away with his pregnant wife and father, but has nowhere to go. ‘If we stay here we could be killed,” he said. ‘Almost all the companies and shops have been ransacked and people have run out of money and are looking at ways to feed themselves. When they have exhausted the shops, they will go to homes, and families could be killed.”

The Abobo militia say they are defending the neighbourhood against Gbagbo’s security forces and hired mercenaries following weeks of night raids and street battles with heavy weapons. They demand that Gbagbo give way to his rival, Alassane Ouattara, who beat the incumbent president in a UN-certified election last November.

There are signs that other pro-Ouattara areas are trying to secede from government control, turning Abidjan into a chessboard of rival power bases.

The most important politically is the sprawling Golf Hotel where, in sharp contrast to Abobo, there is sunshine and calm as Ouattara and his ‘cabinet” sit and watch and wait. One resident describes it as ‘the safest place in Côte d’Ivoire today”.

Beside a lagoon and surrounded by great coils of barbed wire, UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh, Jordan, Togo and elsewhere try to sleep in humid white tents on a lawn near the hotel swimming pool. Inside the worn four-star hotel, where all 250 rooms are occupied, young men wearing headphones sit at computers editing content for a pro-Ouattara station that they hope will counter Gbagbo’s state TV.

Among those who have been holed up here for nearly four months is Patrick Achi, Ouattara’s economic infrastructure ‘minister” and government spokesperson. He describes the hotel as a ‘prison”, but said its guests were working day and night to weaken Gbagbo’s grip.

‘Power: it’s all he cares about,” Achi said. ‘Gbagbo is the most charming person I’ve ever met in my life. I compare him with a snake that the kids put around their necks. He’s around your neck and feels so soft and he starts to squeeze and you don’t realise. By the time you realise, it’s too late and he kills you.”

Achi believes a popular uprising against Gbagbo could be imminent — though it is unclear how the UN’s 12 000 peacekeepers would respond. ‘We think the time is ripe,” he said. ‘Shooting those women [at a demonstration in Abobo last week] was really a turning point. No one in the army wants his name attached to a criminal act. If it came to it, Gbagbo would have a handful of loyalists but that’s all.”

But Ouattara, now bound for Nigeria for talks with President Goodluck Jonathan, is playing a delicate waiting game. Achi said: ‘People have been asking Ouattara to make the call to go after Gbagbo. One guy told him on the internet that he did not vote for him to go for the Nobel peace prize. They are saying that people are already dead and we have to go after him.

‘But you have to be sure everybody is ready, because if it misses, it makes things more difficult. If you don’t defeat him, it makes him stronger.” The UN says nearly 400 people have died since the political crisis began; Outtara’s camp puts the figure at 700, with a further
300 missing.

About 80 000 refugees have poured into neighbouring Liberia and about 450 000 are internally displaced. The UN’s children’s agency, Unicef, has warned of a ‘humanitarian emergency”, with rates of acute malnutrition trebling in some areas and schools closed for about 800 000 children.

Hospitals are running out of staff and supplies. Drugs are no longer available for new cases of HIV-positive pregnant women who want to prevent their babies from being infected. The UN says 1,5-million people are at risk of deadly diseases and there are already outbreaks of yellow fever, measles and cholera, the last of which has infected 516 and killed 12.

Banks are closed and essentials such as gas, petrol and money are about to run out, while staple food prices have soared by around 80%. Hotels and restaurants in Abidjan, once ‘the Paris of Africa”, are shutting as the city is gradually strangled from within. An entire economy is creaking and listing. ‘There’s already a pretty gruesome humanitarian disaster going on,” said one Western diplomat. ‘It will get worse when the electricity is cut off.

‘The question is, when will the population become radical? When will the army intervene?”

The diplomat, who has prepared an evacuation plan, said: ‘Civil war is a real possibility. It will be destructive, not just in terms of lives and homes, but in terms of Côte d’Ivoire as a nation. It could be a bloodbath here. That’s a dreadful outcome.”

Côte d’Ivoire’s election was one of the most open and observed in African history. It was intended to be a model for the continent’s widening democratic movement. Instead, with Gbagbo now seen by many as another benighted Mugabe or Gaddafi, the whole country is staring into the abyss of Abobo. —