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Civil War in Côte d'Ivoire May Destabilize West Africa
The Washington Diplomat / February 2003

By Larry Luxner

Once considered West Africa's most prosperous nation — "a paradise by the sea that drew investors, tourists and retirees by the thousands," in the words of Ambassador Pascal D. Kokora — Côte d'Ivoire is being torn apart by a civil war that has killed hundreds of people, made thousands homeless and now threatens to destabilize the entire region.

Three groups of rebels opposed to President Laurent Gbagbo have been waging war for the last four months. Economic growth has shrunk to one-third of previous projections, while an estimated 25,000 refugees have fled have fled the New Mexico-sized country.

Kokora, in a Jan. 10 interview with The Washington Diplomat, blamed his people's problems squarely on France, the colonial power until independence came in 1960 (the country officially changed its name from Ivory Coast to Côte d'Ivoire in 1985).

"This is an economic war, because the current government wants to open up the market for water, electricity, road infrastructure and telecommunications in 2004, and those who own the monopolies don't want this to happen," he said, claiming that 80% of the country's economy is in the hands of French conglomerates.

"The press coverage on Cote d'Ivoire is so unfair and biased," Kokora continued. "In the French media, everything the rebels do is good, and everything the government does is bad. How can the Western world help our nation's democracy if they encourage people to take power by military force, unless there are other motives they don't want to tell us about."

In the 42 years since independence, Côte d'Ivoire has made huge economic strides but still suffers from political instability — a fact that has defined Kokora's career.

A former linguistics professor at the National University of Côte d'Ivoire in Abidjan, he and four other activists including the current president, Laurent Gbagbo, established the clandestine Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) in Kokora's living room in 1982.

"I fought for 30 years to bring democracy to my country," said Kokora, 62. "One day, I was told that I had lost my position as a tenured professor at the university and was put under house arrest by a presidential decree issued in the name of the late president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny."

In May 1988, Kokora fled the country and ended up in Washington, where he landed a job teaching linguistics at Georgetown University. He also became the FPI's official U.S. representative, setting up regional chapters in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Kokora says the greatest achievement of his tenure working for the FPI here followed the February 1992 arrests of Gbagbo and others opposed to the Houphouët-Boigny dictatorship.

"With the precious assistance of some Washington and New York-based human-rights agencies, my organization lobbied Congress and succeeded in obtaining a letter of support for the political prisoners," he said, claiming his lobbying efforts put pressure on the Ivorian government to immediately release Gbagbo and the others from prison.

Houphouët-Boigny died in office Dec. 7, 1993. The National Assembly named a successor, Henri Konan Bédié, who was re-elected in 1995 but ousted in a military coup Dec. 24, 1999.

The coup leader, Robert Guéi, lost a presidential vote on Oct. 22, 2000, but claimed victory anyway.

"When it was becoming clear that the current president was going to win the elections, Gen. Guéi stopped the process and proclaimed himself the winner," said Kokora. "He disbanned the National Electoral Commission, and the people in the street refused to accept this. So they took to the streets and the results were finally recognized."

On Nov. 8, 2001, a year after Gbagbo's assumed the presidency, Kokora became Côte d'Ivoire's envoy in Washington, where he supervises a staff of 40 (including 12 diplomats) at the embassy's rented mansion along Massachusetts Avenue.

Yet political tensions have continued, and on Sept. 19, rebels orchestrated a mutiny against Gbagbo, sparking the current civil war.

In an attempt to stop the fighting, France has committed a 2,500-member force to Côte d'Ivoire, its biggest African military intervention since the 1980s.

Despite the signing of a ceasefire between one guerrilla group and the Gbagbo government in mid-October, two other rebel groups have continued the fight in western Côte d'Ivoire. On Jan. 13, those two groups — the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Far West and the Movement for Justice and Peace — signed a truce as the warring parties attempt to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict in Paris.

At the moment, Kokora's government controls only the southern 50% of Côte d'Ivoire. The northern, largely Muslim half of the country remains in guerrilla hands.

"The rebels have no legitimacy," charges Kokora. "This uprising is a mystery to everybody, because everything was going so well."

After all, despite Côte d'Ivoire's per-capita income of only $610, the country traditionally has accounted for about 40% of the combined economic output of West Africa's eight French-speaking nations. It is the world's largest cocoa producer and the fourth-largest coffee producer after Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia.

In 2002, Côte d'Ivoire's GDP came to $11.18 billion, up from $10.4 billion in 2001 and $10.02 billion the year before.

"Before the current crisis, we were expecting a 3% growth rate for 2003," said Kokora. "We were one of the most prosperous countries in the region. This is why we have so many people from neighboring countries. About 5 million of our 16 million inhabitants are from somewhere else."

So are a good part of those waging war against Kokora's government, he claims.

"The people fighting with the rebels are basically from Liberia and Sierra Leone. To be fair, the majority of those fighting are Ivorian. But many of them speak English, and some speak French with a non-Ivorian accent," he said.

"The tragedy is that since the early 1960s, we have had a military agreement with the French government. This is why President Boigny never had a national army, because he was sure the French would always defend the country in case of foreign invasion. And since the begining of this crisis, we've been telling the French government that this is a foreign invasion, therefore we should apply the bilateral military agreement. They say it's not a foreign invasion. We have been going through semantics."

Kokora says that for the time being, the stated mission of the 2,500 French troops in Côte d'Ivoire is "to be a buffer zone between the government and the rebels," and to shoot at any party that gets out of control.

Yet that's not enough for him.

"Given the agreement we had with France, our country is entitled to expect more than what has been done," he complained. "In my opinion, if the agreement is to work, the French government should have expelled the rebels."

France sees things differently. Nathalie Loiseau, a spokeswoman at the French Embassy in Washington, says she believes foreign troops are fighting on both sides.

"We feel it is our responsibility to settle this crisis, but we're doing it with the full support of the international community," said Loiseau. "We strongly believe there is no military solution to the current crisis in Côte d'Ivoire. We want to encourage all the parties to find a political solution."

If that doesn't happen, she said, fighting could spread to nearby countries such as Liberia, Mali and Burkina Faso, bringing down the entire West African economy with it.

In the meantime, the embassy pays Washington-based Piper Rudnick $25,000 a month to lobby on Côte d'Ivoire's behalf. It has also contracted well-known Washington publicist Edward von Kloberg III to improve the country's image in the U.S. media.

In an op-ed piece published last month in The Washington Times, Kokora said the United States should give his country military and intelligence help in its moment of desperation.

"Establishing and maintaining progressive democracy in Africa has its challenges. We have little precedent on which to fall back, and even less company with which to move forward. But the world, perhaps especially the West, must be made aware that it has a major stake in the fate of Côte d'Ivoire," wrote the ambassador.

"In a world in which country after country is teetering on the edge of social, economic and political disorder, our friends in the West must act quickly to preserve the beachhead of freedom that Côte d'Ivoire represents."

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