When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. If this old Kikuyu proverb was adapted in a screenplay, Elephant 1 would be played by Laurent Gbago, Elephant 2 by Alassane Ouattara. Grass would be played by innocent civilians soon to be killed or displaced. Unfortunately, there is no acting involved in the events unfolding in Ivory Coast. 5000 refugees have already lined up in Ghana, looking for reprieve from the carnage. However, there are no signs that either Gbago or Ouattara (the principal contenders of Ivory Coast’s recent elections) will concede defeat and restore peace so, the grass suffers…
It is usually difficult for me to follow civil unrest in African countries, but in the case of Ivory coast, it is particularly painful. Images of deserted streets, bullet-riddled infrastructure and lifeless bodies clogging gutters, flood my head and break my heart. Abidjan was the first country I ever travelled to. I was about 10 years old, but even at that age, I knew I had encountered a level of sophistication and joie de vivre that was not evident in my native Ghana. I was giddy with excitement as I skipped along the business district of Abidjan, head tilted upwards to count the number of floors in each skyscraper. Un, deux, trios … neuf.. ” Arrete ça! ” My aunt would scold, “You are going to get dizzy if you don’t stop, cherie coco.” But, I was too charmed to stop. I loved the skyscrapers just as much as I loved the parks and the elegant homes in Cocody. Abidjan was the perfect melée of culture and development. This translated into the Ivorian’s sense of style to the extent that even the man sitting at his stall in Trechiville market made sure his belt matched his shoe. If he was going to a party, you can be sure that his Bubu would be starched and pressed to impress. I was equally in awe of the Ivorian woman. My beady eyes would trace the lines of their perfectly coiffed hair, and follow the colourful patterns of the elaborately designed Ankara print she was stitched in. They were no doubt, a cultured group who snubbed the local African sugar bread in favour of the freshly baked French baguette. In between bites of Acheke, they sipped Chardonnay and wiped their palettes clean with fresh mangoes. My visits to Abidjan became more frequent and each time, I learnt something new. I made new friends who taught me how to disconnect my waist from my lower torso and rotate my hips rhythmically to Kwasa Kwasa.
Life was good in Abidjan. It was flourishing under the grand presidency of Felix Houphouet-Boigny who enjoyed a particularly close relationship with France. Evidently, a close bond with France had numerous privileges. The local currency CFA for instance, was pegged to the French Franc and the economy benefited greatly from favourable trade agreements with this powerful ally. France provided Ivory Coast with resources which gave a tangible boost to tourism, education and even the military. Although Ivory Coast was not completely sheltered from raging poverty, income disparity and other ills that plagued developing countries, it was one of the most prosperous and stable countries in the region. Then in 1993, after ruling Ivory Coast for 34 years, President Houphouet-Boigny died. Suddenly the tropical darling of France, the epitome of class, culture and stability became a case study of what happens when a dictator rules a country from its independence in 1958 to his death.
Here is a summarised version of the unravelling of Ivory Coast. 1993, Houphouet Boigny dies. Two men, Alassane Ouattara and Henri Bedi, vie for the seat of the president but, Henri Bedi becomes the successor. During his 6 year rule, Bedi bans Ouattara from contesting in presidential election and begins to plant seeds of ethinc discord amongst muslims in the north and Christians in the south. However, before he could complete his second term in office, Bedi was overthrown by a coup. A military strongman called Robert Guei was called on to lead the government until elections were conducted in 2000. Geui made sure he banned Alassane Ouattara and other leading politicians from contesting in the elections. Nonetheless, he suffered a surprising defeat by the leader of the Ivorian Popular Front, Laurent Gbagbo. Although it was stipulated in the Ivorian constitution that elections were to be held every five years, Gbagbo overstayed his legal term and postponed elections six times before finally agreeing to elections in November 2010.
It was supposed to be a historic election that was going to put Ivory Coast on track after years of turmoil. On the contrary, mayhem ensued when international observers like the United Nations and the African Union declared Ouattara the winner. Gbago refused to cede power. He organized a swearing in ceremony that re-crowned him President. Ouattara, refused to back down and was also sworn in as President. Ivory Coast became that only country in the world with 2 Presidents none of whom could govern. A stalemate was drawn. Gbagbo and his loyalists maintained control of the South and Ouattara controlled the North.
After four months of fighting, Ouattara’s forces broke the stalemate in March 2011 and advanced on Gbagbo’s stronghold in Abidjan. Even as the smell of captivity circles Gbago, he refuses to relinquish power, calling on supporters to act as shields. Some will heed the elephant’s call and they will be killed. But the majority will be innocent victims trapped like grass in foot of fighting elephants. When the dust finally settles, there will be much fan fare to inaugurate the last elephant standing. But there will be no glory in this blood-stained victory