Sunday, November 21, 2004

A Neighbour's House On Fire

"It is only a fool who does not worry when his neighbour's house is on fire".

Back in 2002 at the start of the current Ivory Coast conflict, Ghana's President John Kufuor recounted this old proverb to explain why he was spending valuable time and political capital trying to mediate. He's a ponderous man, a lawyer who, like the Thabo Mbeki-types running South Africa, would gladly spend hours discussing constitutional dispensations. Ghana had just emerged from 18 years of military adventurism and cronyism, all it was looking for was a few years of quiet to put things back on track. Instead of newly-nominated ECOWAS secretary general, Ibn-Chambas, spending his time on things like economic harmonization, a single currency, or shared investment in infrastructure like a West African railroad, all the best minds of the region were having to arrange cease-fires and negotiations with temperamental and easily-aggrieved parties. As the events of the last month have shown, it is clear that all that effort (two years worth) has been wasted.

Throughout they were treated with the irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric of Ivory Coast's accidental president Laurent Gbagbo and his enforcers such as Blé Goudé. Some recent examples: Colonial Tensions Reemerge in Ivory Coast and In Ivory Coast, Agitator Rallies 'Young Patriots' Against French.

All this is essentially a failure of political will. Ivory Coast has its own set of irascible politicians ala Milosevic and they are reverting to type. They are quick to blame everyone except themselves and to do anything except negotiate. Especially egregious are the short-sighted appeals to nationalism; the concept is so-called ivoirité i.e. a means to disenfranchise half the population. Also on hand, are appeals to religion and, if all that fails, to tribalism or that old standby, the privately-funded militia.

Gbagbo and company have a keen sense of theatric and are fully conversant with the lingo of CNN, thus they inveigh against imperialism, or say that France wants "regime change" and wants to reimpose colonialism. Now there's a grain of truth about that, but barely so and it misses the point. True, the French in Africa aren't choirboys, but they never left Ivory Coast. One of the surprising things of the past 2 years is that, by and large, the Ivory Coast economy continued to function and cocoa production has not suffered much. Ghanaians know this because there is still cross-border smuggling of cocoa to Ivory Coast. Economic stability under the circumstances is due to the Ivorian business class and, especially, the French investors have ignored the politicians and kept their businesses going. All that is about to end.

After being targeted, and having their women raped, the French will now be as plainly unsentimental as is their wont. They are on their way out, the only question is whether they will leave the light bulbs or dismantle them like they did when they left Sekou Touré's Guinea when he had the temerity to ask for independence. As for the 40 percent of the country that don't agree with Gbagbo, they know that those violent mobs will be turned on them once the white or Lebanese foreigners are no longer around to be scapegoated.

This is what Laurent Gbagbo will be remembered for: breaking a peace, bombing the people you're supposed to negotiate with, bombing the peacekeepers who have come at considerable expense from the region, resorting to preemption and military measures because of impatience with diplomacy and ultimately ruining a country.

So we'll have 3 failed states in Ghana's neighbourhood, two that are now making baby steps trying to recover from untold grimness, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and now one that is threatening to descend into that same hellhole. See these kinds of images to get a flavour of how bad it is going to get.

The signs are plainly evident of a country walking into a disaster. There are death squads and grotesque Lady Macbeth types: Gbagbo's wife runs a particularly nasty private militia squad that murders any political opposition.

Now we're going to have more refugees, quietly we'll take them in uncomplaining in the best African tradition, as the bulk will be far away from the cameras. It was only this year, 15 years after the worst of Liberian madness that the Liberian refugees who escaped to Ghana have begun trickling home. Ironically, now people are fleeing Ivory Coast for Liberia. 20,000 refugees and counting now in a region that can ill-afford it.

I suspect when I head home for Christmas I'll be hearing lots of French around Accra. Watching the news, the look in the faces of the refugees says it all, a lot of Ivorians have left for good. Sadness all round and worry too: will the flames spill over the border?

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