Not as funny as it might seem. I left the country three days before the first coup d’Ã©tat on 24 December 1999. Since then life has gone down the toilet. Mass graves, assassinations, civil war. Now the last foreigners are getting out, in a country that once boasted of its open-arms policy to immigrants. BurkinabÃ©s, French, Lebanese, they all worked with Ivorians to make it the richest economy in the region. When cocoa and coffee prices fell and state corruption sucked dry the financial reserves, anti-immigrant resentment was stoked by successive political leaders: BÃ©diÃ©, Guei and now Gbagbo. I met him once at a party at the British Ambassador’s residence. Funnily enough there were no waiters carrying trays piled with those disgusting nutella crunchy things (Ferrero Rocher, you dummy). I was most disappointed. One of Gbagbo’s daughters was getting a prize, for some good citizen-type project vaguely connected with the UK. I knew Madame Gbagbo much better in fact, having taught her English for some three months. I couldn’t believe the stories I later read about her, that she was the power behind the throne, a bloodthirsty zealot bent on stirring up trouble. It made me think that the press really cannot be trusted to tell a story straight, that it always has to sensationalize the banal. Sometimes though I wonder if it wasn’t me who was mistaken. See, for example this dossier (in French).
The trouble started when Alassane Ouattara, one-time Prime Minister and subsequent IMF Vice-President, decided to run in the presidential election. The incumbent, Henri Konan BÃ©diÃ©, hadn’t anticipated giving up the presidency – that was the pattern in Africa, it was a job for life. Sure Gbagbo had been around for years; he was as much a threat as Ralph Nader in the US or the Liberal Democrats in the UK: omnipresent but impotent (politically speaking). To block Ouattara, the government started a whispering campaign about his nationality, tha he was in fact not Ivorian. There was however no constitutional reason why a non-Ivorian could not run (unlike in the US), so the whispering campaign spread to taint immigrants in general, playing the race-card as happens so often when a weak power feels threatened. As I remember, it turned out that Ouattara had been born in what had been Upper Volta but that the borders were later realigned after the wave of independence in the region around 1960. Whatever the case, to me it was simply a ploy to eliminate a potential rival from participating in a democratic election.
I remember the first demonstrations against Ouattara’s presidential bid in 1999. It was eerily quiet in our neighbourhood – people were already anticipating trouble and stayed off the streets. In the oasis of our garden it felt as if we were in a Graham Greene novel, with brooding violence just out of sight.
C’est vraiment dommage. Tant de misÃ¨re pour si peu de raison.