Mon, Dec 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The Ivory Coast is no `Heart of Darkness,' despite lazy media

After the violence meted out by its former colonial masters, Ivory Coast is looking to the Africa Union to help it stabilize, but is anyone paying attention?

By Richard Adams  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

The best news from Ivory Coast in recent weeks is that there hasn't been much news. After French soldiers destroyed the pitiful Ivorian Air Force -- two aged jets and a few helicopters -- in a revenge rampage last month, it seemed the country was tipping into the type of civil war that Africa has seen too often: a nation tearing itself apart while a "peacekeeping" army of its former colonial masters waits benignly in the wings.

That depressing post-colonial cliche should not be applied to Ivory Coast -- despite the efforts of the lazier sections of the media.

When fighting broke out in the north of the country, against those opposed to President Laurent Gbagbo's government, the UK news headlines were unequivocal. "Ivory Coast descends into chaos" (the London Times) and "Paratroopers and tanks move in to quell Ivory Coast unrest" (Daily Telegraph) followed the bombings that killed nine French soldiers in early November.

As tensions rose and the French carried out "revenge" attacks, the bellicose coverage continued.

"We fled machete mobs," blared the London Sunday Times on Nov. 14 summoning up the dark heart of Africa for readers safely home in Britain.

So far, so bad. But of course the story didn't stop there. As France's peacekeeping turned sour, the Africa Union stepped in to reinvigorate the country's power-sharing and peace process. South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki travelled north on behalf of the union earlier this month, and was met by cheering crowds.

"We want to clear the way for a better life for everyone in Ivory Coast," Mbeki said, reported by the Associated Press. Here was a good news story, of African countries cooperating to solve the problems in their own backyard. After all the tales of looting, rape and murder, was this optimistic note sounded in the British press? Not a word.

When it comes to those countries of site for "peace breaks out" news is calorie-free. Even the announcement this month, that things had calmed down enough to allow France to withdraw 1,000 troops, did not make it into the papers.

Ivory Coast is a perfect example of the misrepresentation of Africa in the West's eyes. Other than the Ivorian footballers drafted into European teams, the country hardly rates a mention. Yet far from being an economic basketcase, Ivory Coast was one of the success stories of modern sub-Saharan Africa. Not only is it the world's major producer of cocoa, but besides South Africa it can boast the best infrastructure and most sophisticated economy on the continent.

Ivory Coast's post-independence growth followed a period of stability under its first president, the dictator Felix Houphouet-Boigny, since the country ceased to be a colony in 1960. But that stability has come under threat, as the grip of strong men such as Houphouet-Boigny and his successor Henri Bedie weakened.

Both men favored the predominantly Francophone and wealthy Christian south of the country, and were happy to allow France to retain its colonial prerogatives, dressed up as partnership, into the modern era.

That cosy pattern was disrupted in 1999, as the ham-fisted Bedie provoked deep unpopularity and was later deposed by the Ivorian army.

The coup appeared to herald a greater degree of democracy, especially in voting rights for the country's huge immigrant population and the status of their offspring.

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