Thu, Nov 11, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Ivory Coast threatens hard won gains

NOT AGAIN!After more than a decade of decastating civil wars, West Africa appeared to be getting back to normal, then hitherto stable Ivory Coast plunged into violence


On a continent that absorbs 75 percent of the world's UN peacekeeping forces and budgets and 75 percent of the UN Security Council's time, Ivory Coast's violent downward spiral threatens hard-won gains achieved after West Africa's devastating civil wars of the 1990s.

If Ivory Coast, West Africa's economic powerhouse and the world's top cocoa producer, returns to civil war, everyone from the nation's newly peaceful neighbors to the world's chocolate lovers will feel the pain.

Many hold one man responsible -- President Laurent Gbagbo. His fate after the unparalleled violence this week stands to determine his nation's fate as well.

On Tuesday, South African President Thabo Mbeki flew in to launch African peace efforts amid deadly rampages that erupted when France destroyed the country's tiny air force. That move was in response to an airstrike that killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker.

The violence has killed at least 27 people and wounded 900 others, including seven killed Tuesday when French troops opened fire as thousands of Gbagbo's supporters massed outside a makeshift evacuation center.

If turmoil continues, chocolate lovers will probably feel the effect on prices by Christmas. The violence has shut down cocoa exports in the world's top producer since Saturday, closing ports that ship 40 percent of the world's raw material for chocolate.

Ivory Coast's neighbors felt the effect immediately -- with 5,000 Ivory Coast refugees fleeing into neighboring Liberia, and Guinea massing troops at its border for fear of cross-border unrest.

As Ivory Coast appeared poised on the brink of full-scale war, however, fellow West Africans across the border were enjoying the fruits of peace.

The first 500 of 300,000 displaced Liberians still living in camps for war-displaced people in Liberia boarded buses, heading home this week after 14 years of vicious civil conflicts in their country.

"When I get back home, I will start to make gardens to survive, and then make blocks to rebuild what once was my small but decent house," said one refugee, 62-year-old Momo Perry.

It took an unprecedented commitment by the international community, and the world's largest deployments of peacekeepers, to get refugees like Perry home.

In 2002, British, UN and West African armies crushed a vicious Liberia-backed insurgency in Sierra Leone. The next year, US, UN and West African forces and Liberian rebels routed the chief promulgator of West Africa's wars, warlord Charles Taylor in Liberia.

Today, 75 percent of the world's 62,000 UN peacekeeping troops are trying to secure recent peace deals across Africa, and US$2.9 billion of the UN's US$3.9 billion peacekeeping budgets are spent here.

With up to 10 percent of the world's oil reserves in West Africa, the United States and others increasingly are saying they have a strategic interest in Africa.

More than half the world's total of peacekeepers, 32,402 of them, are based in Taylor's old stomping grounds -- Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast itself, divided by civil war since September 2002.

With Taylor pushed into exile in Nigeria, Gbagbo is looking like the biggest current challenge to peace. The risk: war that again would mobilize idled fighters and arms traffickers across West Africa.

Similar street protests to those seen this week's brought Gbagbo to power in 2000, during an aborted vote count following presidential elections that were meant to restore civilian rule after a 1999 coup -- the country's first-ever.

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