Letter From Côte d'Ivoire: Living on the Cusp of Civil War
Two men claim to have won the presidential election; two presidents were sworn in. Both sides are ratcheting up the violent rhetoric. At least nine people were killed; many more injured. Amid talk of death squads, Ivorians fear the worst.
ABIDJAN, CÔTE D'IVOIRE -- The local newspapers today are filled with exceedingly violent propaganda. Life in this West African country has been exceedingly tense ever since the Nov. 28 election, which resulted in the swearing-in of two presidents. Newspapers supporting Alassane Ouattara, one of the potential presidents in the contested election, are claiming that Laurent Gbagbo, the other presidential contender, has called in his Liberian and Angolan "war dogs" to slaughter people in the streets. The pro-Gbagbo side has apparently tried to shut down the opposition papers.
Frankly, it's exceedingly hard to tell what's really going on at the moment. The streets are mostly empty in my district today. Perhaps the rumors of a transportation strike by the Jula ethnic group, which runs much of the commerce and is mostly pro-Ouattara, are true. It's hard to say. What is certain: I've seen no gbakas (mini buses), taxis or buses passing by today.
Yesterday afternoon, at one of the few factories left open in Abidjan, workers were tense and asked to go home right after rumors started circulating at lunch. Many of the rumors had to do with the body count left after the day's violence. Some people say that at least nine were dead. Others claim as many as 30 were killed, with dozens upon dozens injured. The workers here had faced the makeshift roadblocks on their way to the factory, where crowds were quickly dispersed with gunshots fired in the air. Despite the danger, they came into work so that they could collect their pay.
It's money that's badly needed. Many in the area have been laid off in the last month, joining the nearly 50 percent of the country who were already unemployed. The prices of food staples have at least doubled in the past few weeks since the election crisis; people are rationing what food they had managed to stock at home. Many don't have savings to last them through the crisis. The Ivorian people are stuck in a situation that only worsens with each move made by national and international players. Their voices are all but forgotten.
Many fear a return to civil war, prompting around 150 refugees to flee the country daily, mostly to neighboring Liberia. Unconfirmed stories of government death squads, a throwback to tactics used in the earlier civil war, suggest that people are being snatched and possibly murdered at night again, though I've only heard of this through international media reports. Locally, talks of this are quiet.
Earlier in the week, the tensions between the two presidential camps began to rapidly escalate. The camp of the opposition and international community was accused of trying to woo the Ivorian military and police forces to their side with the help of Ouattara's former employer, the International Monetary Fund, which talked of freezing all Ivorian assets. The hope is that the pay freeze will inspire the police, military and civil servants who are publicly loyal to Gbagbo to join forces with Ouattara. Gbagbo's camp was quick to assure them that their pay would be received on Dec. 22, as scheduled.
On Saturday, Ouattara (known locally as ADO) dismissed the incumbent's suggestion of talks until Gbagbo recognizes ADO as the rightful president, a supremely unlikely move. On Sunday, machete-wielding villagers in the Ouattara-held north began creating their own checkpoints along the major roads. Early Monday, Gbagbo's troops began to set up checkpoints around the Golf Hotel, where ADO's camp is under U.N. and rebel Force Nouvelles (FN) protection. From the other side of the city, we rapidly heard rumors of gunshots being fired, the area being sealed off and the children of a nearby school being sent home. The two camps were face-to-face for the first time since the crisis began, but miraculously, no deaths were reported.