I woke up Friday, read the news and prayed that it was some sort of macabre April Fools Day joke. Unfortunately, that was not the case. This is one of the worst times in the history of Côte d'Ivoire, a beautiful West African nation that was once a model of economic success. Yet I can't seem to find any news from someone reporting directly from Abidjan. Why is it that all news is reaching the U.S. via Ghana, Johannesburg or farther away? I, for one, want to know what is actually happening on the streets, and what I hear through my own sources, via e-mail and on Skype from terrified friends in Abidjan is much different from what I read in newspapers and online.
The U.N. presence is severely limited and largely ineffective in protecting the people. As the rebels got closer to Abidjan, security disintegrated. Currently, there is widespread killing and looting by those on both sides of the conflict, but the rebels are clearly the current aggressors. I get reports of bodies being left on street corners, and homes burned and looted. Cars are being stolen, then loaded up with armed rebel fighters, while tiles, furniture and anything not nailed down is carried off on foot. The U.N. and French soldiers have evacuated foreigners but have left the Ivorian people to fend for themselves. For those who fled weeks ago, there is no telling what they'll return to — if they even choose to come back.
The international community, with unprecedented speed, proclaimed Alassane Ouattara the winner of last November's election, but the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to surrender his office. So now that it appears Ouattara may finally become president, why are the international forces not protecting the Ivorian people in the same manner that they defended the Golf Hotel? Does it matter which side is doing the killing? I suspect that there are enough atrocities to go around. But the international community becomes complicit when it fails to protect all.
It has long been known that African journalists run the risk of being "burned" if they print something seen as offensive to either side. Many foreign journalists face the same type of reprisal. Previous firsthand reports from the Associated Pres have now stopped. I'm told it's because reporters fear for their lives and are in dangerous neighborhoods, unable to move. Other reporters previously on the ground left last week. This is because, unlike in Afghanistan or Iraq, there are no embedded reporters, or a reinforced "green zone."
So when I read that Gbagbo supporters had released and armed prisoners from a local jail, I was appalled. I've since heard from numerous sources that it was in fact the Ouattara rebels who released and armed the prisoners. The credible Reporters Without Borders has confirmed this.
For months, we've heard and read stories about the plight of refugees fleeing to Liberia. Yet I hear of bus stations in parts of Ghana serving as de facto Ivorian refugee camps. But there are no news reports, and certainly no U.N. assistance. I have to ask, why is this?
So now, if you care anything about this country or its people, you have to consider, what is down the road? As I write this, nothing is resolved politically. There is no real endgame in sight. But I did read about how cocoa prices are starting to fall again, and the optimism is based on the pending Ouattara takeover. I understand business interests putting out these types of stories. But can we please get some real firsthand reports out of Abidjan? Can we please get more calls for Ouattara to control the rebels — if he even can at this point? Just think, if this had been done back in November, Côte d'Ivoire would not be suffering the agony it is now enduring.
Roger Stewart is a sales and marketing consultant who lives in Los Angeles. His wife and daughter were born in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.