Africa seems to have a knack for wars of the long-running kind. Europeans knock theirs over in four or five years, but below the Sahara, they seem to bleed forever. Over the past two decades Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi have all suffered the agony of ragtag militias and well-armed armies killing each other and slaughtering innocent civilians in protracted civil wars.

However, one country was famed as a bastion of peace and a melting pot for people from various parts of Africa: the Cote d’Ivoire, or to use its English name, the Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast was so peaceful and hospitable that it attracted many other African nationalities, many fleeing wars in their own countries. Before the curent crisis, Ivory Coast had an population of about 16.8 million people from 65 native ethnic groups, including 3 million from Burkina Faso, 2.8 million from Mali, 500,000 from Ghana, 200,000 from Senegal, 200,000 from Nigeria, 400,000 from Syria and Lebanon, 80,000 from Togo and Benin, 70,000 from Liberia and 8,000 from Asia.

Despite this huge alien population, the country remained peaceful and even welcoming. There were enough resources to go around and the foreigners were the backbone of Ivory Coast’s economic mainstay, agriculture. For years Ivory Coast was one of the world’s leading cocoa and coffee producers. It was also a major exporter of pineapples and bananas. French companies paid 51 per cent of all taxes collected by the government. In the 1980s, the World Bank singled out Ivory Coast as a paradigm of African economic success. Now, foreign investor are running for their lives.

The origin of Ivory Coast’s current woes lies with its political father, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled the country for 33 years. He was not a model of democratic governance, but he maintained his country’s stability and wealth. He was fond of grand gestures and turned the dusty village of his birthplace into the national capital Yamoussoukro. Later he built a replica of St Peter’s Basilica in the city at a cost of US$300 million.

Despite his eccentricities, his people loved him, holding him in awe and great reverence. Other African countries, despite their silent misgivings, envied Ivory Coast its “luck” in such a generous father-figure.

As usual, when power is so concentrated in one man, his demise leaves a vacuum. That is exactly what befell Ivory Coast. Houphouët-Boigny favoured Alahassan Quattara, then a senior official of the International Monetary Fund as his successor. Quattara had been brought in as Prime Minister to help in saving the country from an impending economic crisis owing to a fall in commodity prices. With the death of Houphouët-Boigny, Bedie, who was then head of the National Assembly and a southerner, won a power struggle with Quattara, a northerner, to emerge as the new President. Bedie wasted no time in pushing through the National Assembly a law which stipulated that candidates for the presidency must have been born in Ivory Coast to parents who themselves were born in the country. This was a direct reference to Quattara whose mother is from Burkina Faso.

From then on Bedie became an apostle of the concept of the “Ivorité” or “pure Ivorianess”. This brought to the fore a long-standing, if submerged, divide in the country. Besides the north/south polarity, most of the northerners as well as being mostly of mixed blood (coming partly from neighboring countries) are mainly Muslim. The rift therefore took on an ethnic and religious dimension. The country began to take sides, as most of the non-native northerners naturally took sides with Quattara.

Thus in 1999, the stage was set for the first military coup since Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960. This ushered in General Guei, whose supporters had regarded as a detribalized Ivorian. But they were wrong. Soon after he came to power he sought to organize elections, Guei began to support “Ivorité”as a ploy to deny Quattara the presidency.

Furious Ivorians voted for Guei’s opponent, Laurent Gbagbo, a former university professor. Gbagbo had always condemned the “Ivorité” policy as “liberticide, racist, xenophobic and dangerous”. However, as soon as he assumed power, he too became a champion of “Ivorité”. When he included retired soldiers who had served in the country’s armed forces in his list of “non-Ivorians”, some soldiers attempted a coup in 2002. Although the government army contained the coup to some extent, it lost the north of the country to the insurgents. Thus began the civil war.

Shortly thereafter, President Gbagbo threw aside all pretence and called for ethnic cleansing of all non “pure Ivorians”. Everyone understood what he really meant when he declared that “in this country, once and for all, we need to know who is who and who wants what. We need to put on one side those who are for democracy and the Republic and on the other those who are against democracy and the Republic”. Soon after, mass graves were discovered outside of the capital Abidjan, amidst reports that the government had set up “death squads”. Among those who were wiped out in this pogrom were General Guei and his entire family.

This ethnic cleansing generated a motley crowd of rival armies. The sole aim of some was to avenge General Guei’s murder, while others were more focused and disciplined and called for an end to ethnic discrimination.

The country is now in a dilemma whose end is not in sight. The rebels will only disarm if the government abandons the dogma of Ivorité, as well as giving the north a larger share in governance. The government, on the other hand, has made disarmament a pre-condition for these legal and administrative reforms. It considers itself too big to yield to the demands of inferiors, even though the rebels are comfortably in control of a good half of the country. We can only hope that the recent negotiations brokered by South African president Thabo Mbeki succeed. Otherwise, Africa’s economic star could lurch into another destructive, senseless civil war.

Eugene Agboifo Ohu is Mercator’s African correspondent. He is based in Lagos.

With his love for writing and reading, Eugene Ohu's foray into Pharmacy is perhaps a testament to the often utilitarian choices of many Africans, faced as they are with survival needs. In this context,...