Ivory Coast implodes

January 03, 2003

FOR THREE DECADES, Ivory Coast, the French-influenced West African country, was one of the troubled continent's few success stories. No longer. Like neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone earlier, it is imploding in an orgy of uncontrollable hatred, envy and passions.

Americans have paid little attention to the military uprising that started Sept. 19. But they should take note. The outcome of Ivory Coast's civil war may change the regional dynamics of West Africa by increasing the strength of militant Islam. As in nearby Nigeria, Ivory Coast's conflict is being fueled by a power struggle between ruling southerners, who are mostly Christian or animist, and dispossessed northerners, who are Muslims.

It is more complicated than that. Roughly one-third of Ivory Coast's 16 million people are illegal immigrants drawn to the good life from neighboring countries, mostly Burkina Faso. They are Muslims and, with tensions rising, targets of xenophobic agitation in Ivory Coast that keeps feeding the conflict.

France is watching its former colony's disintegration with growing alarm. It initially sent 1,000 troops there and is now more than doubling that number. Their mission, officially, is to protect Westerners. But they also help prop up beleaguered President Laurent Gbagbo.

This is not the first time France has used its muscle in a former African colony. But its growing involvement has led to unity talks among three separate rebel movements. They disagree on many other things but want the French "forces of occupation" kicked out.

As the rebellion has grown, so has the government's anti-foreigner agitation. It has been fanned by Ivorian television, which accuses Burkina Faso's head of state of being "the mastermind of the war against Ivory Coast." Meanwhile, the religious dimension of the conflict has increased.

Unless Ivory Coast fighting can be stopped, the potent military virus may spread from there to other African countries. That would be an unwelcome return to the pattern that lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s, when coups, instead of elections, were the chief means by which changes of government were achieved in Africa.

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