Trouble in cocoa country

December 01, 2003

IVORY COAST'S name is a misnomer. Although its state emblem depicts an elephant's head, hardly any of those majestic tusked animals are left there. Instead, cocoa is the West African country's claim to fame. It's the world's leading grower of beans that give chocolate its delicious flavor.

That distinction, too, is in danger of disappearing. A rekindled rebellion has disrupted this year's harvesting, curtailing output and sending world cocoa prices to new highs.

Ivory Coast used to be West Africa's wealthiest and most stable country. It was a magnet for immigrant workers from neighboring countries, a place that seemed to work well on a continent of disasters and troubles. Aiding this illusion was President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, an intellectual who wrote French poetry in his spare time, and Abidjan, the capital, where casual visitors often saw only skyscrapers and Parisian cafes, not the teeming African shantytowns.

Four years ago, a coup deposed the founding-president's successor. Turmoil quickly escalated into a civil war that officially ended earlier this year. But in September, the rebels pulled out of a transitional government. Rebels now control the Muslim-influenced north; the south is in the hands of the Christian-led government.

A formal split is a real threat. It must be averted at all costs. Otherwise, Ivory Coast is likely to be decimated, even as its unrest spills over its borders. Already, some extremists are calling for the expulsion of immigrant workers from Ivory Coast, accusing them of subversion and hurting the country's economy.

The United Nations and France, Ivory Coast's one-time colonial master, must redouble their efforts to bring the rebels and the government together. If current tensions deteriorate into a full-scale witch hunt against immigrant workers, ethnic passions would be impossible to contain.

Ivory Coast's troubles underscore the need for a permanent African peacekeeping machinery.

Although France has troops in Ivory Coast helping West African peacekeepers, responsibilities in Liberia and Sierra Leone exceed the region's current capacity to support such missions.

Outside countries, including the United States, should lend a helping hand in crafting a better mechanism for Africans to curb their crises.

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