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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 December, 2004, 13:46 GMT
Letter: From prosperity to instability

By Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
West Africa correspondent for National Public Radio

The West African state of Ivory Coast used to be one of the most prosperous and stable in the region - but in the last few years it has decended into civil war.

Despite peace-making efforts, the violent forces of the country are becoming extremely difficult to control. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton recently returned to the country where she lived for several years, and says that mob rule now threatens to take over.

Riots in the Ivory Coast
State media urged Ivorians to protect the president
Who would have thought that a thirty-something student - who wears his trademark black baseball cap flipped backwards and has a penchant for T-shirts - would come to symbolise the steady decline, instability and violence that, in recent years, have devastated Ivory Coast?

The young man I am talking about is Charles Ble Goude, the leader of a self-styled movement in Ivory Coast, which calls itself the Young Patriots.

It's an intensely nationalistic organisation, made up of militant students and mainly jobless, frustrated youths looking for a cause - and talking about revolution.

They are fiercely loyal to embattled President Laurent Gbagbo, whose critics accuse him of manipulating the Patriots for political gain.

The General

Mr Ble Goude is known as "The General," a nickname he picked up when he rose to prominence two years ago and took it upon himself to lead this unofficial army of Young Patriots after civil war broke out in Ivory Coast.

Student demonstrators with placard reading
There is much anti-French feeling among the Young Patriots
Before then, he'd earned a reputation as a charismatic and fiery student leader. And I've seen this man in action.

He has a way with words and how to deliver them, grasping the microphone, his voice rising into a crescendo as he mesmerises the Young Patriots at the revolutionary rallies they love to hold.

"Have hope," he tells them, "this dirty war was imposed on us, but our enemies won't get the better of us".

He majored in English at Abidjan University in Ivory Coast, before going onto Manchester University to study politics and communications.

Mr Ble Goude tells me he came home to fight for the freedom of his country against the former colonial rulers, the French - and the rebels who tried to seize power two years ago, leaving Ivory Coast split in two.


Many Ivorians though see the Young Patriots as a threat - an ungovernable force of political thugs.

And they fear the Young Patriots are independent enough to cause even more havoc should they choose, because they have tasted power.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me turn the clock back to 1990, when I moved to Ivory Coast and describe the country I once lived in.

Bel Goude (l) Konate Navigue (r) Young Patriots Leaders
Pro-government young patriots say they will avoid a clash with rivals
Then, it was a haven of peace and prosperity in a troubled West Africa. It is still the world's number one cocoa producer.

Abidjan, the commercial capital and cosmopolitan metropolis - and now headquarters of the Young Patriots - is where I lived happily and safely as one of millions of expatriate Africans for four years.

At the time the country was in transition.

Cocoa prices were in free-fall, unemployment was rising and thousands of students - inspired by a history professor, one Laurent Gbagbo - were on the streets demanding democracy.

That was the year of Ivory Coast's first multi-party elections.

There was excitement and optimism in the air, but it was not threatening.

The Mob

Dubbed Petit Paris - Little Paris - in those days, Abidjan was a showcase city, with its gleaming skyscrapers, snaking lagoon, elegant boulevards and cafes and patisseries, selling croissants and baguettes.

But three years later, the lid blew off the simmering pot in Ivory Coast.

By then the power of "La Rue," as the French call it, had taken hold. "La Rue" is that very French concept dating back to the French revolution - literally, it means "the street," but "the mob" is a truer translation, where anyone can take to the street and force change.

Our philosophy comes from Martin Luther King and we demonstrate with our bare hands
Armand Belga, High-school teacher and Young Patriot
That mob propelled Laurent Gbagbo into the presidential palace four years ago.

And by the time the civil war broke out two years later, nationalist fervour had reached fever pitch.

Mr Gbagbo has been accused of fanning those flames, often relying on La Rue to achieve his aims.

When I returned to Ivory Coast late last month, the changes were palpable. Abidjan, the loyalist stronghold of the president, is looking grubby, shabby and down on its luck.

Years of violence

And I cannot believe the number of potholes, even in the smartest avenues.

I hear the president's cortege avoids the winding corniche overlooking the lagoon, the most direct route from his home to town - because of the huge potholes.

The years of violence have left their mark.

Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo
Gbagbo pledged to abide by the UN sanctions
Unemployment and anger have driven the militant students and other young men, who once campaigned for democracy, into the ranks of the Young Patriots.

They meet to discuss patriotism, democracy and freedom from French neo-colonialism and the rebels - and to organise demonstrations.

Last month, they were the ones who spilled into the streets of Abidjan waving anti-French banners and placards saying "Chirac is a killer".

In three days of rioting, French expatriates became the latest targets.

Long-time foreign residents, in what was once France's number one colony in Africa, fled in their thousands.

Yet Ivory Coast used to be France's best friend in Africa. Not any more.

Two years ago, French troops were deployed to act as peacekeepers between Ivory Coast's warring factions.

But relations between President Gbagbo and President Chirac have soured and the Patriots blame the French leader for meddling in their affairs, reminding him that the colonial era is over.

Preaching peace?

Yet the Patriots say they are not violent. Mr Ble Goude likens himself to Martin Luther King.

And his supporters parrot that line - like Armand Belga, a high school teacher and proud Young Patriot I met: "We are not violent, no, no, no" he said. "Our philosophy comes from Martin Luther King and we demonstrate with our bare hands".

Anit-French prtoestors pass by a French soldier in Abidjan
Pro-government mobs have been targeting French citizens
He told me the Young Patriots were the future of Africa and preached peace. He blamed infiltrators for last month's looting in Abidjan.

Many Ivorians disagree.

They say politicians, including President Gbagbo, are largely responsible for the current troubles.

Mr Gbagbo stands accused of using the Young Patriots in his quarrels with the rebels and the French and, especially, with immigrants from neighbouring African countries - who make up a whopping 40% of the population of Ivory Coast.

Many of them have been working on cocoa plantations for years.

They're probably the invisible hands behind chocolate you have tasted.

But, in recent years, they have been made to feel like second-class citizens in Ivory Coast, which once encouraged an open door policy for its neighbours.

Now the nationality debate has become a pernicious issue.

That's where Mr Ble Goude, the Young Patriots' leader, slots in. "The General" can summon his boys onto the streets in an instant, against anyone he deems their enemy.

With his usual mixture of bombast, populist charisma and rabble-rousing rhetoric, it was again Mr Ble Goude's voice that whipped up anti-French feeling when he called for a protest march to condemn Paris last month.

Civil war

He accused the former colonial power of trying to topple President Gbagbo in a military coup.

"It's like David and Goliath," Mr Ble Goude thundered in a long rant against President Chirac, at one of his impromptu meetings.

These draw thousands of angry young men, in a sea of bandanas, waving Ivory Coast's orange, green and white flags, punching the air and clapping and chanting in approval.

But many Ivorians worry this phenomenon could backfire.

Map of Ivory Coast and rebel holding
Although the Young Patriots support President Gbagbo now, what if they decide they've been sold down the Swanee, and that Mr Gbagbo's made too many concessions to the rebels or to the French?

Concerned Ivorians say this is like deja vu. And won't Ivory Coast learn?

They point across the border to the savage civil wars in neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone, where armies of drugged gun-toting youths battled for control of their countries for years.

Back then Ivory Coast became a safe haven for millions of refugees.

Now, Ivorians fear the prospect of bands of unruly young men fighting to take over their own country.

And they ask, with wistful irony, whether they'll be the next, forced to flee across their frontiers, away from the once peaceful regional oasis that was Ivory Coast.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.


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