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Friday, 20 October, 2000, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
Ivory Coast's quiet crisis
Guei supporters on a bus in Abidjan
Guei's supporters make their presence felt
By Barnaby Phillips in Abidjan

Flying into Abidjan from my home city of Lagos, it is hard at first to see what all the fuss is about. Plenty of people are giving dire warnings about growing instability in the Ivory Coast, but it is still, by West African standards, an oasis of order and prosperity.

In Abidjan, there is none of the obvious violence or confusion of Lagos. Rather, this is a city that still works. Mobile telephones, regular electricity, good roads, supermarkets with well-stocked shelves - it's all very easy.

Guei goes shopping
Public appearance - in an exclusive shop
But scratch beneath the surface, and its apparent that all is not well. For a start, the tidy city centre and prosperous suburbs do not tell the whole story.

The Ivorian economy is in deep trouble, and times are very hard for all but a tiny elite.

Economic fears

Bankers and businessmen refused to speak to me on the record, for fear of getting in trouble, but in private they expressed deep reservations about where this once buoyant economy is heading.

But there is also a more fundamental sense in which the country is far from at ease with itself.

Market in Abidjan
Times are hard for all but a few
Popular opinion over Sunday's elections is divided, but there is little feeling of excitement or anticipation. Most people expect the current military ruler, General Robert Guei, to win.

Convoys of his supporters drive through Abidjan's centre, blaring their horns and waving flags. But passers-by tend to just shrug their shoulders, and carry on with their lives.

General Guei does not belong to any political party - he says that "the Ivorian people are my party". But such is the paranoia within the general's camp that he has barely left his own residence during the campaign.

His supporters mutter darkly about the possibility of a foreign invasion were he to stray from Abidjan. So, about the only time this man of the people has actually met the people was when he took a well-publicised tour around a rather expensive supermarket.

Xenophobia

There are other signs that things are amiss. In our office, we receive phone calls from West African migrants who say they are receiving regular beatings from the police.


We want to ask General Robert Guei who is sending these people to beat us

Nigerian migrant
Millions of people from the neighbouring states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea have come to the Ivory Coast in search of work. Now, they are feeling increasingly uncertain about the future.

I went to meet a group of migrants who claimed they are being harassed by the security forces. In the backroom of a hotel in the Adjame neighbourhood, a Nigerian man told me that his brother is in hospital with a dislocated hand as a result of police brutality.

"We want to ask General Robert Guei why this is happening, we want to ask him who is sending these people to beat us," he said.

An indication of why these things are happening came at General Guei's only campaign rally so far, which was held in an expensive Abidjan hotel. Outside the hall, gangs of youths threatened to beat foreign journalists whom they accuse of biased reporting against the general.

Guei at an Abidjan hotel
Guei has tended to confine his attention to the Abidjan elite
Inside, the general himself made a thinly veiled attack on foreigners. "Those who threaten the Ivory Coast tend to forget that they have friends and family living here who can be dealt with if necessary" he said, words which earned him a standing ovation and the loudest cheer of the day.

General Guei says he is taking over the mantle of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the man who led the Ivory Coast to independence, and ruled the country for 33 years until his death in 1993.

His supporters say he is the strong man who is needed to hold the country together. But the harmony of those immediate post-independence years is now a distant memory.

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See also:

16 Aug 00 | Africa
Guei eyes presidency
19 Oct 00 | Africa
Gbagbo: Veteran makes a comeback
19 Oct 00 | Africa
In pictures: Guei goes shopping
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