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Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 16:38 GMT
A coup out of the blue
Looted shops
There was some looting, but the coup was suprisingly peaceful
By Mark Doyle in Abidjan

Military coups are not such uncommon events in Africa, but the military coup in Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve surprised almost everyone.

I was doing my monthly accounts when the coup began, sitting in the office on what I thought was a quiet news day.

When I first heard some loud bangs outside the window I thought - if I thought anything at all - that it was a commuter bus bursting a tyre.

I have had the misfortune to hear gunfire in numerous countries, but never here in Ivory Coast.

For about 10 seconds, I tried to concentrate back on the accounts.

But then there was a long, crackling burst of sound and I instinctively crouched on the floor.

That, no doubt about it, was a machine gun.

Balcony view

For me, covering a coup d'etat normally means trying to get through to the country in question on the telephone, or furiously booking seats on airlines which are fast cancelling the destination from their schedules.
Shop
The shops were soon open again after the coup

On this occasion, I just had to look out of the window.

The rear balcony of my office looks out on Ivory Coast's national radio station.

Control of the broadcast media is essential for any sucessful coup.

And, sure enough, about a minute after I had heard the first shots, I saw soldiers careering around the radio station in a pickup truck, shooting into the air.

The people of this city had never experienced a coup d'etat before, and at first, while I was crouching on the balcony, hundreds of local people were standing frozen on the pavements, staring at the soldiers in complete disbelief.

Denial

The strange thing was, I was in a sort of denial as well. It was all too close to home.

Soldiers were shooting into the air next to the garage where I get the car serviced.

"Oh dear," I found myself thinking, "I hope the mechanic is OK."

And there they were again, men with guns near the takeaway where we usually pick up lunch.

This, surely, can't be real.

Not normal

For the outside world, a coup d'etat in some barely-heard-of African country may seem banal.

They are at it again, most people probably thought, when they heard my reports on the BBC: soldiers, shooting,mayhem. A normal African event.

But the point is that, for Ivory Coast this was very far from normal.

The average Ivorian would have thought a coup d'etat about as likely as, say, a Londoner would imagine the possibility of a meteorite hitting the House of Commons.

For 40 years since independence from France, a small clan of elite politicians here have maintained stability by playing musical chairs with key government posts, and dealing with the political opposition by a combination of patronage and repression.

In recent months, tension was certainly rising as the government locked up political prisoners and ministers went just too far in their corrupt practices.

But still, hardly anyone expected a coup.

Phone home

As the shooting continued, I called home to check that our nanny had locked all the doors and that our son was safely behind them.

Then it was time to drive home. The shooting continued into the evening near our house.

The ousted prime minister has a place just a few hundred yards from where we live. It seems that after the prime minister had fled, soldiers were looting his home, or, alternatively, that soldiers were stopping civilian looters from entering.

I did not go out into the potentially dangerous night to check. It still all seemed a bit unreal.

There I was in my living room, pushing back the fairy lights on our Christmas tree to peer into the dark to see where the guns were firing from.

If I'd been in some seedy hotel, in some other African capital, it would have been fine.

Frightening but, for me, sort of normal.

But there I was in my living room, for heaven's sake, wondering whether the butchers would be open the next day so we could collect the cockerel we had ordered for Christmas lunch.

Model of discipline

Christmas morning was a reality check. The coup leader called a press conference and I tentatively made my way to the military barracks.

The soldiers were very polite

I was not sure of the way and I found the place by taking directions to a friend's house, then turning left.

In fact, the Ivorian soldiers were, relatively speaking for this part of the world, a model of discipline.

At one point I was on a lonely road when I saw some troops driving around with guns pointing out of their car window.

"Good morning," I said, trying not to sound nervous. "Which way to your leaders?"

"That way", they said. "You are welcome sir."

And then they asked, politely in the circumstances, if they could have some money to buy beer.

How bizarre: money to buy beer. These soldiers were so unused to coups themselves that they didn't seem to realise that with their guns they could simply loot as much beer as they wanted.

There was some looting. A few people got killed by stray bullets. But, all in all, this was a very civilised coup that ousted an unpopular government.

And the soldiers are full of promises for fresh, democratic elections.

We shall see what they do in practice in the coming months.

But the real lesson I learnt was that political violence is not something that happens to other people, in other countries.

It is not just a story for journalists to write.

Even if it does not actually come into your living room, it is frightening and it is real.

And too many Africans learnt that lesson long ago.

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See also:

06 Jan 00 | Africa
Coup leader dispels 'rumours'
05 Jan 00 | Africa
Ivory Coast 'state coffers empty'
24 Dec 99 | Media reports
Coup leader pledges democracy
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