The Tragic Decline of Ivory Coast

For my first post as an Atlantic correspondent I am returning to the country, Ivory Coast, where I first committed journalism, at the start of the 1980s.

Why pick such an obscure topic, an African country that is neither hugely oil rich, nor home to a besieged white minority, nor the imagined base of Islamic terrorists?

Yes, Ivory Coast has been in the news steadily in recent weeks, the scene of a dangerous showdown between a leader who was defeated in a democratic election and yet continues to cling defiantly to power and the man who beat him. But there is a bigger point to be made, of how African countries relegated to the margins of our (often poorly formulated) foreign policy toward the continent can be remarkably important.

The last time I wrote about Ivory Coast it was as a frustrated observer from northeast Asia; wintry Seoul, to be precise, a place that felt about as far away from West Africa as one could be. It was 1999 and a coup d'etat, the first salvo in what would eventually become a ruinous civil war, had just occurred in the country. From faraway, I was struggling to drum up more interest in the story, which minus the "great" was being treated as in V.S. Naipaul's apt phrase about smallish African countries, like "one of the great sighs of the world."

My frustrations, though, went back even further. I had moved to the country in December 1979, when Ivory Coast was still well ahead of China in per capita wealth, its main city, Abidjan, reflected both a polish and ambition seldom associated with the continent, and Cote d'Ivoire, as its leaders insist on calling the country, was the sub-region's surest engine, drawing economic migrants from far and wide.

That country, a place with a seeming bright future, began to come unraveled before my eyes after I returned there for The New York Times after a nearly decade-long absence, in 1994.

Konan Bédié, the successor of the country's founding father, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, rigged an election, began ruling through unusually blatant patronage and graft, and most alarming of all, to bolster his flagging legitimacy, he began resorting to anti-Muslim politics aimed against his most serious political rival, Alassane Ouattara.

Ivory Coast began to fall apart in slow motion. Its trajectory was entirely predictable, like the car wreck one foresees but cannot avoid in a dream, and yet the international community scarcely raised a pinkie. No high level envoys were sent to ward off the crisis or to mediate, and no multilateral diplomatic initiative was launched. The result was that the one country that for years had served as a plausible model of prosperous modernity in West Africa was utterly destroyed.

It must be said in fairness, but also because things are so different today, that Ivory Coast's neighbors were equally useless in the country's moment of maximal need. None invested themselves in insisting on fair elections or condemning overt tribalism in national politics.

The loss to West Africa has been immeasurable. Not just in the billions of dollars of wealth destroyed and in the growth foregone (economists say Ivory Coast might have been as wealthy as Thailand today had its politics not come unraveled in the 1990s), but a country which had long been a bastion of stability in the region increasingly became a staging point for mischief in neighboring countries. In other words, the deepening mess in Ivory Coast fueled war, drug trafficking and intrigue in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In recounting this history, which is little known to Americans and may seem impenetrable to many even now, one is reminded of the most famous (albeit largely misunderstood) African crisis of recent times: Rwanda.

Although obviously different in many important details, in their broad contours, the catastrophes of Rwanda and Ivory Coast (and indeed many African trouble spots) share a strikingly similar life cycle: a long brewing crisis, the relative disinterest of the international community, an explosive phase of genocide in Rwanda and civil war in Ivory Coast, a half-hearted, salve-like diplomacy that fails to address real causes, and finally contagion.

I've spoken already of how the contagion worked in Ivory Coast. The failure to seriously address Rwanda's troubles led to the death of 5 million people in neighboring Congo, which became the stage of Rwanda's repeated post-genocide military adventures. Although it constantly gets lost, the obvious point here is that more serious efforts at preventive diplomacy and political engagement early in crises like these would be far less costly in both lives and in economic destruction.

With Ivory Coast in the news again, it is a relief to note how much has changed. Under close international observance, the country finally held long-postponed elections in late-November. When the defeated incumbent who refuses to quit power, Laurent Gbagbo, tried to refute the results, his claims were swiftly and convincingly refuted by the United Nations. (According to a joke going around the region, "someone forgot to tell Gbagbo that you're supposed to rig an election before the vote.")

This has led to an impressive cascade of calls from the international community, even including nominally non-political actors like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, effectively endorsing the election of Mr. Ouattara and calling on Gbagbo to step down.

The best one can say about the United States political relationship with the continent is that it has been an inconsistent supporter of democracy. During the Clinton years, Washington was locked in a strange swoon over a number of authoritarian states -- Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda, and even briefly the Congo, under the unspeakable late dictator, Laurent Kabila -- and the effects have not altogether dissipated. And yet as Mr. Gbagbo tried to stare down the international community, there was Barack Obama issuing a strong statement, warning him that he would be choosing a "path to isolation" by clinging to power.

Even more remarkable has been the African response, suggesting real progress in terms of continental governance.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union both endorsed the election's United Nations-certified result, and when Mr. Gbagbo still clung to office, ECOWAS, led by democratic Ghana, and by Nigeria, suspended Ivory Coast's membership in the body. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and is due to hold critical elections of its own early next year.

Suddenly, one feels, we are a very far from the time honored mealy-mouthed African response to political outrages on the continent. The most telling recent comparison here, of course, is the softly, softly response to Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who has presided over his country's economic destruction,  stolen an election and refused to abide by painstakingly negotiated political settlements - all while incurring little wrath or even vocal disapproval from his neighbors.

A tentative hopefulness feels justified here. Tentative because this is far from over. Tentative also because one knows how short the world's attention span tends to be toward African countries, especially ones that don't fulfill any of the criteria I set forth at the beginning of this post.

An interesting footnote here is a notably quiet China, which has famously claimed non-interference as the basis for its foreign policy; a point it drives home in its relations with African countries. In the real world, where situations like that of Ivory Coast proliferate, with a stance like this, can China be the friend of African peoples and not just of governments?

Increasingly, with China's profile fast rising on the continent, the answer, like the open question of how the United States engages the continent, will make an enormous difference in the lives of millions.