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In West Africa, fears that Ivory Coast’s conflict could spread

MONROVIA, Liberia — Less than an hour’s flight away from the Ivory’s Coast’s capital of Abidjan, fears are growing that what started as a national Ivorian crisis could quickly infect the entire West African region. Since outgoing Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo first refused to step down from office late last year, tension has consistently ratcheted ...

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

MONROVIA, Liberia — Less than an hour's flight away from the Ivory's Coast's capital of Abidjan, fears are growing that what started as a national Ivorian crisis could quickly infect the entire West African region.

Since outgoing Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo first refused to step down from office late last year, tension has consistently ratcheted up, and violence between Gbagbo and his political rival, election winner Alassane Ouattara, has only grown. In just a matter of days, the number of refugees leaving the Ivory Coast for Liberia has quadrupled from 20,000 to 80,000, and fighting -- once far in the interior of the country -- has reached the border.

"The civil conflict [in the Ivory Coast] … at times it seems like it's on the verge of war," U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Karl P. Albrecht told me yesterday. "It could be a destabilizing or unsettling influence, and in addition to all the challenges that Liberia faces," he said, noting that this is a presidential election year for the country, "now this [Ivory Coast] factor is in the mix."

MONROVIA, Liberia — Less than an hour’s flight away from the Ivory’s Coast’s capital of Abidjan, fears are growing that what started as a national Ivorian crisis could quickly infect the entire West African region.

Since outgoing Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo first refused to step down from office late last year, tension has consistently ratcheted up, and violence between Gbagbo and his political rival, election winner Alassane Ouattara, has only grown. In just a matter of days, the number of refugees leaving the Ivory Coast for Liberia has quadrupled from 20,000 to 80,000, and fighting — once far in the interior of the country — has reached the border.

"The civil conflict [in the Ivory Coast] … at times it seems like it’s on the verge of war," U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Karl P. Albrecht told me yesterday. "It could be a destabilizing or unsettling influence, and in addition to all the challenges that Liberia faces," he said, noting that this is a presidential election year for the country, "now this [Ivory Coast] factor is in the mix."

Here in West Africa, peace is fragile. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have all suffered civil wars within the last decade, and in every case, the fighting was regionally tainted. Liberia’s warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor, supported rebels in Sierra Leone and backed a certain faction in Ivory Coast’s civil war as well. The greatest fear for this region — so desperate to recover from years of conflict — is that the smallest spark could reignite the regional fire again. Over the last few days, those fears haven’t looked unfounded. Two developments are of greatest concern: the growing refugee crisis and the active fighting along the Ivory Coast-Liberia border.

Take the refugee crisis — the largest West Africa has seen in half a decade. After an initial flood of refugees in January, the numbers of people crossing the border had slowed to a mere 100 per day — until just a few days ago. Now there are some 80,000 refugees in Liberia, far outpacing capacity to house and assist them. The current refugee camp under construction has room for a mere 15,000. That’s less than half of the number that arrived in the last weekend alone.

For now, many of the incoming refugees are staying with Liberian families, sharing their food and being welcomed into their homes. "They have shared their rice with them, even though they themselves are getting strained," Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in a radio address to her country on Monday. "If [the number of refugees] climbs too high, it will be trouble for us."

The fighting along the border is even more troubling — and the cause of the refugee crisis in the first place. On Monday, the rebel group Forces Nouvelles took a third town along the border, now controlling a 30-mile strip along the border. The ex-rebels support Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last November’s presidential election; Gbagbo supporters have fought back. And civilians have undoubtedly been the victims. In many ways they already are; Gbagbo cut electricity and water to the Ouattara-stronghold in the northern part of the country over a week ago.

But here’s the part that scares Liberia — and West Africa — most of all. During Ivory Coast’s civil war early this century, the Forces Nouvelles had allies in a faction of former Liberian rebels who supported Charles Taylor. And rumors are circulating here that those Liberian men might be traveling back across the border to join the fighting again. U.N. security forces here confirm that armed men also tried to cross the border into Liberia on Sunday.

It’s a potent combination: fighting along the border, recruitment of ex-rebels into the Ivorian conflict, and refugees streaming over the border, burdening already economically stretched Liberians. An Ivorian resident of Monrovia, whose wife lives in Abidjan, told me that his family hadn’t left the home for days, afraid of the violence on the streets. "It’s a civil war in Abidjan. It’s really bad." The question is, will it spread?

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.
Tag: Africa

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