In The North

Filed in Perspectives by on 27th Jan 2009

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire – We were sitting at a bar in Grand Bassam, some 25 kilometres east of Abidjan. Grand Bassam is a small, quiet village of beach resorts in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).  One hotel, Koral Beach, is nestled beneath towering palms and overlooks the water with its magnificent thundering waves in a constant attack on the hot brown sands. It’s not a luxury hotel in the sense of the huge American or French hotel chains, or even by Third World standards, but for those who frequent the place, the basic comfort there is a world away from the hovels and tin-roofed shacks of the poor. It was the week of Barack Obama’s swearing in as president of the United States, the same week I was giving a journalism course at a seminar for the written press.

Côte d'Ivoire gangIn the calm of the evening when the temperature was hovering at 28 degrees Celsius after the more scorching temperatures of the day, a young journalist named Yacouba sat down beside me and ordered a beer. While we drank our Flags, he began to tell me about what happened to him some seven years earlier when armed forces tried to seize the government.  “I’ve never told this to anyone” he said “but after what I’ve learned here, I think if everyone applied these lessons we could see real change here, a real democracy again.” It would be wrong to say that I had given a week of lessons. I had done little more than present the basic notions of journalism along with some do’s and don’t, and also spoken of current practices of western journalists. Yacouba spoke of the time when he was a student. “I was in the north to visit my uncle when a group of armed men stopped me. They asked to see my identity card. But I had left it in my shirt pocket the week before and it got chewed up in the wash. I couldn’t even read it. So I had nothing. The men grabbed me and threw me in a shed with seven other people.”“But what did you do?” I asked. “I was scared, really scared. I didn’t know if they were going to beat me or kill me. And I hadn’t even done anything. The others who had been taken hostage were also scared. …But they didn’t dare say a word. I…, I could see the fear in their eyes. I started to say “Hey, this isn’t right, you can’t do that” and I started asking questions exactly the way you said we should in your seminar.”“But it was clear the situation was dangerous. What happened next?”“I asked why are you doing this? Who gave you permission to stop people? What have these people done? Are they criminals? Is that why you stopped them? I…., I was really scared but I just kept asking questions”.

“What did they reply?”

“At first they told me to shut up. Then they got more and more agitated and started shouting at me to keep quiet if I knew what was good for me. They screamed at me and said to shut my mouth or suffer the consequences!  What consequences? Who gave you permission to do this. I don’t know any law that lets you just stop people and take them hostage.”

Yacouba was visibly shaken as we sat at the bar. Fierce warrior masks from an earlier time looked down on us from over the bar while African music played in the background. While others sitting nearby ignored us, Yacouba relived the terror he felt that day and it was so vivid, it was almost as if I’d been there myself.

“How did they react?” I asked, giving him the time to take a long slow drink of beer.

“It was really strange” he answered. “Bizarre! They got more and more upset, more, uh, more enervated and they started asking me But who are you? Why are you asking these questions? Who are you? Tell us who you are! And I knew right there that they were starting to get worried.”

“How? With your questions?” I asked him. “But that’s just it. They knew I was a student and where I came from because I had told them”.

“So why would they be worried, especially if you were a student. You’re no real danger to them”.

“But you have to understand. This is Africa. When people ask Who are you? They’re afraid you might be the president’s son or the son of some powerful cabinet minister, and that can lead to serious problems”.

“So, what did you do then?” I asked him, curious to know what happened.Côte d'Ivoire soldats

“I looked them in the eye and I said they had no authority to stop these people, and suddenly they started shouting at each other. Some of them didn’t want to let us go but the others forced them and we left without saying a word. If I hadn’t asked those questions, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m convinced of it. When I graduated from school, because of what happened that day, I decided to become a journalist.”

“Boy, luck was sure on your side that day” I said, lifting my glass to his health.

The waves still attack the brown sands of Côte d’Ivoire with thundering crashes that make me think of the bombs and mortars that suddenly hit this country on that fateful day, the 19th of September in 2002 when the frustrations of a band of armed men erupted in a coup d’état. I wondered if any of the men and woman whose bodies were found after this dark period were themselves as courageous as Yacouba, who did little more than defend people in his country’s former democracy by asking questions.

The people of Côte d’Ivoire are still waiting for an announcement that never comes – for an election date which has already been delayed several times. The United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire, or ONUCI as they call it here, continues to restore some sense of normalcy, trying to recreate the conditions needed for a healthy democracy. For the moment in Côte d’Ivoire, it’s neither war nor peace,  “Ni guerre ni paix”, as the locals say, a phrase you hear often here. You can feel the frustration in the conversations of everyday people hesitant to speak out on anything controversial for fear of upsetting someone, and who want nothing more than to see the instability in their country replaced by peace so they can return to their normal lives. (See also http://quinndiplomacy.com/2015/11/15/the-shimmering-illusion/)

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