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Colonial tensions plague Ivory Coast

Rather than the raucous rioters depicted in news reports, many young Ivorians describe themselves as waging a nonviolent struggle against an armed opponent and as seeking to complete their country's breakaway from its colonial masters, the French.
Members of the Young Patriots, along with some older supporters, rally in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Tuesday.
Members of the Young Patriots, along with some older supporters, rally in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Tuesday. Craig Timberg / The Washington Post
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Christophe Gnonrou Sibi, 28, drives a cab and lives in a shantytown on the edge of this muggy West African city, Ivory Coast's commercial capital. But last week, he was manning the barricades of a street rebellion against French troops that gave him a new sense of purpose, power and patriotism.

During several days of protests, Sibi's defiance grew. First, he said, he watched a woman being shot by a soldier in a French military helicopter. Then, at another rally, bullets grazed his arm. Finally he fashioned a roadblock near the president's home, using a tree limb, a pair of tires and some construction rubble. Nine days later he was still there, checking every car and waiting for the French to attack.

"Before they pass here," vowed Sibi, a slender man with a wispy beard and a long silver necklace, "they have to kill me."

The outbreak of demonstrations and clashes left some parts of Abidjan in smoldering ruins and sent thousands of French civilians into flight, threatening to destroy the tenuous post-colonial relationship that Ivorian society had made with the French expatriate establishment.

But rather than the raucous rioters depicted in news reports, Sibi and other young Ivorians described themselves as waging a nonviolent struggle against an armed opponent and as seeking to complete their country's breakaway from its colonial masters. Ivory Coast gained formal independence from France 44 years ago. The demonstrations were initially urged by a group called the Young Patriots after French warplanes bombed an Ivorian airfield Nov. 6. The group, which backs President Laurent Gbagbo, warned that French military forces intended to stage a coup and called on young Ivorians to stop it.

French officials have said the bombing was carried out in retaliation for an Ivorian air attack on French military post the same day that killed nine French troops and an American agricultural researcher, Robert Carsky of Syracuse, N.Y. "The colonial time is finished," declared one Young Patriot, Ibrahima Baye Boliga, an unemployed 26-year-old who helps Sibi guard the checkpoint near Gbagbo's home. "Now the Ivorian wants to take his future in his hand."

'Revolution for my country'
The man at the nerve center of the Young Patriots is Charles Ble Goude, 32, a former student activist with a hip, savvy demeanor. His young admirers call him "the general" and greet him with fist-pumping salutes.

The organization has no formal structure or membership list, and Ble Goude said he had no idea how many followers he has. For the most part, he communicates with the masses via government-controlled radio and television stations, which have become a propaganda arm for the movement. When he convokes a rally, young men pour into the streets.

Ble Goude is close to Gbagbo, and their rhetoric is almost identical, but he holds no official position and insists the government is neither bankrolling nor commanding the Young Patriots. Its aims, he said, are nationalistic and anti-colonial, not just pro-Gbagbo.

"It's a revolution for my country to confirm that we are independent, to tell the French government that we are no longer living in colonial times," he said in an interview. The French in Ivory Coast, he said, are losing only money. "We are losing our country. We are losing our freedom. We are losing our dignity."

Ble Goude compares himself to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and insists that his movement is nonviolent. Any looting or other crimes committed during the protests, he said, were the work of criminals who took advantage of a chaotic situation. Young Patriots are not armed, but they collaborate with government troops, trading shifts with them at roadblocks since the protests began.

At a rally Monday, hundreds of Young Patriots overflowed a large auditorium in Abidjan's city hall to hear Ble Goude speak. Onstage, a screen flashed images of dead and wounded Ivorians, including one person Ble Goude said was a Young Patriot whose head had been blown off by bullets from French troops.

"French soldiers must withdraw!" he shouted to the cheering crowd. "It is our duty to free our country!"

Rising nationalism
The rising Ivorian fervor against French colonialism seems puzzling at first, given Ivory Coast's gentle birth as an independent nation in 1960. The world's largest producer of cocoa, the country remained prosperous, peaceful and pro-French for several decades under the presidency of Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

But French business interests kept control of most of the Ivorian economy, and the expatriate community maintained a somewhat insular existence, driving French cars, eating at French restaurants and enjoying the protection of French soldiers based near Abidjan's international airport.

A period of political turbulence and growing nationalism began with Houphouet-Boigny's death in 1993. At the same time, the economy began to decline and a strain of xenophobia crept into national politics.

In 2000, Gbagbo, a former history professor, was elected president after the constitution was changed to disqualify any candidate without two Ivorian-born parents -- including a major opposition leader -- and thousands of Gbagbo's young supporters took to the streets.

Two years later, an attempted coup linked to rebels in the largely Muslim north was thwarted. In Abidjan, mobs of youths rallied again for Gbagbo. This time, their leaders had an organization, the Young Patriots, and a leader, Ble Goude.

Until recently, the movement's principal targets were the northern rebels and Ivorian immigrants. But the events of the last 10 days have dramatically reordered Ivorian politics.

The trouble started Nov. 4, when Gbagbo broke a cease-fire with the rebels by attacking their positions in the north. Two days later, Ivorian fighter planes struck a position held by French peacekeepers, charged by the United Nations with protecting the terms of the cease-fire.

The French immediately counterattacked, destroying Ivory Coast's only two warplanes and some helicopters. French troops seized the Abidjan airport and several sections of the city, but over the next few days, rioters destroyed businesses and looted homes, particularly those owned by French or whites.

As unrest spread, thousands of French citizens -- including business owners and investors crucial to the economy -- fled in an airlift, reducing the expatriate population from more than 100,000 to about 10,000. It is not clear when, if ever, they will return.

'We are here until the new order'
"Help me, doctor!" screamed Alaim Ouraga, a 19-year-old Young Patriot, clinging to his sister, Laura, with both arms. "I will never walk again!"

Ouraga, who was being treated Monday for a foot injury at Treichville University Hospital in Abidjan, was wounded during the demonstrations last week. His brother, Elvis, 27, was also shot. Laura, 23, said she was proud of the price the family had paid for their activism. "The men of this country, they are the future of this country," she said.

According to Ble Goude, 70 Young Patriots were killed and 1,400 injured during the clashes, mostly in Abidjan. His assertion could not be confirmed, but hospital officials reported treating hundreds of casualties, most of whom had bullet wounds.

At Treichville, doctors said they almost ran out of anesthesia within 24 hours. Later in the week, in a makeshift outdoor operating room under a blue and white tent, victims moaned as medics dressed their wounds. Claude Sodoua, an electrician, had his left leg amputated. He said he had been shot by French troops.

"I didn't do it for my president," said Sodoua, 29, his eyes glassy as medicine dripped into his arm through a tube. "I did it for my country."

Yet even as the violence ended and tension eased, passions fired by the confrontation remained high. Most Young Patriots have now returned to their homes, schools or jobs. But many said they were prepared to return to the streets as soon as Ble Goude called for the next demonstration.

Sibi, for one, said he planned to remain at his checkpoint until the French military left Ivory Coast, even if that meant continuing to sleep on a piece of cardboard, eating food donated by the government and wearing the same clothes he has had on since Nov. 6.

Every time a car approaches, Sibi and his friends check the trunk and back seat, pull aside their makeshift roadblock and let the vehicle through.

"I cannot go home," Sibi said. "We are here until the new order."