The Façade – Part 3

Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul's Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

 

Between 2002 and 2011 the North of Côte d’Ivoire was the playground of a group that grandiosely called itself Forces nouvelles (Fn). Their political leader at the time was Guillaume Soro, a young and extremely wily political operator who in perfect tandem with his old brother friend and now enemy Charles Blé Goudé turned the country’s student union (known as FESCI) into a violent militia and went on to expand this model across the rest of the country.

When Fn ran the North it had a single business model: loot. Nobody made his own money doing something productive. The region was carved out into zones, over which presided military commanders. They became known as com’zones. When I visited the area in early 2010, with photographer Martin Waalboer, we got our first glimpse of the Fn when they, cap in hand, walked through the train we were travelling on, asking for money. The second impression was that of Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second city, largely lifeless, half boarded-up and in possession of a non-functioning economy. It did yield a ridiculously cheap rented car, though.

The third impression was that of arrogant indifference among the ground troops about the presence of two foreign journalists in their main fief, only matched by the indignant paranoia of their media chief who we finally got on the phone with the assistance of some local United Nations staff and who only wanted to know how long we had been there. Wise enough, we had decided not to do any work until the Fn chief of the media had barked a few orders down his mobile phone, whereupon our Fn media accreditation appeared pronto from a room at their Bouaké headquarters. Matters were, of course, not helped by the fact that we showed up shortly after another bout of violent rioting, which had rattled the leadership.

The fourth impression was that of fleecing. Anybody unlucky enough to have to live, work or travel in the areas the Fn controlled had their pockets picked. Sure enough, the chaps manning the roadblock on leaving Bouaké were in a good mood (and in stitches when, after passing the roadblock, we returned a few minutes later to tell them we had forgotten to buy petrol) – but pay them we did. As did everybody else. And the fifth impression was the desolate stagnation in which the entire region found itself, nowhere clearer than in another major town, Katiola, where the holes in the road were bigger than a regiment of SUVs and the public buildings appeared to be in varying states of decay. A strange state of affairs for a movement that claimed to have taken over this part of the country because it felt the “Northerners” had been systematically marginalised. If anything, the infrastructure that had been put in place in the first few decades of the country’s independence was decaying fast under their writ.

Between Blé Goudé and Soro, the latter has turned out (so far) the smartest operator. He is currently the president of the country’s Parliament while Blé Goudé, a key ally of former president Laurent Gbagbo, sits in a jail in Scheveningen awaiting the continuation of his trial at the International Criminal Court, for  alleged human rights abuses. Soro, meanwhile, could be heading for the highest post in the land, as early as 2020.

He is also the king of the next place we pass on our trip: Ferkessédougou. This town is doing rather nicely for itself thanks to the generous patronage from their illustrious son who has, according to reports, already had a conference centre set up with his name on it. No doubt he has helped himself to some nice real estate in the process. But at least in “Ferké” as the place is commonly known, there is some evidence of the reversal of the calamitous damage the Fn and its com’zones have caused in the region.

 

But what’s worse – they’re still around. Part 4 shortly.

 

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