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The War Nerd on the Ivory Coast!

Live from the Skeleton Coast
By Gary Brecher

I got a couple of letters asking me to talk about the war in the Ivory Coast, so I'll give that a try here. But the more I read up on the mess down there, the more I realize that your typical African war isn't about strategy of logistics or weaponry....
Live from the Skeleton Coast
By Gary Brecher

I got a couple of letters asking me to talk about the war in the Ivory Coast, so I'll give that a try here. But the more I read up on the mess down there, the more I realize that your typical African war isn't about strategy of logistics or weaponry. If you really want to see what's going on in these messed-up countries, you have to go back to basics, like: what's a country? What's a border? What's the difference between African civil war and conventional wars?

True, there are a few conventional wars in AfricaŚlike the one between Eritrea and Ethiopia. That was good ol'combat, with tank battles, artillery duels, trench warfare and sieges. But that's not a typical African war. What's happening in Ivory Coast is much more typical: a classic West African bush war between the coast and the boondocks, the Christians and the Muslims, the locals and the immigrants.

In this kind of war, both sides avoid battle. They put their energy into ethnic cleansing and killing any villagers too slow to catch the last truck out of town. It's more like an invasion by Army Ants than it is a conventional war.

And it's not something special about Ivory Coast, either. What's happening in IC is just another episode in one long, slow war that's going on all across the middle of Africa. Remember that weird deal when they had to move the Miss World competition from Northern Nigeria because the local Muslims didn't like it? That's the same war as what's going on in IC. Nigeria is like a bigger version of IC, with the same basic divisions: basically, it's the Coastal people who are sort of Europeanized vs. the inland people, sort of African hillbillies. This coast/inland divide runs all across Africa but it's specially nasty on the West Coast.

It all has to do with the way Africa got religion. There were two big religions moving in on the continent. The Muslims were slowly pushing south, and the Christians were moving inland from their little outposts on the Atlantic. Later the Christians also started pushing up the rivers, from the rubber-growing regions down around Congo. So the poor old tribal gods were getting knocked down in a kind of domino race, with the Imams pushing them down north-to-south, and the missionaries shoving them inland.

This is where a lot of these African civil wars come from. Way back in the sixties, Nigeria had the biggest and bloodiest "civil war" of'em all, when the Ibo (or Igbo) tribe decided it was sick of being lumped together with the Hausa and the Yoruba. The Ibo declared independence and set up their own country, "Biafra." (If you were ever into that punk shit, you probably figured out that's where Jello Biafra got his name from.) The Ibo had turned Christian way back, and they didn't have a lot in common with the Hausa, who are crazy Muslims, or the Yoruba. It turned into a real bloody mess fast. The Ibo were more mechanically savvy than the inland, hillbilly Muslims, so they won a lot of battles early on. But the rest of Africa didn't want Nigeria carved up, and they all piled on against Biafra. They cut off supplies, and the Ibo started dying in big numbers. Those were the original pictures of starving African kids. Finally they gave up and sorta sulked back into the Nigerian fold. But they're not happy about it, and neither are the Muslims who fought to keep them there. Basically, they hate each other and always will. Coast against inland; Christian against Muslim.

Could you draw a political map of Africa from memory? I probably could, now that I've done some research on African wars for these columns. But a couple of years ago, I would've done a lousy job of naming all the countries south of the Sahara, never mind drawing the boundaries right.

There are a lot of reasons we can't remember African borders right. For one thing, they don't match population like most countries do. Most people have this notion that every ethnic group has its own country: France for the French, England for the English, that kind of thing. It's not really true anywhere, even in Europe-but when you get down to Africa, it's totally wrong. Most of the African borders were carved out in Berlin in 1884, when the Europeans got together to divide up the Dark Continent. They weren't worried about what ethnic groups lived where. They just wanted to divvy up the loot. So it came down to which European country had got there fustes' with the mostes' (to quote Nathan Bedford Forrest, possibly the finest American officer ever). If the Portuguese had a few trading shacks on the coast down in Angola or on the Indian Ocean, they bit off as much land as they could chew, or maybe more, and declared that henceforth the whole patch of jungle and savanna was the property of the king of Portugal.

The divvying got so crazy that one man, King Leopold of Belgium, ended up as the owner of the Congo. It was his personal property, not Belgium's. And he ran it like a slave plantation. Nobody knows how many poor bastards he killed there between 1884 and 1910, when he left Congo to Belgium in his will. The best guess is that Leopold's overseers hacked, shot, starved or otherwise knocked off ten million people. So don't be too quick to blame the poor Africans for the state of their continent. They may have messed it up pretty well, but they had lots of help.

The best parts went to places that started colonizing early, like Portugal, or countries that were just plain strong enough to take what they wanted, like Britain. If you look at a map of Africa from, say, eighty years ago, you'll see that the Brits got all the best stuff. They had the southern tip of Africa, very important for a naval power. They got it off the Boers, who stole it from the Hottentots, who were already losing out to the Bantu, who'd been marching south from central Africa for generations. You get the idea: the borders of African countries don't mean much. The border is however much you can defend.

Now that's true everywhere, sooner or later. Take you guys in Russia: how long do you think you're going to hold on to Siberia? I mean, look at your falling birthrate and think about a billion Chinese pushing against the border. If I was going to live long enough, I'd take a bet with those London bookies who'll supposedly put odds on anything. I'd bet Siberia will go Chinese or Korean no more than fifty years from now.

The difference is that in Africa, you lose fast once you can't keep a strong hand on your borders. And that's what's happening all over Central Africa, including the IC: the coastal tribes are losing their grip, the Muslim hillbillies are swarming over them, and the villagers in the in-between zones are getting pulverized.

In the case of the IC, it's the French who get the blame. They claimed the place in 1842 The locals declared independence in 1944-because the French, as you may recall, were, uh, slightly busy at the time dealing with a little Nazi-invasion problem.

What happened after independence was totally typical for West Africa. First, a local strongman from the Coastal tribe grabs power. In IC, it was Felix-let's see if I can spell this right-"Felix Houphouet-Boigny" who became president-for-life. When he died in '93, all Hell broke loose, and it's still going. There were the usual rigged elections. Then, when the rigged elections kept the coastal, French-speaking tribe in power, the Muslims up north and inland went on a sulk that turned into an on-off war. That's more or less where things stand today.

The government still controls Abidjan, the big city on the coast. But the "rebels" are carving out the interior for themselves. There are a lot of immigrants from inland, Sahel, Muslim countries, especially Burkina Fasso, and they're helping the Muslims push toward the coast.

The "authorities" go through all the motions, UN style: they've even got a "National Reconciliation Forum," if you can believe that. And the other West African countries, those great military powers, have sent troops to enforce "peace." But peace in a country like the IC is a myth. It's tribe vs. tribe, religion vs. religion, till one side wipes out the other. And if that never happens, then the sneak attacks and small-time massacres will just go on and on. And if that seems terrible to you, try this thought on:

Maybe they LIKE it.

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