Sunday, April 17, 2011
Cote d’Ivoire was in the news cycle this past week, a six month West African power struggle culminating with French and UN attack helicopters firing rockets on the Presidential Residence in Abidjan, economic capital of Ivory Coast, a West African nation of 21 million. But the war goes back further than the past six months; I was there for the beginning & early stages of that war, back in the late nineties / early ought-oughts.
It actually began as a military pay mutiny, at Camp Akuedo on the outskirts of Abidjan. I know this because I helped train the soldiers who became known as the rebels.
We were there as a part of a U.S. State Department program – the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) – teaching peacekeeping skills to company-sized elements from five battalions of the Ivorian military. At the beginning of the program we issued new uniforms, equipment, boots, everything – to the soldiers, many of whom had arrived from their remote bases in uniforms that were rags falling off their bodies, their web gear was held together in places by threads.
At the end of our four-month training program, the soldiers once again appeared in their rags. “What happened?” I asked one of the troops. “Where are your new uniforms, the ones we gave you?”
“The officers, they took them all back, put them in the warehouse.” Good old Third World corruption; we give them foreign aid, the guys in charge rip it off and use it to line their pockets. Your tax dollars at work.
One of the Ivoirians asked me for some money so he could take the train back to his base up north. He was a brother paratrooper, so I shelled out ten bucks – probably a month’s pay for him. This was telling, because later that night, it was the pay thing that kicked off the whole mess.
Third World Armies are paid peanuts. Actually, if they were literally paid in peanuts they’d probably be better off than the puny salaries they make. That’s where things like UN peacekeeping duty come in; UN pay is worth triple what they make, and this is crucial because their retirement scheme is practically non-existent.
Well, President Henri Konan Bedie was on TV that night, giving a big speech about how great things were going. The trouble was, things weren’t going all that great, and hadn’t been in the twelve years since the great Houphouët-Boigny – founding father of Ivory Coast – had died. The troops clustered in the dirt-floored canteen were yelling at the screen, ”Oh YEAH? Well if things are going so good – WHERE’s OUR UN PAY???”
What happened next - after they got enough beer in them - was they went down to the arms room, busted in and secured the firing pins for their rifles (that’s how much their own officers trusted them). Then they rocked on down to the Minister of Defense’s residence – about five miles down the road – and made known their grievances.
The security element at the Minister of Defense’s place returned fire, so the mutineers pulled back and went over to the President’s residence. There was no return fire this time, so the troops took the place down, and the whole country with it.
This was in December of 1999; the wealthiest, most stable nation in West Africa had just experienced its first coup d’etat.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . S.L.