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.
The Story Continues . . .
Africa is tribal. I saw this in the Ivory Coast – le Cote d’Ivoire – when I was there as a military advisor in 1999. I would tell the Ivorian officer where & when I needed his men, or where to go to next; he would turn around and give a command and half the platoon would tighten up and look alert like proper soldiers. The other half would look down at the ground and shuffle their feet, a lot of attitude and body language. I figured it out real fast; half the platoon was his tribe, Ashanti, the “shuck-and-jive” crowd was of the other tribe; Twee, or Ibo.
On 24 December 1999 what started as a pay mutiny by these same disaffected troops morphed into a coup d’etat, and by 2002 had become a full-blown civil war. At that time my unit was sent in to get 2700+ Americans and other nationalities out of the rebel-held north. What we saw last week - French and UN helicopters firing missiles into the President’s residence in Abidjan - was the culmination of events that kicked off in 1999.
French helicopter attack sortie toward the Presidential Residence in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, April 2011.
The current set of circumstances Cote d’Ivoire relate directly to national elections held in October of last year. Despite losing the election, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down, never mind the fact that his term in office expired five years ago; he simply refused to leave.
His opponent, Alassane Ouattara, has the support of world leaders, but not of Ivory Coast's military. And so associated himself with the rebel faction, which slowly but surely made its way toward the capital in an almost symbolic combat that claimed less than 500 lives.
Road to War:
In the years leading up to the coup of ’99, the government of President Bédié had drifted toward a xenophobic policy described as “Ivoirité”: the exclusion of immigrant workers from Mali and Burkina Faso, some of whom had been in the country for generations. Ouattara’s father’s side of the family is from Burkina Faso – a fact that confounded Ouattara’s earlier political activities - and so much of the exploited underclass was able to identify with him and the rebel forces that emerged since the civil war of ’02. Another complication in this conflict is the cultural fault line between Muslims in the north, and the Christian majority of the economically prosperous south.
In North America it is difficult to fully appreciate these kind of issues, of course, and all this past month the thing in Libya has eclipsed the situation in West Africa. Oil is important, despite the fact that we could straight up buy the oil from the Libyans if we wanted to – or anyone else - any day of the week, or we can drill for it ourselves. But Cote d’Ivoire has something unique that can’t be found in deserts, arctic regions or at the bottom of the ocean.
Carrying cocoa beans in the port of San Pedro, Ivory Coast; much of the
nation's economy depends on the exports. (Jane Hahn / New York Times)
Cote d’Ivoire produces almost 50% of the world’s supply of cocoa beans, and the beans have been piling up in the warehouses. There is coffee there as well, and rubber plantations. The rebels say they are fighting for their national identity, but their cause was financed by the power of the beans.
In September of 2002 my outfit got the word we were going down to the Ivory Coast to evacuate Americans. Normally for this sort of thing the phone rings in the dead of night, you roll over, “Honey, I’m going to be out of town for a couple of weeks.” She says, “Whatever,” and you get a little break from each other’s company.
This time “the balloon went up” at ten in the morning. We immediately went into mission prep, dragged our kit bags, drew our weapons and blew out of there – phone calls to mama-san were out of the question; OPSEC. My wife and kids – ALL the wives and kids – didn’t know where we were for the better part of two weeks.
We flew into Yamousoukro and established ourselves in the airport firehouse – a cement lean-to at the drainage end of the runway. The place was infested with mosquitos. I have lived and worked in the tropics most of my life and I have never seen mosquitos that bad; at one point I looked down at my exposed forearm and it looked like I had black fur. I wiped the insects away and my skin was dripping red with blood.
American Special Forces at Yamassoukro Airport, Cote d'Ivoire, September 2002.
The American refugees assembled at the International Christian Academy in Bouaké. The rebels were having a firefight with the Loyalists; the French Foreign Legion were pulling security in their LAVs (Light Armored Vehicles) and their gun jeeps. The Loyalists would fall back through the Legion’s lines, the Legion would open up on the rebels, the rebels would fall back and the Loyalists would advance; rinse and repeat.
The people we evacuated were mostly missionaries who’d lived there for years. They left everything behind; they were allowed one bag each. We rolled up there in our “GunVees” (modified HumVees bristling with belt-fed weapons), pulled security while the Americans loaded up in school buses, then escorted them back to the airport at Yamoussoukro.
American refugees escorted by American Special Forces, Ivory Coast, September 2002.
(That's me you can see through the windshield of the bus.)
The scene at the airport was equally sad; I saw a Frenchman roll up in his Renault, hop out and say to an African standing nearby, “You want a car?” Then he simply handed over the keys.
At one point I was interviewed by an American intelligence officer. “You’ve been here before? You trained the rebels?”
“That’s right.” I told him about our activities in Akuedo, in 1999.
He asked me what kind of troops they were, their capabilities. I told him that if ever you come under fire from them, the safest place to be is right out in the middle of the road.
“They can’t hit the broad side of a barn, from the inside.”
He opened up a laptop and showed me photographs of the rebels taken in Bouaké and Korhogo. “Do you recognize any of these guys?”
“Well, they all look the same, but yes I do. That guy’s name is Valere.”
“YOU KNOW HIS NAME?”
“We used to drink beer and play cards together.”
“What about this guy?”
Like all military operations, there was a lot of “hurry-up-and-wait”. I spent an afternoon in an air-conditioned van with an older American gentleman and his wife. She had a strange accent I couldn’t quite put a finger one. To fight boredom I started impersonating the French officers – in French; the wife was going into hysterics, ringing out peals of laughter. Turned out she was Québécois, which explained a lot of things, and he was the “OGA” station chief, which explained even more.
Later, after we returned to Stuttgart, I learned from an Ivoirian I’d stayed in touch with that my buddy Valere was indeed with the rebel forces. It turned out he was killed in action - in Bouaké, the day of the evacuation.
In February of 2003 I attended a briefing at Special Operations Command, Europe (SOCEUR), in Stuttgart. The officer opened the briefing with, “It’s coup season again down in Africa.” A small team was put on alert to go down to “CDI”, to perform reconnaissance tasks, prepare assembly areas for an evacuation, etcetera. We were told to pack our bags and be ready to launch; the specific guidance was: “Be within one hour of sobriety.”
While waiting for the balloon to go up, my journalist brother emailed me that he would be passing through Frankfurt, headed for an embed slot with the 3d Infantry Division for the then-anticipated invasion of Iraq - could we meet up?
At first I told him I couldn't make it – I was on a one hour string. Then it occurred to me that I was instrumental in my brother’s circumstances - in January I'd made a phone call that got him into the embed program – and if something terrible happened, I would never forgive myself, not seeing him when I had the chance. I had to go, so I called the officer over at SOCEUR. “Can you be back here within one hour?” Sure thing, I told him; normally it’s an hour and a half ride up there, but you can fly over those German autobahns. Never mind the fact there was about an inch of ice all over everything.
My brother and I linked up in the airport - he finagled his way through Customs to get out of the transit lounge. We had a good German breakfast of sausages and beer and joked about how it would be his last beer for a long time. Afterwards we strolled through the side of the airport which is like a giant shopping mall, and I pointed out the escalators to the S-bahn, the trains that go everywhere in Germany. It was still dark outside when my phone went off; all my brother heard was me saying, “Yes sir . . . uh-huh . . . yes sir . . . I’ll be there. I’m enroute.”
I looked up and my brother was grinning from ear to ear; he’d just seen me get THE PHONE CALL. We said our goodbyes and he went his way and I went mine. Two brothers, linking up in Europe, heading in two separate directions to two different wars, on two different continents. Much later my brother described the scene: “It was like being in London, 1942.”
My brother went to the Sandpile and took part in the Great and Glorious War on Terror; I parked my car in front of a gray, non-descript building in a military compound in Stuttgart, went inside and grabbed my kit bag, got on a C-130 and made my way back down to an obscure little war in Africa, in a country most people can’t even find on a map.