"If they [the opposition elements] want to burn Cote d'Ivoire down, we shall burn it down together with them" -- says a government spokesman.
Cote d'Ivoire has, for years, been touted as an island of tranquillity in West Africa's ocean of boisterous politics. Sharing the same region as a disintegrating Sierra Leone, a Liberia just recovering from years of carnage and a Guinea on the verge of civil war, Cote d'Ivoire has been the one safe country in West Africa to which refugees could flee without fear of encountering further instability.
The name of its commercial capital, Abidjan, was synonymous with the good life. One of its hotels, the Hotel Ivoire, boasts of not one, but two ice-skating rinks and a bowling alley.
So luxurious is the Hotel Ivoire -- or at least, was, when I knew it -- that once, when Accra airport in Ghana was closed and my family got "stranded" within its walls, they sulked at me for puffing strings to get them out on the first flight back to Ghana as soon as the airport was reopened! While I was worrying my head off in Accra wondering what they were doing for money, they were having the time of their lives, thanks to airline hospitality.
But anyone who knew the Cote d'Ivoire situation intimately could have foretold that the country was living on borrowed time. President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the leader who obtained independence for the country from France, was the caricature of a black Frenchman. He also ruled the country as a private fiefdom. He spent between $200 and $300 million to build a basilica at his birth-place, Yamoussoukro, which was to serve as nothing more than a tomb for himself when he died.
He did die in December 1993, to be succeeded by Henri Konan Bedie. And the cracks in the Ivorian body politic soon began to show. Houphouet-Boigny had managed to hold on to power long before independence, and some three decades after that, through an astute deployment of bribery, threats against, and co-optation of, potential opposition leaders. Bedie, his successor, had none of the subtleties of "Le Vieux" (the Old Man). He didn't want any opposition.
He jailed Laurent Gbagbo, one of the most powerful opposition leaders who emerged in the shadow of Houphouet-Boigny.
And when Alassane Dramane Ouattara, whom Houphouet-Boigny had appointed prime minister between 1990 and 1993, wanted to contest the presidential elections against Bedie, Bedie suddenly discovered, in a fit of xenophobia reminiscent of what was done to...