BBC BLOGS - Andrew Harding on Africa

Archives for April 2011

Africa on the page

Andrew Harding | 11:57 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

So... what have you been reading?

I thought this blog might take an occasional unguided safari into the world of books that deal, in some way or other, with Africa. What's the best, worst, most original, factual, fictional page-turner that you've come across this year?

I don't (mercifully) police the comments section below, but how about we make an unofficial rule - no entry without a book suggestion tucked under your arm?

Anyone with an interest in development and Africa will probably have heard of Dambisa Moyo's provocative and highly enjoyable Dead Aid. But while she rolls a grenade into the boardroom of Western "do-gooding," Stephen Ellis wields a scalpel. I would urge you to dig out his book, Season of Rains. Behind the rather fragrant title lurks a hard-headed, big-picture, bang-up-to-date analysis of the big themes confronting the continent. The chapters on China, on the challenges and definitions of "statehood," and on Africa's overlooked indigenous structures, are particularly strong. A good starting point for reassessing places like Somalia. Mr Ellis offers a view from the treetops, in a region where too many of us are stuck in ideological ruts.

Speaking of ruts, and having noted all the vehement pro- and anti-Western comments on my recent blogs from Ivory Coast, I've just been reading Adekeye Adebajo's The Curse of Berlin - Africa After the Cold War. Mr Adebajo has more axes to grind than Mr Ellis and a choppier narrative, but his historical analysis is sharp and shrewd, and so is his dissection of "Afrophobia," and the new institutions struggling to build "security, hegemony, and unity," on the continent.

On a different note... the best thriller you'll ever read has finally hit foreign bookshops, three years after it was first published here in South Africa.

In a Different Time tells the story of four members of the ANC's armed wing, captured after carrying out a series of assassinations and bombings, and put on trial during the dying days of the apartheid regime. Will the men be executed before democracy arrives? And what of the government death squad's own bomb-making plans, which punctuate the narrative with a tick-tock tension?

Peter Harris's book is chilling, profoundly insightful, and heartbreaking. It is also true. Mr Harris was the lawyer representing the "Delmas Four" during their sensational trial. He tells a murky tail with economy and clarity. In a Different Time now has a new, but equally unsatisfying title: A Just Defiance.

Gbagbo arrest: Relief - for now

Andrew Harding | 18:29 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

First we heard the car horns, then the cheering. Before long, thousands of people were flooding onto the streets, singing: "Gbagbo is gone," and waving at passing vehicles.

Many then rushed into roadside bars to try to catch a glimpse of the drama on television.
Former President Laurent Gbagbo looked tired but surprisingly relaxed to me, even in his undershirt. But it's hard to tell from silent TV footage. This wasn't a "dignified exit" by any analysis, but it could have been a lot worse.

"The head of the snake has been cut off," said one soldier loyal to elected President Alassane Ouattara. "Gbagbo's militia will simply vanish now. The war is over."
"It's great," said another man. "We are just so happy, and so relieved. The war is finished now."

Is it? Much, I suspect, will depend on how Mr Ouattara handles the next few days, and what signals he sends regarding the treatment of both Mr Gbagbo and his armed supporters.

Troops now consolidating their hold on Abidjan will need to act forcefully to ensure there is not a rash of reprisal killings.

Credit for the actual arrest of Mr Gbagbo is, inevitably, being keenly claimed by Ouattara's forces. The UN and French will no doubt be eager to play down their own roles, but the video footage tells a different story, and they will struggle to convince Mr Gbagbo's most ardent supporters that this wasn't some Western plot.

Still, the general mood as far as I can judge it now, is one of widespread relief.

Let's see how long that lasts.

Civil war, Ivory Coast-style

Andrew Harding | 17:15 UK time, Saturday, 9 April 2011

It's 10 in the morning in Abidjan, and at least a quarter of the soldiers around me seem drunk.

A rebel fighter wearing a gas mask on the outskirts of Abidjan (5 April 2011)

One man, sporting a gas mask, is offering me a beer. Nearby another heavily armed group is driving off in a car, packed with looted kitchen appliances.

Suddenly there's a burst of incoming gunfire. I duck, then look around. About half the soldiers seem to be panicking. The rest don't even bother to stand up.

If you're wondering why the battle to seize and stabilise Abidjan - one of the biggest cities in Africa - is taking quite so long, just hang out with the invading army for a few days and it will start to make sense.

Of course, there's more to it than bad soldiering.

On a leafy hillside near the centre of Abidjan sits the imposing presidential residence where Laurent Gbagbo remains under siege, trapped in his cellar.

He's a history professor, a former dissident, and a great fan of American westerns. You can work out the ironies for yourself. Although I'm not sure he has.

Having tried and failed to get Mr Gbagbo out by force, his enemies are now opting for a strategy that is bound to offend him even more. They are trying to sideline him.

It's not a bad plan.

The internationally recognised winner of Ivory Coast's election, Alassane Ouatarra, is an economist. He is visibly uncomfortable talking about military matters, and he no doubt understands that getting sanctions lifted, cocoa exported, banks reopened, civil servants back to work, and salaries paid, will win him a lot more support than bullets and windy rhetoric.

This was a prosperous, sophisticated country. It's a mess now, but there's no reason why it shouldn't bounce back - especially if the new government can show some real impartiality, and muscle, in prosecuting those responsible for the atrocities of the past few months.

But there is, still, the problem of Mr Gbagbo.

While he remains uncaptured, the militia groups loyal to him will presumably battle on. Perhaps for weeks.

There are French troops here - and there's a good chance they will get sucked more deeply into this conflict. The same goes for the United Nations. At some point, neighbouring countries may have to send in troops as well.

For now, I'm still moderately confident that this war will end with a winner and a loser, and some sort of stability. The continent - and the future of African democracy - can surely not afford anything less.

But driving round the deserted, looted suburbs of Abidjan, watching out for snipers and militia groups, and wondering who now controls which neighbourhood - I am reminded of another African city.


In war, even the winners are losers

Andrew Harding | 12:05 UK time, Saturday, 9 April 2011

Monsieur Gogbo pours himself another generous, early morning glug of French table wine and sits back in his chair to listen to the distant boom of explosions in Abidjan.

"Power corrupts," he says, pensively.

As if on cue, 10 men with guns push through the front gates and demand the keys to our car. We plead and protest and to our surprise they relent and leave empty handed.

We've been staying at Mr Gogbo's dilapidated hotel on the edge of the city for a few days now. His wife and children are trapped by the fighting, but he says they're fine, and besides, his girlfriend is here to look after the cooking.

Mr Gogbo is a retired petrol station manager. He seems to spend his days surrounded by chickens, at a table in the yard, drinking with workers from the nearby quarry.

The quarry is closed - like most things in Ivory Coast right now. The inn sits right next to a grand four-lane highway. But hours can pass without a single car driving by.

You get a glimpse of how impressive this country once was and how far it's fallen.
We drove here, across the northern border, from Mali. Twenty-nine hours in all, a flat tyre, a broken radiator, a wheel falling off, 80-odd roadblocks and a terrified driver who abandoned us in the middle of the night.

Halfway through the country the official capital Yamoussoukro leaps - improbably - out of the lush countryside. The city has avenues the size of runways, monumental architecture a la Pyongyang, and a record-breaking basilica bigger than St. Peter's in Rome.

"Perhaps you'd care for a drink?" Augustin Thiam is preparing to host a small lunch party in the marquee on his lawn. It's days since the capital was captured, without a fight, by the forces of the elected President Alassane Ouattara.

"Thank God," says Mr Thiam, a suave tribal leader. He has no time for the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo. "A bad example for Africa," he tuts. "And bad example for the world."

We're in a rush, and drive on - making a detour west.

The tall undergrowth chews at the crumbling tarmac from both sides. The roadblocks become more frequent and more uncomfortable. We pass through empty, burnt-out villages. There are prisoners - one crouched in a petrol station forecourt, looking terrified. Another group is being held at gunpoint in some bushes by the roadside. We decide not to stop.

The soldiers here are a mixed bunch - some well trained, and in regular uniforms. Others in rags, clutching old hunting rifles, and demanding cash.

There's been a massacre in the town of Duekoue. Several hundred dead, maybe as many as a thousand.

The numbers and the blame are being bitterly questioned on all sides. But a familiar equation is at work here - communal tensions, plus inflammatory rhetoric, and undisciplined militia groups, equals trouble.

A United Nations soldier, from Morocco, is guarding some volunteers as they hunt for bodies. They've been at it for five days. I ask how many dead children so far. He holds up four fingers and sobs heavily, into his facemask.

The road on towards Abidjan turns into a highway, and the roadblocks disappear. But so do the cars. And the people. It's too quiet. I start to miss being waved down by men with guns.

We pass Monsieur Gogbo's hotel and a few minutes later arrive on the edge of the city.

A year ago, I came to Abidjan ahead of the World Cup to make a film about Ivory Coast's remarkable track-record of producing football stars. People were a little nervous about the upcoming presidential election but most seemed to think it would solve more problems than it created.

Instead, a year on, I'm driving into a ghost town. We pass under a bridge and the smell of corpses wafts through the car. Gunfire rattles somewhere off to the right. We stop at a petrol station that's been turned into a military camp with soldiers collapsed in the shade. Lots of dented cars - probably confiscated, like ours nearly was. There's a dead body, wedged awkwardly in the back of one of them. And in the car wash, well over a hundred prisoners sit and sweat in the midday heat. All young men, seized, quite probably at random, by troops anxious to crack down on the militia groups that are still causing havoc across the city.

The conflict here is winding down, but slowly. Laurent Gbagbo chose - with staggering self-regard - to make his final stand in the most heavily populated corner of the country.
So, it looks like you've won, I say, to a colonel, sitting in the garage next to the unleaded petrol pump. He frowns. I know war, he says. Even the winners are losers.

Ouattara: 'War over'

Andrew Harding | 10:55 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

It has been quieter in Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan.

Forces loyal to the internationally recognised elected president, Alassane Ouattara, are still consolidating their hold on the city.

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But in a televised address, Mr Ouattara made it clear he felt the war was over and the priority now to get the country back to work.

Mr Ouattara barely mentioned his rival, Laurent Gbagbo, who remains besieged in his presidential residence in the city.

After days of failed attempts to remove him by force and by negotiations, a strategy of containment seems to be in place.

Mr Gbagbo's militia groups remain at large in Abidjan. There are continuing reports of ambushes, looting and attacks on civilians.

Battling militias in Abidjan

Andrew Harding | 12:38 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

It's a little quieter here in Abidjan right now, there's certainly a lull around the residence of Ivory Coast's disputed President Laurent Gbagbo, which is still under siege.

We expect a fresh attack on the compound at any moment though.

I am in the west of the city. There are lots of soldiers supporting Alassane Ouattara around me racing off in pick-up trucks. They say they are constantly having to battle militias loyal to Mr Gbagbo.

I've just spoken to a civilian who says 10 people were killed on his street last night by those militias.

The soldiers are sweeping through neighbourhoods rounding up young men they suspect may be involved.

There are in fact 200 of them here, they're being kept inside a carwash at a garage by the roadside. They're sitting on the floor looking very nervous.

The soldiers have also just brought in a woman. They claim she is a Liberian mercenary. She told me she's a Nigerian civilian. She looks very scared indeed.

Cornered in Abidjan as fears grow

Andrew Harding | 13:53 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

These are critical hours for Ivory Coast.

Laurent Gbago - corned in a presidential bunker, his general defecting - has been trying to negotiate his way out of trouble.

His surrender seemed imminent. "I want to live," he told French television.

But over the last few hours, we've heard the boom of heavy artillery in the city, and confirmation that Mr Gbagbo's residence is being stormed.

A negotiated ending might have helped ease tensions in this bitterly divided country. After all, Mr Gbagbo won 46% of the vote in the recent election.

But he seems to have over played a weak hand, and so a more forceful denouement beacons, and with it the real risk of greater instability.

What will his militias do if Mr Gbagbo is killed, or dragged out and humiliated?

Civilians, still trapped in Abidjan, say there has been sporadic gunfire across the city, with pro-Gbagbo militias still on the streets, and Ouattara force's still "mopping up" opposition at several military installations.

Yesterday I drove a few miles through the city suburbs. Small groups of civilians were half trotting along the side of the road arms raised as if in surrender. They were, they said, risking the bullets and the looters to search for water and food.

The stench of dead bodies, littering the sides of the road, is a powerful reminder of the price this city has paid for the "restoration of democracy".

What new horrors will we uncover if and when the city is finally pacified?

A sign of the continuing insecurity - we've just been stopped at a roadblock that we sailed through yesterday - Ouattara's soldiers saying a suburb was no longer safe.

Abidjan conflict: Last hours?

Andrew Harding | 14:30 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

We have just heard news from United Nations peacekeeping forces here in Ivory Coast who say there are what they call "new developments" in the political front in Abidjan.

Disputed President Laurent Gbagbo's closest advisers, both military and civilian are leaving him, while with a handful of persons he is known to have retreated to a basement bunker of the presidential residence.

That has been confirmed by local commanders loyal to his rival Alassane Ouattara that I have been speaking to here.

I don't believe the Ouattara forces see what is happening as a ceasefire at the moment.

They - as far as I understand from senior commanders - are negotiating the unconditional surrender of Mr Gbagbo and his armed forces.

The forces here are very clear that they will carry on fighting until the surrender.

The UN, the message goes on, "calls on the special forces which continue fighting in various areas of Abidjan, especially around the presidential palace and the presidential residence, to lay down their arms with a view to preserving the lives of the civilian population as well as their own life".

The fact that the UN is saying that and confirming that is a big new development and of course a lot will depend on whether the militias in town can also follow those orders.

But we may be approaching the last few hours of this conflict in Ivory Coast.

Abidjan fighting escalates

Andrew Harding | 09:10 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The fighting inside Abidjan has reached a new level of ferocity. Sustained, heavy gunfire has been heard over night in the city centre around the television station and the residence of Laurent Gbagbo, the man refusing to surrender Ivory Coast's presidency.

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A spokesman for Alassane Ouattara's government claimed the residence had been overrun. It is not clear what has happened to Mr Gbagbo himself.

The United Nations, which has a mandate to protect civilians, said its helicopters attacked Gbagbo loyalists defences around the residence and other military sites. French forces were also involved.

The battle for Abidjan is entering its sixth day with millions of civilians still trapped by the fighting. The general leading the assault has insisted the city will fall today.

Ouattara troops prepare for final push

Andrew Harding | 17:46 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

I've just driven down an eerily empty highway to the outskirts of Abidjan.

I am now surrounded now by about 300 soldiers preparing for battle.

These are forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara.

They are all in combat gear with automatic rifles, RPGs and heavy machine guns mounted on the backs of pick-up trucks.

One pick-up, packed with men, has just raced off towards the front lines a few kilometres down the road.

There are about 50 soldiers resting in the shade, including some wounded, who have just come back from the battle for Abidjan.

One soldier described the fighting as "chaud (hot)".

A lot of troops have just left for what senior military commanders here are telling me is the final push for the city.

A general emerged from a meeting at a makeshift headquarters at a half-built toll station and told me confidently that the city would be in his control in "a matter of hours".

Mr Ouattara's forces have of course been saying this for some days but there is no doubt that this is a new and substantial offensive.

Ivory Coast: Was it a massacre?

Andrew Harding | 07:41 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

How many died here last week? And was it a massacre?

On a dirt road in Duekoue, the body bags lie in haphazard groups, every hundred yards or so, waiting to be collected. I count 20 within a few blocks.

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A Red Cross truck stops to pick them up. Local workers, sweating in the heat, have found another corpse in the bushes. The teams are being closely guarded by United Nations troops. The town is still very tense. All the buildings around us have been burned or looted. I spot four pigs eating something dark in a charred courtyard.

Standing by a newly dug mass grave, a UN soldier from Morocco is choking with rage and grief. "Five days we've been doing this work," he says. "The stench of bodies..." I ask him if any of the dead are children. He holds up four fingers, then his head nods down and he begins to sob, quietly, into his facemask.

A group of Ivorian soldiers are sitting in the shade at nearby roadblock. We must have driven through 30 just like it to reach the town. The men are supporters of the man recognised as the winner of last year'e elections, Alassane Ouattara. They, and militias linked to them, swept through the region early last week, seizing huge chunks of territory from forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power. This was one of the few places - leaving aside the main city, Abidjan - where they seem to have encountered serious resistance.

"Us? We didn't kill any of them," says a young soldier insistently. "I was injured myself. It was the militia groups - they were fighting each other." The UN soldier comes over and wags a finger: "You mustn't kill them," he says. "If you have prisoners, bring them to the authorities. No more killing." They nod. But the UN man tells me that they've rescued several prisoners from cars in recent days. They suspect they were being driven out of town to be killed discreetly.

We run into Anne-Marie Altherr, deputy country director for the International Commitee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who is organising the collection of bodies. "It's really difficult," she says. "There's been a lot of dead people. It's definitely tough work - especially for the volunteers because they're from here so it's their community."

But significantly, she says she won't discuss numbers. The death toll has become a hotly disputed, highly sensitive issue. Last week, the ICRC said 800 were killed. Then another aid agency, Caritas suggested 1,000. But the UN has quietly disputed, and scaled down, those figures, and so - furiously - have officials from Mr Ouattara's government.

A car stops beside us and a young man tells me "the minister" wants to talk to me, "immediately." The UN troops are suspicious and say they'll escort us. We drive into the town centre. The road is lined with what looks like looted, or perhaps rescued furniture.

Konate Sidiki is the local representative of Mr Ouattara's government. He's clearly on a mission to limit the damage that the "massacre" allegations may be doing to the internationally backed winner of last November's election.

"Our forces cannot be implicated in any massacre," he says. "I call on all human rights organisations to come to Duekoue. One week after the fight we discover 162 people have been killed. Not 800. Not 1,000. Since we have taken control of the town there is no conflict here. Our aim is to go to Abidjan and chase Gbagbo from power."

Mr Sidiki is standing at the entrance of a church compound. Inside there are an estimated 40,000 civilians, who have lost their homes or simply fear for their lives. As Mr Sidiki approaches the crowd, an aide mimes for them to clap, and a few duly do so.

We move away to try to talk to the families here, but the same aide follows us. When a man in the crowd starts to tell us that he fears for his life, and can't go home because he is "scared of the soldiers" - pointing to the men standing outside the gate - Mr Sidiki's aide intervenes, calling him a member of "Gbagbo's militia."

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