- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

This bustling city, long called “the Paris of West Africa,” now has a less-illustrious nick- name befitting the Ivory Coast’s slow fall from grace: the Trash Dump of the West.

Ever since the Probo Koala, a Dutch-chartered ship, showed up in Abidjan last month with a cargo of poisonous petroleum wastes, the simple act of breathing has become a challenge for Abidjan residents.

The Probo Koala had been turned away from Amsterdam and several African ports after Amsterdam Port Services determined that the ship’s waste was so toxic that it could not be processed without charging higher fees. When an Ivorian firm unloaded more than 400 tons of black sludge from the ship and dumped the toxic waste in at least 11 open-air sites in Abidjan, scores of residents became ill.

Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday that the Ivory Coast’s Health Ministry said two more persons had died in the toxic-waste scandal, bringing the death toll to eight. The ministry said 69 persons had been hospitalized by Tuesday, and visits to doctors had risen to 80,474.

The transformation of Abidjan into a malodorous toxic-waste dump is one more blow to the Ivory Coast — a country of about 17 million people that not long ago was the jewel of West Africa.

For the past four years, the Ivory Coast has been racked by ethnic enmity and battles over the status of immigrants from neighboring states after an attempted 2002 coup split the country in half. Rebel leader Guillaume Soro rules the north, and the foundering government of President Laurent Gbagbo retains control in the south, including Abidjan, the de facto capital. Yamoussoukro to the north in the interior is the official capital.

Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer of cocoa beans, and its economy is heavily dependent on their price, which has been curbed by the political disarray. A string of reports from Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have documented repeated instances of intimidation, harassment and extortion by Mr. Gbagbo’s government, pro-government militias and the rebels in the north.

The toxic-waste scandal has set off a chain reaction that threatens to add to the country’s political paralysis. The entire Ivorian government resigned Sept. 6, leaving only Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, a meek politician mandated by the United Nations last year to re-establish stability and organize elections to form a new government.

The outgoing transport minister, Innocent Kobenan Anaky, was dragged from his car and beaten by an angry mob in Abidjan on Sept. 15.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gbagbo announced he would not attend the UN meeting this week, where officials were to discuss moving ahead with a peace blueprint sanctioned by the United Nations requiring the Ivory Coast to hold presidential elections by Oct. 31. The meeting ended in a deadlock, with South African President Thabo Mbeke rushing off to Abidjan, hoping to try to persuade Mr. Gbagbo to cede to transitional measures. In the absence of any compromise, rumors of a second coup were circulating in the capital.

Unlike many of its African neighbors, Ivory Coast was one of the most stable and prosperous countries in West Africa for more than 30 years after it won independence from France in 1960. Abidjan, with its wide boulevards, parks and high fashion, was the pride of the region.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny — the first president of the Ivory Coast, from 1960 until his death in 1993 — had an open-door policy that encouraged Malians, Burkinabes, and Guineans from nearby states to immigrate to the Ivory Coast and start farming. In the 1970s, the per-capita gross domestic product of Ivorians soared by more than 300 percent before declining in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Mr. Houphouet-Boigny’s policies helped lay the groundwork for today’s land disputes between indigenous Ivorians and the African immigrants, which fueled nativist passions to curb the rights of the newcomers.

Today, an estimated 3 million Ivorians, nearly a fifth of the population, lack nationality documents and/or voting cards, a fact that has been useful for Mr. Gbagbo, who insists that elections cannot be held until voter eligibility is sorted out. Opposition factions say that this is a pretext to stay in charge.

Marcel Zadi Kessy, chief executive officer of the country’s electric, water and gas utilities, and a political hopeful, thinks a return to Mr. Houphouet-Boigny’s open-door immigration and labor policies could do much to restore a sense of national unity.

“The Ivory Coast is a country that already has proven itself. We need to learn from history, and build on inherent strengths,” Mr. Zadi Kessy has said.

Many Ivorians think Mr. Gbagbo is in no rush to face voters and would be happy to use the toxic-waste disaster to further delay elections. Mr. Gbagbo assumed power after a disputed election in 2000 and then barely held off a coup attempt in 2002.

But Ivorian communications consultant and insider Victorine Avit-Nemet contends elections are not the solution. She and others are telling politicians in Paris and Washington that the Ivory Coast should take its cues from Liberia. There, the political terrain was cleared by Gyude Bryant, a no-nonsense local businessman, enabling free elections to be held three years later. Like Liberia, the Ivory Coast needs a transitional executive, Ms. Avit-Nemet said.

“There is little sense in holding elections that only promote more instability and internal feuding,” she said.

Not surprisingly, a coalition of seven opponents, including Mr. Soro from the north, former President Henri Bedie and former Prime Minister Allasane Outtara now vie with Mr. Gbagbo for electoral power.

Many Ivorians fear that delaying elections could undermine the legitimacy of Mr. Gbagbo’s already faltering regime and lead to riots and renewed ethnic violence.

Mr. Zadi Kessy, the utility-company official, thinks the only way out of the national logjam is to substitute sound business practices against political corruption and to curb ethnic prejudice. “The person who begins to show Ivorians how to create new wealth will be the next leader,” he has predicted.

For now, though, the toxic-waste crisis seems to be complicating attempts to resolve the political stalemate and personal suffering in Ivory Coast. Before the residents of Abidjan can vote in free elections, they may need to breathe freely again.

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