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The United Nations and the Ivory Coast. (Human Rights Watch).

I was born and grew up in the Ivory Coast, also known as La Cote d'Ivoire. This African nation, which gained its independence from France in 1960, is bordered by the countries Mali, Ghana, Liberia, and Burkina Faso. More than sixty different ethnic groups live there, but most Ivorians belong to either the Baoule or Mandingo tribes. The Mandingo people are primarily Muslim and from the northern part of the country. They own many of the businesses in the capital city Abidjan. The Baoule are mostly Christian and hold many positions within the government. Both tribes until recently lived peacefully side by side for hundreds of years. I am Mandingo.

Like in the United States, there are several different political parties in the Ivory Coast. Translated from their French names, they are the Democratic Party, established in 1946; the Ivory Popular Front (FPI), established in 1990; the Republican Party (RDR); the Party of Social Democrats (USD); and the Party of the Workers (PIT). The country has a president--currently Laurent Gbagbo, a socialist within the FPI--a prime minister, and twenty-eight ministers of various departments, including foreign affairs, defense, health, and transportation. The voting age is twenty-one.

Until recently, my hometown of Abidjan was a tourist attraction, known as the "Paris of Africa" for its beauty and economic stability. As a young boy, I never had to worry about war or fighting; I only knew peace there. But recently Abidjan has turned into a war zone, and several of my friends and family members have been murdered.

The last presidential election resulted in massive killing--very uncommon for this country. The fighting was mostly between the Baoule government and military and the Mandingo people. The trouble started when the head of the country, Henry Konan Bedie, misinformed the nation by saying that Baoule Christians were the first to arrive in the Ivory Coast and that the Muslim Mandingo people were outsiders. Soon everyone, young and old, across the country was debating who were the "true Ivorians." The government even banned a Mandingo candidate, Alassan Ouattara of the RDR, from running for president, saying that he wasn't a true Ivorian since his mother had been born in Burkina Faso.

Young Mandingo men started protesting against the government, which fought back violently by sending soldiers to target and kill Mandingo people, especially the young activists and poor civilians. Thus the Baoule and Mandingo tribes became more divided than ever, and neighbors who used to greet each other each morning were now fighting.

My teenage brother witnessed three of his friends shot and killed by Baoule soldiers. My father's car was set on fire and destroyed by his Baoule neighbors. Then, one day, Baoule soldiers went to my cousin's home and arrested him. They took him away and he's never been seen again. My cousin was known for encouraging young Mandingo to stand up for their rights, so he was seen as a threat. When his mother asked the police where he had been taken, they told her coldly to check the rivers, lakes, and dumpsters. She nearly lost her mind searching for him, but she, too, never returned. Now my mother cares for the three children she left behind, along with my little brother and sister. The sadness is so great that we never talk about what happened.

I felt so helpless here in the United States when I read news articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post about the atrocities being committed in my homeland and the mass graves that had been found. I was so worried about my family. All I could do was try to phone them, but many times I couldn't get through.

The question now facing the United Nations is whether it should have stepped in to prevent the Mandingo genocide and whether it should get involved now to prevent more horrible killing. According to the official UN peacekeeping manual:
 UN peacekeeping is based on the principle that an impartial UN presence on
 the ground can ease tension and allow negotiated solutions in a conflict
 situation. The first step, which often involves intense diplomatic efforts
 by a UN Secretary General, is to secure a halt to fighting and the consent
 of the parties before peacekeepers are deployed.

However, not everyone agrees that UN intervention works. Ivorians who oppose UN involvement say that United Nations action in the Ivory Coast would only aggravate the ethnic conflict. They believe the UN cannot be neutral and would have to take sides. They cite awful failures by the UN in the past, specifically in Rwanda. And as John Reader wrote in Africa: A Biography of the Continent, "The UN called upon Belgium to organize some form of national reconciliation, an aim described by a senior Belgian adviser as `perfectly useless.'"

Those who oppose UN intervention believe Ivorians don't need strangers coming in to solve their problems--that the UN cannot successfully address the concerns because it is unfamiliar with the country's complex issues. They also worry that when outsiders attempt to help political situations they often impose their ideas on the people, many of which could conflict with tradition.

To some critics of African affairs, like Ikaweba Bunting, the UN is seen as just a weak symbol of peace:
 In Africa today, only the symbols of sovereignty exist. There are flags,
 seats on the UN General Assembly, heads of state (sometimes more than one),
 armies, national currencies, ambassadors, and Mercedes Benzes.

However, while there are concerns about the effectiveness of UN involvement in the Ivory Coast, there are also problems with letting the country deal with its troubled political issues on its own. Solving civil problems may take Ivorian politicians too long, which will result in the slaughter of more Mandingo. And although UN forces failed to stop the killing in Rwanda, the UN could still use its power and influence to prevent more killing there. According to Leo DeSouza:
 The only way to end the bloodletting in Rwanda once and for all is to
 declare a general amnesty for all but the highest level perpetrators and
 establish a truth commission similar to the one in South Africa, charged
 with investigating the fate of victims on both sides even as it forgives
 most of their attackers. This could initially be conducted under the aegis
 of the Organization of African Unity or the UN or both.

While the United Nations has its problems, I do think there could be long-lasting value in having its presence during troubled times. If the UN could keep the peace among different tribes in the Ivory Coast, then there would be more social, political, and economic stability for the country. A stable economy is attractive to European and U.S. investors. With more corporations setting up in the Ivory Coast and providing jobs, the unemployment rate would likely drop.

During the fighting in November 2000, several businesses pulled out of the Ivory Coast and many banks shut down. Fortunately, when the country held municipal elections in the summer of 2001, they were all peaceful. As a result, many of the businesses have resumed operation, and the World Bank and the European Union are providing loans to help the Ivory Coast.

A UN presence might also pressure Ivorian politicians to be more precise about how they spend the country's money and to be accountable for misusing funds.

Recently we experienced great suffering here in the United States with the terrorist attacks of September 11. I hear politicians saying that this is a new kind of war and that the United States must fight back. I hear the president say that military action is the answer. But what can this solve?

I think that war is war no matter how one defines it. Any war involves mass killing and in any battle many innocent people are murdered. Military action cannot solve injustice. Most everyone agrees that "two wrongs don't make a right," and retaliating with violence is wrong. I don't wish to kill the soldiers who killed my cousin, and I don't want the United States to go to war. When we use violence to combat violence we are acting just as badly as the killers. Instead of trying to show the world how powerful the United States is--or which tribe is stronger--we need to come together as human beings and create justice. I hope that one day we can live without anger against those who killed innocent people. This is the only way to have peace and live in harmony.

Soumahila Cisse of Berkeley, California, is a twenty-three-year-old student at Vista Community College. His essay received honorable mention in the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old age category of the 2001 Humanist Essay Contest for Young Women and Men of North America.
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Author:Cisse, Soumahila
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:6COTE
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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