(NNPA)—According to news accounts, Côte d’Ivoire is a tense, unsafe paralyzed West African country because of a contested presidential election in which incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refuses to cede his office to Alassane Ouattara, whom the international community—especially France and the U.S.—has proclaimed the winner of the recent presidential election.
There are almost daily reports that the 15-member Economic Community of West African States is drawing up military plans to invade the country and drive Gbagbo from his regal presidential palace.
On Dec. 19, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory stating: “This Travel Warning is being issued to inform U.S. citizens that based on the deteriorating political and security situation in Côte d’Ivoire and growing anti-western sentiment, the Department of State has now ordered the departure of all non-emergency personnel and family members. The Department warns U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Côte d’Ivoire until further notice.”
Charles Steele Jr., a childhood friend and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and I were invited to visit Côte d’Ivoire by an African support group based in Paris.
Our association with them began after Jean-Paul Guerlain, former president of the perfume company that bears his family’s name, made an offensive comment last Oct. 15 on French television. Recalling a conversation he had with his wife, Guerlain said: “One day I told her—and I still called her Madame—‘What would seduce you if one was to make a perfume for you?’ and she told me, ‘I love jasmine, rose, and sandalwood.’ And for once I started working like a n—–. I don’t know if n—— ever worked that hard.”
A coalition of activists called “no to Guerlain! No to negrophobia” began weekly protests in front of one of Guerlain’s boutiques to protest the comment and to demand a fuller apology from the perfume firm and its parent company, Hennessy-Louis Vuitton.
Patrick Lozes, president of the Paris-based Council of Black Associations in France, asked Al Sharpton to meet with company officials in Paris. Sharpton couldn’t work the meeting into his schedule, but asked Steele and me to go in his place. After meeting separately with the protesters and company officials, we were able to broker a settlement that ended the public protests and brought both sides together to work on an expanded diversity initiative for LVMH.
When we were invited to visit Côte d’Ivoire by some members of the Paris collective to get a first-hand view of conditions there, we accepted. Charles Steele, who is more of an optimist than I am, saw this as a possible opportunity to repeat our success in Paris. But, after reading about the African leaders who had tried to arrange a truce, I did not share my homeboy’s unbridled optimism. At best, I thought, we would be able to observe events in Côte d’Ivoire for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.
Air France Flight No. 27 from Washington’s Dulles Airport to Paris’ Charles DeGaulle Airport on Jan. 7—exactly a month after we had first met with LVMH officials in Paris—had just lifted off when a flight attendant offered me a dozen or so newspapers, most of them written in French. I selected the Washington Post, the European edition of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today and reclined in seat 3L for what I thought would be an uneventful flight to Paris, where I would stay overnight before heading to Abidjan.
A four-paragraph Associated Press story in USA Today shattered that expectation. Under the headline, “U.S. hits Gbagbo with broad sanctions,” it began: “The Obama administration imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo and members of his inner circle as punishment for his refusal to step down after his defeat in November’s presidential election.”
It continued, “The sanctions bar U.S. citizens from doing business with Gbagbo; his wife, Simone Gbagbo; and allies Desire Tagro, Pascal Affi N’Guessan and Alcide Ilahiri Djedje. Any assets they have in the United States are frozen.”
For the first time, I seriously thought about the prospect of our being in physical danger. If things were as bad as they were saying, I thought, maybe it wasn’t too late to back out. But, the journalist in me and the fact that I had given my word to the activists in Paris propelled me to continue the trip. Charles, now an Atlanta businessman, met me in Paris and the following day we flew to Abidjan with Boston Goke, a member of the Paris collective, who is fluent in both French and English.
Except for the local and U.N. soldiers, there was nothing unusual about the airport in Abidjan. There were the usual whining overhead fans, taxi drivers looking for newly-arrived passengers, and lines of people boarding and exiting planes.
The ride downtown was a stark reminder that we were in a developing country. There were the usual tin shacks that make our wooden shotgun houses in the U.S. seem opulent. Some kids were running around in their birthday suits and reminders of poverty were everywhere. Unlike many Third World countries where visitors are besieged by beggars, people here were always trying to sell us something—water, batteries, DVDs, clothing and everything else imaginable.
No image stood out more than the piles and piles of garbage throughout the city, an example of the toll that a national crisis has exacted on residents. And, people of all ages shifted through filthy trash. There were also wealthy sections of the city, recognized by marked a protective U.N. vehicles stationed nearby.
Prior to arriving in Côte d’Ivoire, I had visited four countries in Africa—Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria—as well as the back roads of Cuba. But, none of those trips came close to matching the sight of the glistening skyline that characterizes downtown Côte d’Ivoire. There are markets throughout the city, all crowded with local residents.
Unlike the western world, people here are not consumed with the nation’s intractable political crisis.
“People here just want peace and jobs,” a woman who divides her time between Paris and Côte d’Ivoire told me. “We’ve had the election. We want one of them to step aside so that we can go on with our lives.”
Contrary to news reports, many are already doing just that.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)