Saturday, October 16, 2010

Border Blunders in Côte d'Ivoire

I’ve long since given up trying to plan my trip continents at a time. The whims of the world create too much uncertainty and opportunity. Cote d’Ivoire was originally nowhere on my radar, but now I find myself in the country for the exact same reason that some expats are booking flights out – the upcoming presidential elections of a country mired in 15 years of instability.

Cote d’Ivoire has not held presidential elections since 2000. Those elections happened after a 1999 coup by military leader Robert Guei, who won the election. Opposition candidate Laurent Gbagbo claimed they were fixed, and took power after a revolt. The next elections never happened in 2005, because it was deemed unsafe without full disarmament of the rebels. Oh right, I forgot to mention that there was a coup attempt on Gbagbo’s government, which led to a civil war in 2002 that pitted the government’s army in the south against the rebel soldiers in the north. Other issues such as a misguided airstrike (according to Ivoirian officials) that killed French soldiers, the breaking of a peace accord by the rebels, and the alteration of the constitution to prevent opposing candidates from running have been side dishes in this all-you-can-eat buffet of typical African politics.

Since it was deemed unsafe to hold the 2005 election, they extended Gbagbo’s mandate a year through 2006, when the election would then take place. Disagreement between candidates on the date and general ineptitude of registering voters led to the elections being postponed again until 2007, 2008, 2009, and now, finally, 2010.

Before this trip to Cote d’Ivoire I found myself in the TechnoServe office, trying to figure out logistics. “Don’t you want to pick another country?”, asked a Frenchman and former Cote d’Ivoire resident who was at TechnoServe, and from who I was trying to get contacts. Cote d’Ivoire is the first country on the US’s warning list I’ve ever visited and the first in which I’ve ever registered with the US embassy, but I believe that people generally overreact to security issues. I was right about Cote d’Ivoire, though this is the most extensive use of a spike strips I’ve ever seen, and never have I went through more police checkpoints and been questioned more.

I will say that the border was thick with tension, though – the most I’ve ever experienced. After I finally woke up from my slumber six hours later on the bus from Ghana, I soon after found myself trying to maneuver the Ivoirian border. It seemed like it was the officials’ first day on the job – no one seemed to know what they were doing. And I know it wasn’t just me because a smartly dressed British guy, who spoke fluent French and who I first mistook for an Ivoirian, was also lost with me. We scoffed at how amateurish the whole operation was.

My scoffing stopped shortly after. Nearly home free, I was actually on Ivoirian soil when police were hauling me back by my shirt, yelling at me like I’d just killed someone. Apparently I’d just walked right past them without knowing. It was a pretty easy mistake – they were saying “come here”, which I ignored, but they were all dressed in street clothes and only wearing a plastic laminated badges that looked like something I could’ve made in 3rd grade art class. And it’s not like I don’t get hassled by hawkers who are always telling me to “come here”. Even the guy who dragged me back was wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a somewhat grungy-looking white Umbro shirt with red piping.

Scoffing at the amateurism would have recommenced had Umbro shirt and other police not dragged me into an interrogation room and started yelling at me, in broken English corrected for your readability: “We are the police! What do you think you are doing?... You think because you are from America you are better than us? You can just walk right through here?” A full-body search ensued, including everything in my bag. I realized I had on me over 700 USD I hadn’t claimed because I didn’t want the hassle or the potential bribe they might take. As Umbro shirt was searching , the British guy came back to the door and he said, “Don’t let them take any money!” That set them off. Accusation of bribery always does. During the commotion I slipped my money in my pocket that they’d already searched. We hurried up the rest of the search to make way for the British guy, who was now their prime suspect. As I was leaving, Umbro shirt spitefully remarked, “We do our job.” I was quickly escorted out and told to walk to the bus, which was about 500m ahead waiting for us trouble-making foreigners.

I won’t even go into the many accounts of blatant bribery I witnessed between the border and Cote d’Ivoire’s capital, and the skirmishes it caused – it’s like people changed instantly when we crossed the border. Rather, I’ll better explain why I’m here: I’m planning to interview people about their perceptions of the upcoming election, the development of democracy in Cote d’Ivoire, and how the political instability has affected the development of the country and their lives. How democracy relates to poverty is an issue in which I’ve yet to deeply delve. And, it will be fascinating to be a part of what may later be considered the rebirth of once prominent nation.

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