Getting Through a Crisis
All is not well in Cote d’Ivoire. Once one of the most developed countries in Africa, things seem to have disintegrated in recent years. “La crise”, Ivorians call it.
The first sign of trouble comes when we try to cross the border into Cote d’Ivoire. We’ve already had to detour through Guinea due to the closure of Cote d’Ivoire’s border with Liberia. As we drive through Guinea towards the border at Sipilou, the road becomes increasingly bad. Our taxi finally breaks down after we exit Guinea, while we are crossing the 3km no-man’s land between borders. The front tire jams in a drive through the mud, leaving the axle at a funny angle. We pick up our backpacks and hike the final 2km to the Ivorian border post.
Then there are the demands for bribes. These start immediately at the border, where the immigration officials say that we must each pay CFA10,000 (US$20) because our visas (obtained in Mauritania) are old-fashioned stamps rather than the new glossy stickers; if we don’t pay, we are “pingre” (stingy). We politely explain why we don’t want to pay, and conclude by agreeing with them cheekily that yes, “nous sommes pingres”. They find this hilarious, and laugh uproariously. Humour, and the arrival of the next border-crossers (Guineans who will succumb easily to a demand for a bribe), gets us through.
Bribes, extortion, and bad roads on a clunky, overcrowded bus. The journey to Man, our first overnight stop, is not easy. Multiple roadblocks cut the road into countless pieces, at the entrance and exit of every little town. Soldiers ask for or demand money while lounging on wooden benches with their bellies protruding. One roadblock turns into an hour-long detention by the roadside, as an aggressive soldier holds our passports hostage in a pile. Roadblocks established for security after the most recent crisis – the civil conflict that drove out former president Laurent Gbagbo – turn into the biggest hazard of the journey, with money-hungry soldiers openly focused solely on eating coins and notes extorted from those who pass their way, delaying travellers into the night. We manage with difficulty to make it through without paying, but our fellow passengers – mostly Guineans – are not so lucky. Again and again, they are forced to reach deep into their modest pockets for CFA500, CFA1000, or more. Costs are multiplied for those travelling with family. One last painful delay at the entrance to Man, where soldiers announce disingenuously that we must all disembark in the rain with our bags so they can be searched, even though their post has no electricity. By the time we reach Man, it feels as if the entire bus’s spirit is broken.
We arrive in Man late at night. Our fellow passengers crowd into the bus company’s office, buying their tickets for the next morning to Abidjan and preparing to spend the night on the wooden benches. Feeling ruefully fortunate, we walk to a nearby budget hotel to eat a hot meal and sleep on a bed. For our fellow passengers, it is the hotel room that all of those bribes could have paid for. There are empty spaces where air conditioners used to cool the hotel restaurant. “They came and broke everything during the crisis because the owner of the hotel was a Gbagbo supporter,” the night staff explains. “Things have been really difficult.”
The next morning at 6am, we are back at the bus station to catch transport towards Abidjan. We fear that the journey, this time on good roads, will again be prolonged for hours by the many roadblocks. But things go more quickly today. The bus companies have organized themselves, and collect CFA2000 from each Guinean passenger at the beginning of the trip for the roadblocks along the way. Each roadblock thus becomes a short-distance sprint for the driver’s apprentice, who hops out and throws money at the soldiers and runs to catch the bus on the other side. An unfortunate necessity, in today’s Cote d’Ivoire.
The road to Abidjan takes us through Yamoussoukro, the country’s political capital. A quiet, nondescript city with wide streets, it contains one of Africa’s most staggering structures: the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix. The Basilique rises up out of nowhere as we approach Yamoussoukro, in glaring contrast to the surrounding agricultural landscape. Built to resemble St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, its cupola rises 158 metres and is topped by a gigantic cross of pure gold. The vast interior contains 7000 individually air-conditioned seats, glowing under the colours of 36 giant stained-glass windows. Built entirely with the “private” funds of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the country’s first president under independence (who was removed from office only by his death in 1993), the cost of the Basilique is a point of controversy (“une question violente”, says our guide when we ask him how much it cost – our guidebook reports US$300 million).
After a brief stop in Yamoussoukro to gawk at the city’s ostentatious sites, we are ready to carry on to Abidjan. This marks our first encounter with family in West Africa: Uncle Thomas and Aunt Xinia, Guillaume’s great uncle and aunt. Our arrival at their pleasant, airy house in the Deux Plateau district of Abidjan feels like we have been delivered into safety. Aperitif is waiting, followed by dinner, and in the coming days we are thoroughly spoiled by Aunt Xinia’s delicious West African cooking. In Abidjan, every second shop is selling liquor and wine, so there is also plenty of beverage to accompany our meals as well. But most of all, it is the opportunity to ask plenty of questions about family connections and history through Benin, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and France. Good food, long conversations, and the chance to start putting together the pieces.
It is also time to collect visas for our onward journey. The Togo visa is easily obtained within one morning. The Ghana visa proves a bit more difficult, as we are told that we require Cote d’Ivoire residence certificates. Luckily, with the help of Aunt Xinia, these certificates are issued to us at the Police Station without any problem (when the policeman asks why we need them, we simply say “To get the visa for Ghana”). As the Ghanaian embassy is closed in the afternoons and on Fridays (we have arrived in Abidjan on Wednesday evening), we must wait until Monday to apply. We plan to apply for the visas on Monday, pick them up on Tuesday, and cross into Ghana on Wednesday. It is just three hours to the border at Noe, then another few more hours to Accra. We are excited to return to Ghana (which we have both visited many years before) to see how the country has developed (apparently, a lot) and to visit some of its sights and beaches.
On Friday morning, there is bad news. There has been an attack at the Noe border, apparently by Gbagbo supporters who came into the country from Ghana. In a quick blow to our plans, President Ouattara closes all borders with Ghana – terrestrial, aerial, and naval.
It is a sober reminder that all is not well in Cote d’Ivoire. We have been tranquil and carefree at the home of Uncle Thomas and Aunt Xinia, but there are leaks in the roof where bullets penetrated during the fighting and looting of last year’s civil conflict. They tell us about how they hid in the house while explosions rocked the street. We hear that foreigners like to live in the area called Zone 4, because there are no bridges to cross to reach the airport.
We have to get to Togo within the next week. With the Ghana border closed, the only possible route by land is a long detour through Burkina Faso involving a two-day train ride, followed by 22 hours by bus. The detour is neither appealing or cheap, after calculating visas, accommodation, and transport. And this is not the first closed Ivorian land border that we have had to contend with. We wait for things to cool down over the weekend, while we make enquiries and decide what to do.
While waiting, we visit Abidjan and its environs a bit. We head to the city centre, an area called Le Plateau. There is a sheen of glamour to downtown Abidjan. Men in tight pressed suits and women in high heels with touches of West African fashion walk through the sidewalks and arcades. Edgy buildings from the 1970s, such as La Pyramide and the Cathédrale St-Paul, create an unexpected skyline. Sadly, many of these buildings have fallen into disrepair – although others are being built and undergoing restoration. It is clear that despite everything, there is plenty of wealth in Cote d’Ivoire.
We also make a day trip to nearby Grand Bassam, a colonial town on the coast. The old buildings and palm tree-lined beach are charming, although the empty resorts and litter-strewn beach remind us of the effect of la crise on tourism in the country.
We decide that our way out of Cote d’Ivoire is by plane. On Wednesday 26 September 2012, we board a flight from Abidjan to Lomé, Togo. Looking over the city, we see the lights of houses and businesses and cars moving through the streets. We know that down there, there is the home of Uncle Thomas and Aunt Xinia, as well as the homes of millions of others. We travel onwards, leaving Cote d’Ivoire and its crisis, while they all stay behind.