THE BLOG

Ivory Coast Civil War Is Aflame, But Is Anyone Looking?

While the global eye remains fixed on Libya, a civil war has caught flame in Ivory Coast, and world leaders beyond the ailing country have all but acquiesced to letting it burn.

The former French colony, planet earth's top producer of cocoa, was designed to be the economic engine of Francophone tropics -- an cocoa, gas, diamond, and rubber-producing boom nation whose overwhelmingly Muslim north would share in prosperity known by its Christian south.

Instead, three months of food and currency shortages after its incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede an election, the country has devolved into a land where mass graves are buried beyond the reach of human rights investigators, or victims of state violence are stowed indefinitely in morgues.

The United Nations estimates that at least 365 people have died here -- most of them apparently Muslims -- shot by a motley of soldiers and state-backed militiamen who view Islam and Ivory Coast as irreconcilable. But the UN's count is likely a low estimate because the organization finds itself treated as an occupying army, its movement blocked by Gbagbo's troops -- including soldiers, but also angry young men with guns -- who have shot peacekeepers and kidnapped people they mistook for peacekeepers.

Rebels from the country's north have swept into government-held towns, breaking the four-year-old ceasefire that kept the two sides at arms lengths. Gbagbo's army is reportedly recruiting Liberian mercenaries, brutes responsible for the worst atrocities committed during Ivory Coast's 2002 round of hostilities.

Ivoirians, fleeing the country in five thousands by the day, need assistance -- but it isn't there. The African Union has offered to negotiate an accord, and the Economic Community of West African States has offered to remove the entrenched incumbent president by force if no agreement sticks. But the continent's leadership has been ineffective at any task other than publicly torpedoing one another, and its de-facto leader, South Africa, is clearly beyond its depth in this largely-French speaking region where it carries little clout.

More astounding a failure than Africa's disunity has been America's disinterest. Since December, Barack Obama hasn't voiced so much as a comment on the crisis, let alone a commitment to it. His silence empowers brutes on either side of the civil conflict, who've enjoyed free reign to fire on demonstrators or shovel mass graves while the planet's news cameras orbit the Arab world -- as if nothing important happens south of the Sahara.

But mostly, Obama's hush comes as painful disappointment from this president who stands a symbol of democracy to a generation of Africans sorting out the injustices of their own. The president enjoys tremendous goodwill and popular support on the continent. It's time for him to use it, publicly.

Two years ago, the then-president-elect accepted his victory with a speech to "those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world: our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand."

It's discouraging, how quickly those corners went back to being forgotten.

Ivory Coast chaos aside, West Africa is normally a much more appealing place -- vibrant, changing, maybe even booming -- and Drew Hinshaw covers its quirks, foibles, and possibilities for West Africa Rising, at the Christian Science Monitor's Africa Monitor. A former Fulbright scholar to Ghana and Bloomberg News' correspondent to Senegal, he lives in Dakar -- but comes from Atlanta. He can be reached at DrewHinshaw.tk.