There are two new civil wars in Africa. One is in Libya and it affects the export of oil, the other is in the Ivory Coast and it affects the export of cocoa and coffee beans.
The uprising in Libya was part of the Mexican wave of street protests that has spread across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Yemen, from Egypt to Syria. In Tunisia and Egypt courageous people who had their backs against a wall of poverty and frustration, have swept corrupt and repressive governments from power. Their demands have been simple. The release of political prisoners, freedom of expression, social and economic liberation from parasitic and paranoid dictators in order to determine their own futures.
Colonel Gaddafi met the uprising in Libya by turning the guns on his own people, effectively a declaration of civil war. A no-fly zone was declared and this rapidly led to an aerial bombardment led by the French, the British and the Americans. There is much diplomatic bluster in London, Paris and Washington about protecting civilians. Reports swirl about the CIA trying to find leaders to back amongst the rag-tag rebels rushing up and down desert roads in rusting pick-up trucks. There is talk about arming this rabble of dishevelled and untrained men.
I was struck by the fact, however, that the Libyan stories are in the domestic section of the paper, which reports the presence of ‘experts, consultants and advisers’ in Benghazi. Libya is just on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is part of the ring around fortress Europe that needs to be kept stable at all costs. Libya is a domestic issue as is the precipitous rise in the oil price. Sides have been taken in this war and, despite the bloody lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, a particular outcome is desired. It looks to me like it will end in another bloody stalemate.
Things have gone differently for the Ivory Coast. The conflict there escalated into a murderous civil war in the four months since Laurent Gbagbo was defeated in national elections. He simply refused to cede power to the internationally recognised victor, Alassane Outtara, despite international hand-wringing and wrist-slapping.
It has been reported that 1000 people were hacked or shot to death in the western town of Duekoue last week. Ten thousand refugees are reportedly sheltering in the Catholic Church in the town, protected by UN peacekeepers. There are tens of thousands of refugees on the move. Fighting has been fierce in the largest city, Abidjan, raising the spectres of the depraved wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The French army has, according to Al-Jazeera, secured the airport to enable the evacuation of French nationals and other foreigners.
But these events, reported in the world news sections of the Sunday papers, seem distant. There is no talk at all of the need to protect civilians from what is described by aid organisations and governments as ‘inter-communal’ violence. This phrase is the political equivalent to the description of a murderous attack of a man on his wife as ‘domestic violence’. And the received wisdom is that there is as little to be done to stop the supposedly irrational violence within the home, as there is to stop it between warring communities far away.
It seems so clear. The west can survive with less cocoa and coffee. So the ‘inter-communal’ violence, the surge of Outtara’s forces around Gbagbo’s men bunkered down around the presidential palace, can be rued and relegated back to the intractability of despots in Africa.
Libya’s oil reserves, like Iraq’s are substantial. Europe and the US cannot live without the oil, which would stop flowing if there was to be a protracted war in Libya. Ivoirians, unlike Libyans, are not civilians that need the ‘protection’ that the military powers of the West claim they can provide.
I discussed both wars with Sir John Holmes, a former British diplomat and UN Under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs on the BBC World Service last Saturday morning. He told me in a clipped voice that mine was a simplistic interpretation and that difficult choices always had to be made about the allocation of resources.
I’ve been looking but I struggle to find the complexity.