Mass killing in Abidjan?

Texas in Africa has posted notes from a friend in Abidjan. One begins ominously, “I don’t know about if this will be technically a genocide…”

I’m not in the business of predicting events at such uncertain and terrifying moments, but in such moments I am in the business of cautioning against the escalation of fear and rumor, especially from single reports.

A colleague with many friends in Cote d’Ivoire to be worried about writes me:

I’ve talked to several folks in Abidjan today, and they paint a relatively different picture of Abidjan from the one that you just retweeted from @texasinafrica (“pure anarchy”) – even the ones living close to Gbagbo’s residence.  They say that most people are staying home but that they are able to move through the streets a bit to get to shops, etc.  There are gunshots being heard with some regularity, although not in all neighborhoods.  Perhaps I’m just clinging to hope against hope, and obviously this is a very awful situation, but their general feeling is that this siege is going much better than would have been expected.

I’m not sure where the truth lies (a good bet is usually “in between”) but I’d be careful with rumor at moments like these.

14 thoughts on “Mass killing in Abidjan?

  1. Great points, Chris. Posting an update with a link to this over at TIA right now. I hope that no one would take the account I posted as representative of all of Abidjan, but I have no reason to doubt that what the individual I quoted reported is a correct reflection of what they can perceive in their neighborhood. Getting the definite sense that there’s a lot of variation in terms of where violence is happening and who’s doing it.

  2. I’m hearing that it’s the wild west in at least two neighborhoods. Killings in a factory outside Abidjan, wide spread looting, some of which can be found on youtube, and many deaths. On the ground reports are hard to come by, and are not making it into main stream news reports. So what’s being said is that Gbagbo loyalists are committing atrocities. It’s hard to imagine that this is the case when the rebel forces are advancing from all directions. If Ouattara expects to actually be in position to govern, he needs to stop this at once! If he can. I suspect though, he’ll acknowledge then distance himself from the rebel forces. Also hearing that the UN and French forces have evacuated expats, but are unable or unwilling to help Ivorian civilians who are clearly and consistently becoming victims of revenge acts of violence. Is Ouattara’s presidency worth this? I think not….

  3. I agree with urbanregor, if it’s as bad as it sounds, that Ouattara’s presidency is not worth this. How many lives is democracy worth, however, is an incredibly difficult question to answer. My answer would be none, but then I haven’t lived under a repressive dictatorship in one of the world’s poorest countries.

  4. If there’s one theory of mass violence I believe, it’s what economist’s call the “security dilemma”, also known as “mutual fear”. Essentially, one side worries that the other side is going to commit violence, and so begins to consider a preemptive attack. The other side, knowing that the other side believes this, also begins to fear attack and so begin to mobilize as well. The other side, knowing that the other side thinks that their side is going to… You get the idea.

    Escalating fears and violence thrive in low information environments. Explosive rumor is the greatest ally. The killing becomes self-fulfilling.

    I’m only suggesting that bloggers and commenters don’t become part of the problem.

  5. Not to diminish the tragedy, but are there democracies where lives were not lost? (Don’t say Egypt–their struggle has been a longstanding violent one, and there is a considerable distance to go.)

    So far Cote d’Ivoire is orders of magnitude less violent that the struggles that brought America, France, or the UK to freedom.

    I would like to see non-violent transitions. But I also feel I should respect the decisions of elected leaders like Ouattara to use force where they see it necessary, especially when they have been cooperative with peacekeepers, the African Union, and the UN, and exhausted all other available means.

    “How many lives is democracy worth?” is a decision only Ivoirians can make.

  6. Absolutely agree, but there’s a difference between rumor and an on-the-ground report from a reliable and knowledgable source, no? I didn’t post those emails lightly; the decision to do so involved a lot of discussion with the source and a lot of thought on my part. Of course it’s only one story from one neighborhood, but shouldn’t that information be out there, especially when it’s consistent with reports from reputable organizations like Human Rights Watch and the ICRC? This person listened to the murder of his/her neighbors. I understand the fears that this kind of thing will provoke or give an excuse for violence, but if these events are happening, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to report them?

  7. Laura, I do agree with you that you had a responsibility to post what you heard. And I also agree that what you posted is not rumor. And please let me reiterate that by writing to Chris, I was not trying to say that what your friend had said was untrue.

    My only point was to make sure that other voices were heard as well.

  8. I’m not suggesting one shouldn’t report what’s happening on the ground, especially first hand accounts.

    I would draw a distinction between the first hand accounts and the tweets that stress “pure anarchy” and “absolute chaos and slaughter here right now”, and posts that begin “I don’t know about if this will be technically a genocide…”

    My question would be whether these are reasonable general accounts, or speculative and inflammatory (especially given the large number of context-free retweets they can be expected to generate).

  9. I’m with Chris on both of these points. First that, as outsiders, we shouldn’t be judging what costs are acceptable for the Ivoirian people to bear for democracy. Second, that just talking about the deaths associated with conflict builds a pro-status quo bias into any discussion, especially when there was significant violence before hand.

    Let me add an anecdote into this. Yesterday I spoke to a friend whose inlaws live in Deux Plateaux, a pro-Gbagbo neighborhood. I asked if they were afraid of reprisal attacks and he said they hadn’t heard of reprisal violence, but that since the election they had been scared about spreading violence by Gbagbo loyalists. Now this is a second hand report from one fairly atypical family, so it’s worth little other than to point out that the attack on Abidjan was not the start of the violence in Abidjan, and that things had been bad for a while, most notably but not constrained to Abobo.

    One last point here. My father and grandfather both lived through very significant ethnic violence. News of violence elsewhere was always used as a mobilizational tool, and rumors had a very destructive effect during the conflict. So I’m hesitant to prejudge the conflict now, from the outside, especially given the variation in early reports that we’re all hearing.

  10. I have no idea where it is grabbing this profile photo of me from btw, but I’m sorry given that it’s out of sync with the seriousness of the topic we’re discussing. I’ll try to see if I can disable it.

  11. Let’s be careful about talking about “the ivorian people” in this context. I think we’re all aware that such a term is a simplification often used in media and that in general political revolt is perpetuated by smaller groups in the various society where it happens. This is certainly true for most post-colonial independence movements and quite a few revolutions since. I admit that this is more your area than mine, but I’m still willing to bet that research (maybe there already is some) would find that the political motivations of the average fighter in CIV, regardless of nationality, is highly diluted by economics, opportunity, personal history and kinship considerations. I would also bet a considerable amount that a nationwide opinion poll would reveal that the will of the people (i.e. average citizen of CIV) would be that this thing should be over and done, regardless of who comes out on top.

    I agree with Laura in that the information should be out there, but also that it should be taken at face value (meaning one report, most likely biased, and highly localized). To make the jump from one account of violence to the worth of a democracy in terms of human suffering seems to me a connection best left to theology. For the other heathens like myself I would advise to let the thing play out before we get in to analysis. Our impact at this point is nil in any case (meaning I really don’t think bloggers can affect the violence very much, this is not Egypt).

    “Let us hope the will of good men is enough to counter the terrible strength of this thing that was put in motion.”

    P.S. Thanks for the great blogs and feeds guys. I get a fairly large portion of my news through the two of you… I know, scary isn’t it! D.S.

  12. Just an update. I spoke to several friends – spanning the political spectrum and living in a variety of neighborhoods – today. The atmosphere they all described had changed significantly since my conversations yesterday. None were leaving the house. None knew what was going outside the confines of their homes. All were afraid. Most were running out of water. God help us.

  13. Mark, I completely understood that that was your point, and I think it’s a really important one to make. I’m getting the definite sense that things were much more tense today in more neighborhoods, with serious food shortages and increasingly frequent power cuts. A very bad situation is rapidly getting worse.

    Chris, I think this is a very important point, so I’ll just reiterate that I only posted this after verifying its consistency with other reports and thinking quite a bit about the potential consequences of doing so, in conversation with the author. The retweet issue is important, but what else would someone who’s seen bodies in the street going to say?

  14. I think you’re both right, and TIA seems to have approached this with caution and sensitivity to the issues at hand. I question the implication that “the truth” exists to be found, in between these accounts or anywhere else. The real truth of war, and most other things, is that there are probably many truths. Our understandings of international issues will become a lot more realistic once we stop trying to reconcile narratives to arrive at “the truth,” and admit instead that multiple and contradictory truths abound. I also hesitate to believe that “the Ivorian people” are getting to make any thoughtful decisions about democracy right now. That’s far too clean a description for what seems to be happening. Thank you both for sharing what information you have.