"Africa's "Good Coup"

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For most of its first 40 years, Ivory Coast confounded the accepted wisdom about African states. After independence from France in 1960, the country prospered. Cocoa, coffee and palm oil exports helped it become the third largest economy south of the Sahara, while the firm but relatively benign rule of founding President Felix HouphouŰt-Boigny ensured stability even as its neighbors suffered recurrent coups and war. Citizens of the country's commercial center, Abidjan, called their city the Paris of Africa and built sweeping highways and imposing office blocks. A flourishing middle class, often educated in Europe, shopped in ultra-modern supermarkets and dined in expensive restaurants. In short, Ivory Coast was a model developing African nation.

That changed two days before Christmas when soldiers spilled onto Abidjan's streets, fired their weapons into the air, looted and burned shops and seized power from President Henri Konan Bedie, who had taken over as leader after HouphouŰt-Boigny's death in 1993. Last week, though, few Ivorians lamented their country's late accession to the long list of African nations that have suffered military coups. Many had become unhappy with Bedie's increasingly authoritarian and divisive rule and hope his ouster will ease growing ethnic tensions and avoid a bigger blow-up down the road. Alassane Ouattara, a popular opposition figure who had been living in exile in Paris, called it "a revolution" that will allow the restoration of democracy. And while African and Western countries were quick to condemn the coup publicly, behind closed doors they were more sanguine. "We must not encourage people to overthrow elected governments," said one Western diplomat. "But if [the coup leaders] are true to their word, in the long run it may be a good thing."

Like Ivorians in general, many soldiers were frustrated by Bedie's insistence that Ouattara, a former Prime Minister and senior official with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, had not proved his Ivorian citizenship and was therefore ineligible to stand in the upcoming presidential election. Soldiers were also angry about low pay and miserable living conditions. Tensions spilled over following an uncompromising hour-long televised speech by Bedie on Dec. 22, in which he railed against interfering foreign powers and restated his nationalist doctrine of Ivorite, or Ivory-ness.

Sticking to its new hands-off policy with ex-colonies, France refused to intervene--though it did shelter Bedie in a military base close to the airport, from where he later flew to Benin insisting he was still Ivory Coast's legitimate leader. The man left in charge was General Robert Gue´, 58, the country's military chief from 1990 to 1995, when he was sacked by Bedie after the two quarreled. "We are very happy that they have removed Bedie," says Bary Amadu, who sells gold jewelry in Abidjan's main market. "There was no other way out."

Like Amadu, who hails from Guinea, many of Ivory Coast's 4 to 5 million immigrants--30% of the total population--have grown tired of police harassment and official discrimination. HouphouŰt-Boigny encouraged other West Africans to move to Ivory Coast to find work as manual laborers; the newcomers helped form the basis of Ivory Coast's economic boom. But Bedie was less welcoming. Over the past year disgruntled Ivorians have torched immigrants' houses, forcing some 15,000 to flee to their native countries. Many Ivorians saw the ban on Outtarra, though legal under the constitution, as a ham-fisted attempt by Bedie to sideline his rival, especially as Ouattara says he has papers proving he is Ivorian.

Ivory Coast has been hard hit by the volatile market for cocoa and coffee. Privatization of state-owned companies and a 50% devaluation of the regional cfa franc in 1994--engineered by Ouattara--helped boost growth for a while, but recent falls in commodity prices and the imf and World Bank's decision last year to freeze aid because of fraud have hurt. One of General Gue´'s first decisions was to suspend foreign debt repayments because the country's coffers are empty.

A return to economic prosperity--and democracy-- depends largely on General Gue´'s ability to control his interim government, which includes opposition and former government members. One opposition party is refusing to participate while at the end of last week rank and file soldiers, angry that civilians had been included at all, were threatening to rise against Gue´. Members of the People's Democratic Party, which ruled for 40 years, are still coming to terms with their sudden loss of power. "A lot of people were expecting a freedom movement," says general secretary Laurent Fologo, who lost refrigerators, furniture, jewelry and clothing in the looting. "But we didn't expect this to happen." No one did. However it plays out, what Ivorians are calling the "good coup" will be watched with keen interest and perhaps some trepidation by other African leaders.