|Could Cote d'Ivoire become an 'African miracle' once again? [EPA]
There are two tragedies in Cote d'Ivoire.
One is the nation that it has become: A land of one million refugees where armed militias conduct door-to-door killings and as many as 800 civilians have been murdered in a single village.
The latest outbreak of violence is the second round of civil war the nation has suffered in less than 10 years.
It all began in 2002, when then-president Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian southerner, barred his main opponent, former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, a northern Muslim, from seeking office, prompting a revolt by northern soldiers who have controlled the country's north ever since.
In November, when Gbagbo refused to accept the United Nations-certified results of the country's first full election since 2000, those same soldiers swept southwards for a second time, ultimately cornering Gbagbo in a bunker as both sides, according to Human Rights Watch, raped, murdered and burned villages along their way.
The other tragedy is what this verdant nation could have been.
An African miracle?
The 'African Miracle,' as Cote d'Ivoire was once known, sits in a different economic universe from the sites of previous wars the continent has known, like the civil war in under-developed Liberia or the mesh of wars in Congo's rural east.
Cote d'Ivoire's violence is unfolding in a capital of commerce and nightlife that was once called - without a flinch of irony - the 'Paris of Africa'; in a country that economists say may still have the opportunity to become the South Africa of West Africa.
Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire's largest city, is a distinct picture from the Africa most non-Africans imagine to be in the grips of war and poverty. Neon ads for Peugeot cars still light up its lofty skyline. Jewellery boutiques, bistros and Vietnamese restaurants line boulevards in abundance. The city's ice-cold supermarkets sell brie and oysters.
On Abidjan's resort-cramped shore, hundreds of jet skis sit idle in a decade-long wait for the return of tourists who used to flock through this tropical megacity for absurdly lavish events - like international water sports Olympics. Its top hotel boasts a lazy river, and once housed Africa's only ice skating rink.
At various times the megacity has hosted an International Jazz Festival, an International Festival of Urban Dances, an International Festival of Black Music, an International Festival of Visual Arts, brought Michael Jackson and the Pope to town, and crowned the former as a king, before hosting the Festival Hip Hop d'Abidjan.
Beyond jet skis and tall buildings, the country enjoyed all the right infrastructure. Its power plants churned so much electricity - 1,200 megawatts, according to the IMF - that Cote d'Ivoire was able to power its neighbours. Its main port remains sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest, after the South African city of Durban. Its oil refinery is the continent's second-best, again after Durban's.
"We're dealing with an economy that has had great potential, and has never really risen to the occasion," says Anne Fruhauf, an analyst at the research centre Eurasia Group.
She says Cote d'Ivoire's dirt may be even richer than its cities. The agricultural powerhouse of West Africa, Cote d'Ivoire is famously the world's top producer of cocoa - 40 per cent of the world's cocoa is born in Cote d'Ivoire. Less famously, it is the world's top exporter of cashews. Rubber grows effortlessly in the country's forests, as does coffee. Plus it has oil - and, more unusual in this region of high corruption, it boasts an oil transparency code that prints a quarterly report on where that oil money goes.
Its greatest endowment, however, may have been its peace. From 1960 until a 1999 coup, the country prospered under the relaxed, French-friendly leadership set up by its founder, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. In that time, nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone fought three civil wars between them. Ghana, to Cote d'Ivoire's east, endured five coups, while Nigeria fought one of Africa's most destructive civil wars, a conflict accompanied by mass starvation.
Today, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria are among the world's fastest growing economies. Cote d'Ivoire, meanwhile, has not grown at all.
"It was a bit heartbreaking to be in Abidjan and see what was happening, the opportunities that were not being seized," said an economist who worked closely with the government over the past decade, and asked not to be named.
"This used to be a place where people would come for very good medical treatment. Doctors from all over Africa came here to work."
The Saint Anne-Marie Polyclinic lured doctors from Tunisia, Cameroon, East Africa and the Middle East. It was common, the economist said, for a Frenchman injured in the Sahara - an equal distance from Paris and Abidjan - to be airlifted to Saint Anne-Marie rather than a French hospital.
"But now, the health industry is in very bad shape," he added. "It's not going to attract people any more."
'A hub of investment'
There remains hope among Ivoirians, economists and investors that the country can regain its position as the economic engine of the Francophone tropics.
"It doesn't look like there has been much damage from the conflict so far, so the physical reconstruction is not necessarily the challenge," says Paul Melly, an associate researcher at the international analysis group Chatham House.
Banks, however, have been looted, as has the Abidjan Bourse, the largest stock market in Francophone Africa. Reopening both will require a daunting phase of refinancing, rehiring and negotiating new bureaucracy.
The cocoa trees that yield the country's cash crop, meanwhile, are old. Farmers have not planted significant amounts of new trees in a decade, and each tree takes five years to bear a pod.
Many of the nation's most skilled workers, meanwhile, have fled, and a portion of those are sure to remain where they are.
Luckily, the rise of China - which took place largely during Cote d'Ivoire's 10-year series of conflicts and wars - is going to push up demand and prices for the country's key commodities, like its cocoa, its oil and its rubber for tyres for the 10 million cars bought in China each year.
China has increased its trade with the African continent ten-fold in the decade that Cote d'Ivoire has spent at war, and its state mining companies have invested billions developing nations like neighbouring Ghana in return for the kind of raw materials Cote d'Ivoire holds in abundance.
Western investors, too, are likely to search out the country and use it as an entry point into Africa, which is now one of the world's fastest growing economies, says Fruhauf, adding: "It could potentially become a hub of investment."
All it lacks is peace, she says, describing the nation as being "awash" with small arms. Militias across the country's south are accustomed to receiving payments from the outgoing government, and have little incentive to accept a peace agreement. And fighting in the country's ever-violent west - which is linked to the two civil wars in neighbouring Liberia - may outlast the fighting in Abidjan by years.
Its future, Fruhauf says, will depend less on whether the price of cocoa soars, or whether the nation's banks return to lending, than on whether or not its thousands of armed young men find a way to accept a political compromise.
"You can never separate politics and economics in any country," Melly says. "I remember in the 1990s people suggested that there were three potential newly industrialised countries in Africa where people should invest.
"They were Kenya, Zimbabwe and Cote d'Ivoire."
Source: Al Jazeera