Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

An American drawn to help his Ivorian homeland

An American tech whiz returns to the land he left at age 15, to help President-elect Alassane Ouattara take up the information battle against incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.

April 04, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara prepare for battle in Abidjan, where French troops have taken over the airport.
Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara prepare for battle in Abidjan, where… (Legnan Koula, EPA )

Reporting from Abidjan, Ivory Coast — Two months ago, the American had a peaceful suburban life in New Jersey with his three children, a nice car and his own company. Now he is at war.

But his finger caresses a computer mouse, not a trigger. And instead of loosely slung belts of ammunition, he wields an email inbox full of atrocities.

The Ivorian native returned to his homeland in the name of democracy. He wound up in the middle of a war between militias loyal to the two men who claim power in this West African nation: incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and former opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last fall's presidential election.

Plenty of people in Ivory Coast know how to fight. Ouattara's forces have launched an offensive to push Gbagbo from power and on Sunday, battles intensified in Abidjan, the nation's commercial center, with people in many areas unable to leave their houses. Fierce fighting continued around the presidential palace, the state television station RTI, and a military base. French troops took over Abidjan airport.

But just a handful of technical experts here know the tools of a modern propaganda war: how to set up a TV station from scratch, scramble the enemy's television signal, jam his radio signal, or create a satellite TV link. And most of them are working for Gbagbo.

So the American, who owns a high-tech communications company in the U.S. that does business in Africa, got the call. Would he come back to Ivory Coast to help Ouattara fight an information war he was losing?

The American insists on anonymity for fear of violence against his family, some of whom are in Abidjan, which has seen its narrow dirt alleys become a killing field.

"They're actually trying to find out who is helping" Ouattara, says the American, 45, who left Ivory Coast 30 years ago and is a friend of the president-elect.

Before the American came on board, Ouattara had no presence on TV, while Gbagbo's state-owned television station accused rebels of massacres and claimed the United Nations was guilty of a genocidal conspiracy with France to kill Ivorians and install a foreigner to rule the country. Ouattara's fighters briefly got hold of the station Thursday but Gbagbo's fighters took it back and have used it to call on young militias to fight to the death for Gbagbo.

Gbagbo has also blocked pro-Ouattara newspapers from distribution, and stopped cellphone text messages — the most common means in Africa to reach people and organize rallies.

The television station, Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne, "helped spur the abuses through frequent incitements to violence against U.N. peacekeepers, West African nationals and Ouattara supporters," a March 15 report by Human Rights Watch charged.

"Television," the American says, "is more dangerous than a weapon."

With Ouattara and his government trapped by Gbagbo forces in Abidjan's Golf Hotel since December, the American took over a restaurant in the hotel and turned it into a pro-Ouattara television station.

The American also set up an FM radio studio and created a satellite link, more difficult for Gbagbo to scramble than the terrestrial channel.

It's a daily battle of wits, as Gbagbo's experts try to scramble Ouattara's signals by broadcasting on the same frequency. "I try to anticipate their next move," he says.

The American flicks through his email inbox, his finger tapping the down and up arrows impatiently, until he finds a message sent to him with cellphone video of two men loaded down by tires and burned alive as police stand by and watch.

"When this guy was dying, he wanted to get out. They put him back in the fire," says the American, showing the scene. Then he pulls out video of another atrocity, pro-Gbagbo militias interrogating a terrified trader from northern Ivory Coast and then smashing his head with a brick. (Human Rights Watch has said that both sides have committed atrocities but the vast majority have been by pro-Gbagbo forces.)

He scrolls down through hundreds of messages, many with such grisly attachments.

"It's terrifying. It's heartless," he says. "I left here when I was 15 and I never saw anything like this before."

The American has broadcast calls on the TV station, called TCI, as well as Facebook and Twitter, for witnesses to send in video of incidents.

But questions remain about Ouattara's forces after the massacre last week of up to 1,000 civilians in Duekoue shortly after the fighters moved in. Ouattara has denied that his forces killed civilians and called for an investigation.

The hotel room TV station is the only way Ouattara has to address the people of Ivory Coast. On Thursday, he addressed the nation, promising to restore democracy.

The American believes the use of force is justified and does not think the fighting will deteriorate into a long civil war. He said it was important to persuade young people not to take up weapons and fight.

"We have to persuade them that Gbagbo is done, but your future is here. People leave, institutions stay. Just like one day Mr. Ouattara will leave and the institutions will stay."

The American thinks it's important to show the atrocities, not just to neutralize Gbagbo's propaganda and turn public opinion toward Ouattara, but to do justice to the dead. But viewers often complain that the violent images are too gruesome.

"People who say that forget that these people died," he says. He believes the victims of atrocities would want the world to know what happened, and says he would show footage of killings committed by Ouattara's people too.

The American misses his home in New Jersey and running his company. He has no plans to stay, once Gbagbo goes.

"It's not fun, but I am just trying to help here," he says. "What's the legacy? I am going to leave a legacy that I helped my country."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Dixon was recently on assignment in Abidjan.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|