DAKAR, Senegal – On a continent that absorbs 75 percent of the world's U.N. peacekeeping forces and budget, Ivory Coast's violent downward spiral threatens hard-won gains against West Africa's devastating civil wars of the 1990s.
If Ivory Coast (search) — West Africa's economic powerhouse and the world's top cocoa producer — returns to war, everyone from its neighbors to the world's chocolate lovers will feel the pain.
Many hold one man responsible: President Laurent Gbagbo (search). His fate after the week's violence stands to determine his country's fate as well.
Tuesday saw South African President Thabo Mbeki (search) arrive in Ivory Coast on a peace mission, amid deadly rampages that erupted when France destroyed the country's tiny air force in response to an airstrike that killed nine French peacekeepers and an American aid worker.
The world's chocolate lovers will probably feel the effects of the chaos by Christmas. The violence has shut down Ivory Coast's cocoa exports since Saturday, closing ports that ship 40 percent of the world's raw material for chocolate.
Ivory Coast's neighbors felt the effect immediately — more than 1,000 refugees fled into neighboring Liberia and Guinea massed troops at its border for fear of unrest.
As Ivory Coast plunges into unrest, its neighbors are reveling in the quiet victories of peace.
All but unnoticed by the world, the first 500 of 300,000 Liberians still living in camps for war-displaced people waved goodbye and boarded buses home this week after 14 years of vicious civil conflicts in their country.
"When I get back home, I will start to make gardens to survive, and then make blocks to rebuild what once was my small but decent house," said one grateful refugee, 62-year-old Momo Perry.
It took an unprecedented commitment by the international community, and the world's largest deployments of peacekeepers, to get Perry and the others home.
In 2002, British, U.N. and West African armies crushed a vicious Liberia-backed insurgency in Sierra Leone. The next year, American, U.N. and West African forces and Liberian rebels routed the chief promulgator of West Africa's wars, Liberia's Charles Taylor.
Taylor, a Cold War creation of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's guerrilla camps, had trafficked arms and insurgencies across West Africa's borders since 1989.
Today, 75 percent of the world's 62,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops are trying to enforce peace deals across Africa, and $2.9 billion of the world body's $3.9 billion peacekeeping budgets are spent here.
With up to 10 percent of the world's oil reserves in West Africa, the United States and other nations increasingly are saying they have a strategic interest in Africa — and a stake in keeping it peaceful.
More than half the world's total peacekeepers — 32,402 — are based in Taylor's old stomping grounds — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast itself, divided by civil war since 2002.
With Taylor in exile in Nigeria, Gbagbo is looking like the biggest current challenge to peace.
The Ivory Coast president has commanded the loyalty of his supporters by pitting them against anyone seen as an outsider — declaring it a matter of their survival to fight the French, African immigrants and their own northern countrymen.
The airstrike on the French was part of three days of government attacks that broke a more than year-old cease-fire.
Street protests put Gbagbo in power in 2000, during an aborted vote count in elections meant to restore civilian rule after a 1999 coup shattered the nation's reputation for stability.
Ivory Coast had been considered West Africa's most prosperous country since independence, and its commercial capital, Abidjan, was dubbed the "Paris of Africa" for its nightlife and its boutiques. The Hotel Ivoires even boasted an ice skating rink, one of only two in sub-Saharan Africa.
France kept the country peaceful by backing Felix Houphouet-Boigny as the sole post-independence leader. Africa "wasn't ready for democracy," Jacques Chirac, now France's president, famously declared at the start of the 1990s.
Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993. With no tradition of democracy and no clear successor, Ivory Coast slid into chaos by 1999.