In the Ivory Coast, Science Endures In The Midst Of War

Should researchers and scientists leave a country when there is a war? Quite the opposite, say the Swiss researchers at CSRS.

CSRS research camp (CSRS)
CSRS research camp (CSRS)
Lucia Sillig

ABIDJAN - "It isn't easy to concentrate on your work when bullets are flying over your head," says Gilbert Fokou, an ethnologist at the Swiss Center for Scientific Research in the Ivory Coast (CSRS). With its luxurious flora and its population of large, flashy lizards, the institution is a haven of tranquility.

And yet a year ago, it was in this Abidjan neighborhood - where many supporters of former president Laurent Gbagbo used to live - that the death throes of the post-electoral crisis took place. The CSRS barely survived a raid of militiamen searching for money, gas, food and vehicles. Banks closed, so did roads and borders. The two universities in Abidjan are still closed, but the institution, which celebrated its 60th anniversary at the end of 2011, held on.

"It's easy to stop, but much harder to start over," says Bassirou Bonfoh, CSRS's general director. Through a decade of on-and-off conflicts in the Ivory Coast, the center has pursued its research on health, environment, food security and biodiversity. In spite of the crisis, or rather, taking the crisis in account: whether the problem is agronomy or malaria, it has to be factored in.

The CSRS was created in 1951 by professors from Neuchâtel University and the Tropical Institute of Basel, who wanted to study African fauna, flora and sicknesses. At the time, it took twelve days of by sea to reach Abidjan from Marseille. "At first, it was mostly observation expeditions," recalls Marcel Tanner, director of the Tropical Institute, which pilots the center for Switzerland.

Local partnerships

There were no African scientists, the center was a platform for foreign researchers, and local employees only did janitorial work. The situation slowly evolved into a partnership. "It became increasingly hard to justify coming and going home with blood or stool samples just to write good scientific papers," says this malaria specialist.

The first African director was appointed in 2004. Since 2007, the center is co-financed by the Swiss and Ivorian governments. Switzerland puts in $470,00 a year, the Ivory Coast puts in $83,000 and adds another $281,000 in kind, through the presence of teachers for instance.

The CSRS has transitioned from a field lab to a fully-fledged research center that publishes in prestigious international reviews. "Of course, we aren't at Harvard's level yet, but I am proud of the stage we've reached," says Marcel Tanner.

This collaborative approach has probably helped the center last so long. Nearby, the ruins of the French Office for Technical and Scientific Research Abroad are a reminder that things aren't a given. Of course, the absence of a Swiss colonial past and its neutrality has helped the center navigate through rough patches. The most important was to stay neutral and beyond reproach, especially since CSRS has projects in areas controlled by rebel factions - like in Korhogo, in the far north of the country, where researchers are studying the effects of climate change on sacred forests.

The CSRS believes that field projects have also played an important role in the center's longevity. In the shadow of a great tree in Bringakro village, where one of the research field stations is, the village chief agrees: "There was no duplicity, only grace."

Fields around Bringakro were used for the development of a new variety of manioc. More resilient against diseases, it has a higher yield and is just as good, says Dao Daouda, director of the promotion, resources and applications at the CSRS.

The project was a partnership with Nestlé. The agro-business giant uses starch from the manioc in its Maggi cube, which "makes each woman a star," according to a giant billboard on the walls of capital Yamoussoukro. This research was accompanied by social initiatives in the village, like installing a water tank and a health center.

Weathering the crisis

Last year, the post-electoral crisis threatened a farming project that the Ivorian authorities had entrusted to the CSRS. The crisis broke out right when the fertilizer and the pesticides were supposed to be deployed. Despite the rampant insecurity on the roads, a truck driver accepted to bring stocks from Abidjan to the farmers. "Most people had lost their harvest, explains Bassirou Bonfoh. "There wasn't much food, demand was very high. As a result, those who were able to treat their crops were able to sell their products for a very good price."

At the Taï National Park, near the western border with Liberia, park rangers left during this troubled period, leaving animals and CSRS researchers unprotected from poachers. It was in this forest they discovered that male Campbell's monkeys used a form of protosyntax, with specific suffixes and calls to convey messages. Today, Karim Ouattara from the CSRS biodiversity and food security department is trying to determine if captive animals in the Abidjan zoo also use these vocal sequences. Unfortunately, due to lack of health care and food, many died during the crisis and there are only two females left, one of which is probably a mix of another species.

Researchers at Taï National Park are also following groups of chimpanzees and studying their food ecosystem. "They carry a virus similar to HIV but they are more prone to contracting the sickness in captivity than in their natural environment," explains Angora Remi Constant Ahouha. The scientist is trying to see if this is linked to the plants the monkeys eat. The hope is to eventually develop food supplements for people with weak immune systems. The team has also been meeting with traditional healers to identify and test plants used to fight malaria.

Legitimacy in difficult times

The center puts important efforts into the demographic and sanitary monitoring of over 40,000 people in the Taabo dam lake region between Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, in collaboration with local partners. Ivorian authorities are interested in the project. "To have any sort of health planning, you need to understand the local social fabric," says Marcel Tanner.

The CSRS believes that their weathering the crisis has given the center additional legitimacy in its partner's eyes. "If we had closed, it would have been like we were abandoning our employees and our researchers," says Bassirou Bonfoh. "In the field stations, the population would have also had a dim view of our departure. Our presence continues to strengthen the CSRS's position: people know that we are here in times of war and of peace."

From an economic standpoint, the director estimates that the cost of leaving is equivalent to that of a complete reconstruction. Marcel Tanner is even more adamant: "If we stop, we fall. People leave. Starting over is extremely expensive. I could list a dozen projects we couldn't continue because of the crisis, but also a dozen others that we were able to finish. Even if the work is barely good or mediocre because of the conditions, it's a good investment. Because if we hadn't done anything, today we would be visiting empty laboratories with only a few guards and a cook left."

For Bassirou Bonfoh, the Ivory Coast's troubles have created parameters the scientists can't ignore. "If we are studying malaria, we have to take into account the context that makes access to health services difficult. It doesn't make sense to only do research in areas where there are no problems. It so happens that here, for the past ten years, there have been war-like conditions. We need to understand the events and adapt to the context in order to provide better responses."

Read more from Le Temps in French.

Photo - CSRS

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!