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Ivory Coast Celebrates Independence Day - 2003-08-07

Ivory Coast is marking its 43rd Independence Day with the traditional marching and speeches. But this year's celebration is clouded by tensions in the country, following last year's civil war.

National television is showing grainy pictures of marching bands, soldiers and cheering crowds - images from the early days of Ivory Coast's independence era, when the "father of the nation," Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was president.

In addition to the soldiers, there are floats in a parade depicting the agricultural produce - in particular cocoa - which helped give Ivory Coast the strongest economy in West Africa. And that helped make the country an island of stability on a continent of widespread political instability.

But Ivory Coast has lost its stability, and much of its prosperity. Economic troubles have multiplied as the value of Ivory Coast's main export, cocoa, has steadily fallen. Investor confidence did not return after the sudden shock of the December 1999 military coup. A popular uprising pushed out the military government less than a year later, after elections widely seen as fraudulent, and President Laurent Gbagbo came to power.

The investment climate deteriorated again after last September's coup attempt against Mr. Gbagbo, and has not improved under the transitional government he leads, which was created by the peace accord in January.

Thursday, rebels continue to hold the north and west of the country. They have been kept away from the capital in the south by an international peacekeeping force, led by France. And tensions remain high between President Gbagbo's supporters, and rebel supporters.

This week, parliament has approved an amnesty bill for acts of rebellion committed in the most recent uprising. The goal was to promote reconciliation and stability. But some Ivorians, particularly those who lost relatives and loved ones in the rebellion, say an amnesty would only increase anger among government supporters.

A nighttime curfew in Abidjan was lifted several months ago, but the situation is still not stable, and the government remains nervous about large gatherings.

A free evening of entertainment and music had been promised on the streets of Abidjan Wednesday night, the eve of Independence Day. Promotions appeared on national television ahead of the event, and one of the city's main thoroughfares was cordoned off for a week to prepare for the outdoor show.

But at the very last minute, and without warning, the government canceled the event because of security concerns.

The thousands of young people of Abidjan who were left loitering on the streets of the city were shocked.

"I'm really upset and disappointed," said one teenager, named Conneteh. He and his friends had traveled many kilometers across town for the concert, and were wondering how they were going to make their way home in the dark. They had been expecting to dance until dawn to the free music.

In Blockhaus, an old-town area in downtown Abidjan, some people did manage to dance until late anyway. The streetside bars were full, as people made their own entertainment, including a nighttime football match.

Bar manager Jean-Baptiste, was expecting a busy and trouble-free evening, as his customers celebrated in spite of the ongoing problems, and made the most of not having to get up for work the next morning.