COLUMN ONE : Lebanese Feel Heat in W. Africa : They have become successful merchants and traders. But that very success has provoked a surge of hostility from the people whose countries they have helped to build.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Middle East Airways plane that leaves here every Wednesday for Beirut is generally fully booked as West Africa's Lebanese pile in for vacations and family visits in their troubled homeland.

The cargo hold is also full, but amid the goods and supplies being flown to Lebanon, there is often a different kind of freight: coffins bearing the bodies of Lebanese whose families are sending them home for the last time--sometimes for the first time.

"We don't bury them here," Msgr. Paul Khawand, the spiritual leader of this West African country's community of Maronite Christian Lebanese, said in a recent interview. "Assuming the family can afford to, they almost always send them back."

Many of the 200,000 Lebanese who live in West Africa are third- or fourth-generation Africans, whether petty merchants or powerful traders.

That so many still cast their eyes homeward to the Levant is only one of the things that sets them apart; the West African Lebanese have long been torn between the impulse to assimilate quietly and the drive, unfailingly conspicuous, to make money.

Today, as a consequence, they face a surge of hostility and resentment from the people whose countries they have helped to build.

Michel Bou Daou, an Abidjan importer and exporter whose grandfather emigrated to Dakar, Senegal, and opened a tiny shop, said, "It is unfortunate, but when you are successful you make people jealous."

In Sierra Leone, where 7,000 Lebanese merchants control virtually the entire retail trade, they have been accused of running the black market in gold and diamonds and corrupting the bureaucracy. A ring sending African children to Lebanon under conditions of slavery has been uncovered. In Gabon, President Omar Bongo recently accused the Lebanese community of "robbing the Gabonese" and "sowing the seeds of disorder."

In Senegal, where thousands of Lebanese immigrants arrived a century ago, an official complained that "these emigres act as if they are in a conquered country." He said they have "an attitude that has provoked the Senegalese worker to violence."

These places where Lebanese are accused, often unfairly, of exploitation, bribery and trafficking have something in common other than the preponderance of Levantine shopping districts: They are all firmly in the grip of profound economic and political crises that have provoked a search for scapegoats. The Lebanese are obvious targets not only because of their success but because, as many of them acknowledge, it is not in their nature to withdraw from society.

"The Lebanese likes to show what he has gained from his success," said Fouad Omais, perhaps the leading Muslim businessman in the Ivory Coast's Lebanese community. He suggested that this might be a time to lie low.

"You shouldn't hide what you have," he said, "but perhaps you shouldn't show it so much when it makes things difficult or dangerous."

Some Lebanese believe they have been given a higher profile by the civil war in Lebanon.

"It's that which has given us the image of being violent people, terrorists," a merchant said.

The more established Lebanese have been discomfited by the latest wave of immigrants. They complain that the younger arrivals are poorer, less educated and less circumspect than their elders.

"Of course, what do you expect?" a defender of the recent arrivals said. "They have been deprived of education, order and morality in their lives."

Nowhere does anti-Lebanese feeling cut deeper than in Ivory Coast. In part, this is because the Lebanese community here is the largest and wealthiest in West Africa. At 30,000-40,000, it easily surpasses the second-largest group of whites, the French. Lebanese own 175 of the largest industrial enterprises, and employ about 200,000 workers.

Problems Blending In

In recent months, the Lebanese have found it more difficult than ever to blend in. The sudden, agonizing transformation from one of West Africa's richest countries to one of its poorest has intensified the search for blame.

The root cause of the collapse is the fall in world market prices for cocoa and coffee, Ivory Coast's two main exports. But the abrupt change has made people more sensitive to what they see as widespread economic exploitation and high-level corruption, much of which they blame on the Lebanese traders, who control as much as 60% of the retail economy.

"The Lebanese have taken over our commerce, they truly exploit the peasant," Akibo Coffy, a professor of chemistry at the national university and an officer of the country's largest independent trade union, complained in a typical comment. "They don't pay their taxes, they bribe everybody. The fact that they control the economy keeps Ivorians from profiting."

The Lebanese are widely associated with the middlemen who bridged the gap between the country's peasant cocoa growers and its exporters. These middlemen evidently took advantage of last year's collapse of the cocoa market, which sent world prices below the government-set farmer price here, to pay farmers for their crops with worthless scrip.

To the chagrin of Lebanese leaders, the chorus of hostility has been joined by Ivory Coast President Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

Houphouet-Boigny has long been a supporter of Lebanese immigration, but in a rare press conference in February he remarked off-handedly, "Fraud is as old as the hills, but nowadays the biggest swindlers are the Arabs, and among them the Lebanese."

These words were excised from the president's remarks as aired on the government-controlled broadcast units and printed in the government newspaper. But many Ivorians knew that the president had called the Lebanese fraudeurs .

Many Lebanese ascribe the remark to the meanderings of a man entering dotage. Houphouet-Boigny is said to be anywhere from 85 to 89 years old, and ill. Others choose to recall his many positive approaches to the Lebanese. He has often instructed his countrymen to learn from the entrepreneurial Middle Easterners.

"I disregard what he says now and I remember what he said in the past," said Nizar Chamas, Lebanon's ambassador to Ivory Coast. "In 1968, these were his exact words: 'The Lebanese were sent to us by God.' "

But in general, Africa's Lebanese have responded to pressure with resentment. Accurately, they note that among foreigners with capital, only the Lebanese are still investing in Ivory Coast.

"They use the word fraudeurs , but there isn't an Ivorian who invests in his own country," a prominent Lebanese said. "They all send their money to France and Switzerland. It's only the Lebanese who are still investing here."

Msgr. Khawand argues that Lebanese institutions are valued by all Ivorians.

"We have three free clinics, a school with 1,400 Ivorian students," he said in his office at the Mission of the Sacred Heart. "We have 65 doctors--for everyone."

On the wall was a photo of Khawand greeting former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and another showing him being received by President Houphouet-Boigny.

Still, when an outbreak of civil disorder erupted early this month in Abidjan, youths went on a window-smashing spree that seemed to target the Lebanese shops. Lebanese leaders suggest that the targets were chosen arbitrarily and also included shops owned by French and Ivorian merchants.

In the suburb of Adjame, where hundreds of Lebanese shops offer everything from provisions to plumbing supplies and hurricane lanterns, the merchants hastily lowered their wooden shutters for the duration of the disturbances.

Resentment against petty merchants and middlemen judged to be outsiders is common all across Africa, for the Lebanese in West Africa are part of a larger phenomenon: Almost all retail trade in the region is controlled by non-Africans. The East African counterpart to West Africa's Lebanese are Indians and Pakistanis, whose forebears were imported by Britain to build a railroad and who now dominate the retail and wholesale markets.

On both sides of the continent, the merchants' success depends on family connections that give importers and store owners access to suppliers in Europe and the Far East. This keeps African businessmen out. On both coasts, the merchant communities are regarded as clannish and canny.

Economists say it is common in many societies for petty commerce to become the domain of immigrants, who work their way up by taking on jobs the entrenched majorities spurn as demeaning. But they say the Africans have conceded the trading business to "foreigners" like Asians and Lebanese by regulating them to such an extent that only people willing and able to circumvent bureaucratic rules--through bribery or other means--can thrive.

"In these economies, any entrepreneurial work is considered very dubious," an international banker familiar with Africa said. "The Lebanese are desperate, so they're willing to operate in a high-risk, high-return environment. Africans are not."

Some Lebanese feel that their image has been compromised by Western suspicions that Africa harbors cells of Hezbollah, the pro-Iran faction of Shiite terrorists. Most Lebanese Muslims in West Africa are Shiite.

These suspicions intensified last year after a bomb blew up on a French airliner en route from Brazzaville, Congo, and N'Djamena, Chad, to Paris, killing everyone on board. French authorities say Hezbollah agents are among the suspects in the unsolved disaster.

Western security officials say that talk of Hezbollah activity in West Africa is entirely speculative.

"There's one theory that says this region is a rest-and-recreation stop for the faction," one specialist said, "and they're under orders not to foul their own nest. But there are others who say, 'Don't be stupid; of course they're active here.' "

Leaders in the Lebanese community dismiss as groundless suggestions of Hezbollah activity.

"The Lebanese here are interested in money, in trade, not in Hezbollah," Ambassador Chamas said. "True, the young people coming here now may be associated with one party or another, but they leave it in Lebanon."

Lebanese emigration to this part of the world began more than a century ago, in the 1880s, when the first wave left to flee the harsh rule of the Ottoman Turks, who had overrun the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Because the Turks drafted men into their army at the age of 15, wealthy Lebanese families would give their 14-year-olds a purse filled with money and send them off to sea in the general direction of America.

Many of these youths went to Marseilles, France, and the American consul screened them, accepting or rejecting them for further passage to the United States. Those who failed often headed for Dakar, Senegal, which was then the administrative center of French West Africa.

For many families, Africa was far from the destination of first choice. Many were cheated into coming here. Most Lebanese know the stories of ship captains who took money from the young, unworldly travelers to take them to America, then set them down in Dakar.

"They'd say, 'Here, you're in America,' " Bou Daou, the Abidjan import-export merchant, said, relating a story that happened not to his forebears but to others.

"You're talking about 14-, 15-year-olds who didn't know any better or have a cent left in their pockets, so they got off the boat," he said.

From Dakar, the traders went wherever trade took them. Then as now, one might find that deep in the interior the only available soap, sugar or bread would be in a shop in a remote village operated by a Lebanese, the only white face for hundreds of miles around.

"The French would be in the big cities or the towns, but in every tiny village you would find a Lebanese," said Khalil Omais, who came here in 1938 and by 1941, had bought a truck to transport cola nuts to market. He and his brother, Fouad, now own a network of companies that employ nearly 2,000 people.

Still, there is a feeling that however deeply entrenched a Lebanese family may be in West Africa, they are Lebanese first and Africans only by sufferance. This painful duality was expressed by a leading local businessman, a third generation African, who said:

" Je suis Ivoirien --I am Ivorian. But I am also proud to be a Lebanese."

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