49334930 tob304 South African education goes digital

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Such digital technologies offer the potential to tackle some of the continent's chronic education challenges, including overcrowded classrooms, teacher shortages and the 30 million children in sub-Saharan Africa without any education at all.

As Africa becomes ever more connected, educators and publishers are finding new ways to reach young audiences and develop their burgeoning minds.

One such company is Via Afrika Publishers.

First and foremost a publisher of textbooks for over 65 years, Via Afrika began to investigate the move to digital content several years ago. Its early adoption seems to be reaping dividends.

“We decided about three years ago, after looking at what was taking place in the world, that e-learning was an important direction to go in,” says Michael Goodman, the company's group content manager.

“We decided to design a set of e-learning books that matched our printed books and indeed matched the books we submitted to the education department. It was a sort of 'build it and they will come' mentality, because there was no call for any electronic books to be submitted,” he added.

wpid 76101862 mgoodman1 South African education goes digital Via Afrika's Michael Goodman believes e-learning is the future

Mr Goodman points out that uptake has really mushroomed over the past year. While there were about 1,000 e-book sales in 2013, there have already been 64,000 in 2014, he says.

But he admits that as the South African government has invested heavily in printed materials, a widespread shift towards e-learning will require partnerships between private enterprise and government.

“We are seeing pockets of co-operation,” he says. “Companies are coming up with their own initiatives in supplying tablets and then co-operating with government to implement them in schools.

“That needs to grow a whole lot. We feel that a very strong public and private partnership is needed to move us towards e-learning completely.”

Digital containers

Via Afrika has formed just such a partnership with a non-profit organisation, Breadline Africa, to provide rural communities with digital education centres.

Breadline Africa is a Cape Town-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that specialises in converting old shipping containers for community use.

The digital centres are being developed inside existing libraries and each is supplied with 15 Android tablet devices loaded with Via Afrika's latest educational programmes, apps and electronic textbooks.

wpid 76101237 img 92911 South African education goes digital Breadline Africa and Via Afrika are turning old shipping containers into digital libraries

The Via Afrika Digital Education Centre initiative is currently being rolled out in three primary schools in the provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and the Free State.

“I visited one school last week in Limpopo and to see how the kids have responded so positively in working with brand new media has been remarkable,” says Mr Goodman.

“It's going to be interesting for us to see what the impact will be in a small rural school.”

wpid 76101230 1071 South African education goes digital Parents check out the new computers at Thabantsho Primary School's new digital centre, Limpopo

One of the challenges is educating the teachers as well as the children. So the centres will receive regular visits and updates to keep the educators aware of the latest developments, says Mr Goodman.

Social learning

Look around one of these centres and you will see people consuming content and interacting online in a variety of social networking spaces.

One such space is social learning platform Obami.com. The Cape Town-based firm is making waves with its brand of educational tools and online connections.

Founded by Barbara Mallinson in 2007, Obami – which means “my” or “mine” in isiZulu – began as a generic social networking site.

But Ms Mallinson soon saw the opportunity to refine the concept and have an impact upon a key issue in South Africa – education.

“We are all very aware of the education crisis going on in South Africa and beyond. Social media was being used in entertainment and for business but no-one was really doing this in education,” she explains.

Ms Mallinson and the Obami team wanted to see how social media in schools could be used to connect scholars, teachers and parents.

The first pilot study “went wonderfully”, she says, although the teachers remained wary of social networking for social networking's sake.

wpid 76101345 obamilearners11 South African education goes digital South African schoolgirls interact with Obami's social learning platform

“We looked at it again and thought social networking is very useful in many industries but it has to serve a purpose, and so we decided to change a few things and ended up with this idea of social media being applied to a learning management system.”

This means uploading and sharing content, and setting and undertaking assignments, she explains. Sharing curriculum content online and monitoring learners through assessment were core principles “bringing the platform to life”.

Online content

Over the past few years, Obami has continued to grow across South Africa and the continent with about 400 schools and organisations now using the platform to connect learners and partners.

As the platform is customisable it is equally suitable for an early stage learner as for an adult involved in distance learning, the company believes. It is accessible via PC, tablet or phone.

“Obami was traditionally a primary and secondary platform but we have now opened it up beyond schools,” she says.

“We also found a demand from scholars whose schools weren't using the platform to get on to Obami, so we started our own school of sorts and now have nearly 4,000 individuals on the platform who can access its learning capabilities and content.”

Few believe technology for its own sake will be the knight in shining armour that helps South Africa and the continent educate its youth more effectively.

But used strategically by educators, publishers and government working in partnership, it has the potential to achieve great things. And fast.

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 54291785 chad  Chad profile

A largely semi-desert country, Chad is rich in gold and uranium and stands to benefit from its recently-acquired status as an oil-exporting state.

However, Africa's fifth-largest nation suffers from inadequate infrastructure and internal conflict. Poverty is rife, and health and social conditions compare unfavourably with those elsewhere in the region.

Chad's post-independence history has been marked by instability and violence stemming mostly from tension between the mainly Arab-Muslim north and the predominantly Christian and animist south.

In 1969 Muslim dissatisfaction with the first president, Ngarta Tombalbaye – a Christian southerner – developed into a guerrilla war. This, combined with a severe drought, undermined his rule and in 1975 President Tombalbaye was killed in a coup led by another southerner, Felix Malloum.

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At a glance

wpid 61579157 chad refugees g4 Chad profile

Politics: Crises on several fronts: President Deby, in power since 1990, faces an armed rebellion by several groups and incursions from neighbouring Sudan. He survived a coup attempt in 2006

Humanitarian issues: 140,000 people are internal refugees; 200,000 refugees are from Sudan

Economy: Chad is enjoying an oil boom. Changes to rules governing how revenues can be spent have been controversial. Chad ranks as the world's most corrupt state

International: Chad cut ties with Sudan in 2006, accusing it of supporting rebels, but since 2009 efforts have been made to resolve the countries' differences. Chad hosts large numbers of refugees from Central African Republic and Sudan's Darfur

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

Mr Malloum, too, failed to end the war, and in 1979 he was replaced by a Libyan-backed northerner, Goukouki Oueddei. But the fighting continued, this time with a former defence minister, Hissen Habre, on the opposite side.

In 1982, with French help, Mr Habre captured the capital, N'Djamena, and Mr Oueddei escaped to the north, where he formed a rival government. The standoff ended in 1990, when Mr Habre was toppled by the Libyan-backed Idriss Deby.

By the mid-1990s the situation had stabilised and in 1996 Mr Deby was confirmed president in Chad's first election.

In 1998 an armed insurgency began in the north, led by President Deby's former defence chief, Youssouf Togoimi. A Libyan-brokered peace deal in 2002 failed to put an end to the fighting.

From 2003 unrest in neighbouring Sudan's Darfur region spilled across the border, along with hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees. They have been joined by thousands of Chadians who are fleeing rebel fighting as well as violence between ethnic Arab and ethnic African Chadians.

Chad and Sudan accuse each other of backing and harbouring rebels, and the dispute led to severing of relations in 2006. However, since then, progress has been made towards normalising ties, with the two countries' presidents meeting for the first time in six years in 2010.

Chad became an oil-producing nation in 2003 with the completion of a $4bn pipeline linking its oilfields to terminals on the Atlantic coast. The government has moved to relax a law controlling the use of oil money, which the World Bank had made a condition of its $39m loan.

wpid 61531706 chad lake g4 Chad profile Lake Chad is an important source of water for millions of people in the four countries surrounding it

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 52150391 burkina Burkina Faso profile

A poor country even by West African standards, landlocked Burkina Faso has suffered from recurring droughts and, until the 1980s, military coups.

Burkina Faso has significant reserves of gold, but cotton is the economic mainstay for many Burkinabes.

This industry is vulnerable to changes in world prices.

wpid 64587041 burkina cotton g4 Burkina Faso profile Burkina Faso is a leading cotton producer in sub-Saharan Africa

A major challenge to the status quo came in 1983, when Capt Thomas Sankara seized power and adopted radical left-wing policies.

He renamed the country, previously Upper Volta. Its present name which translates as “land of honest men”.

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At a glance

Politics: Coup leader Blaise Compaore won a new five-year term in 2010 after 23 years at the helm

Economy: The UN rates Burkina Faso as the world's third poorest country

International: Burkina Faso has been involved in the various conflicts of the region. Many citizens who had traditionally worked in Ivory Coast fled after recent instability there

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

In 1987 Mr Sankara was overthrown and killed in a coup by his erstwhile colleague Blaise Compaore, who went on to re-introduce a multi-party system.

Burkina Faso has faced domestic and external concern over the state of its economy and human rights, and allegations that it was involved in the smuggling of diamonds by rebels in Sierra Leone.

Troubles in neighbouring Ivory Coast have raised tensions, with Ivory Coast accusing its northern neighbour of backing rebels in the north and Burkina Faso accusing Ivory Coast of mistreating expatriate Burkinabes.

wpid 61796684 burkina afp4 Burkina Faso profile Burkina Faso has some gold resources but agriculture is an important part of the economy

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 54199226 ethiopia Ethiopia profile

Ethiopia is Africa's oldest independent country and its second largest in terms of population. Apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini's Italy, it has never been colonised.

It has a unique cultural heritage, being the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – one of the oldest Christian churches – and a monarchy that ended only in the coup of 1974.

It served as a symbol of African independence throughout the colonial period, and was a founder member of the United Nations and the African base for many international organisations.

 67216136 ethopia1 Ethiopia profile Ethiopia's Orthodox Church is a defining feature of national identity

Ethiopia has suffered periodic droughts and famines that lead to a long civil conflict in the 20th Century and a border war with Eritrea.

In the first part of the 20th Century Ethiopia forged strong links with Britain, whose troops helped evict the Italians in 1941 and put Emperor Haile Selassie back on his throne. From the 1960s British influence gave way to that of the US, which in turn was supplanted by the Soviet Union.

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At a glance

Politics: Veteran Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in August 2012. Secessionist groups maintain a low-level armed struggle

Economy: One of fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa. Depends heavily on agriculture, which is often affected by drought. Coffee is a key export

International: Eritrea hived off in 1993 and a border dispute escalated into full-scale war in 1999. Border tensions persist. Ethiopian troops helped oust Islamists who controlled southern Somalia in 2006. Ethiopia is seen as a key US ally

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

Drought

Although it has had fewer of the coups that have plagued other African countries, Ethiopia's turmoil has been no less devastating. Drought, famine, war and ill-conceived policies brought millions to the brink of starvation in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1974 this helped topple Haile Selassie. His regime was replaced by a self-proclaimed Marxist junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam under which many thousands of opponents were purged or killed, property was confiscated and defence spending spiralled.

The overthrow of the junta in 1991 saw political and economic conditions stabilise, to the extent that the country is regarded as one of Africa's most stable.

Eritrea

Eritrea gained independence in 1993 following a referendum. Poor border demarcation developed into military conflict and full-scale war in the late 1990s in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

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Rebel threat

Ogaden National Liberation Front – ONLF

Separatist group in Ogaden region, home of ethnic Somalis

Aims to defend rights of Ogadeni people, defend resources from exploitation by state

Has conducted low-level guerrilla campaign since 1994

2007 attack on oilfield killed 65 Ethiopian troops and 9 Chinese workers

A fragile truce has held, but the UN says ongoing disputes over the demarcation of the border threaten peace.

Ethiopia is one of Africa's poorest states, although it has experienced rapid economic growth since the end of the civil war. Almost two-thirds of its people are illiterate. The economy revolves around agriculture, which in turn relies on rainfall. It is one of Africa's leading coffee producers.

Many Ethiopians depend on food aid from abroad. In 2004 the government began a drive to move more than two million people away from the arid highlands of the east in an attempt to provide a lasting solution to food shortages.

wpid 52642606 ethiopia famine afp2 Ethiopia profile Drought-prone and short of food, Ethiopia has suffered a series of famines in recent decades

At the end of 2006 Ethiopia sent between 5,000 and 10,000 troops into Somalia to support forces of the weak transitional government there and helped to oust the Islamists who had controlled southern Somalia for six months.

But, despite initial successes, the Ethiopians were unable to break the power of the Islamists, who gradually began to win back lost territory.

Ethiopia's presence in Somalia formally ended in early 2009, when it pulled its troops under an agreement between the transitional Somali government and moderate Islamists.

wpid 61783665 ethiopia omo g2 Ethiopia profile The Omo valley, where a massive and controversial dam is being built

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 54292139 car c Central African Republic profile

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been unstable since its independence from France in 1960 and is one of the least-developed countries in the world.

It has endured several coups and a notorious period under a self-declared emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who headed a brutal regime.

The Bokassa era ended in 1979, when he was overthrown in a coup led by David Dacko and backed by French commandos based in the country.

After just two years in office Mr Dacko was toppled by Andre Kolingba, who eventually allowed multi-party presidential elections and was duly rejected in the first round.

wpid 65028433 car market g3 Central African Republic profile The Central African Republic has endured several coups

Mr Kolingba's successor, Ange-Felix Patasse, had to contend with serious unrest which culminated in riots and looting in 1997 by unpaid soldiers.

When in that year the French pulled out, there were fears of a power vacuum, so Paris financed a group of French-speaking African countries to create a peacekeeping force. That force was then transformed into the UN Mission to the Central African Republic, or Minurca.

In 1999 Mr Patasse beat nine other candidates to become president again, but there were allegations of electoral fraud. He was overthrown in a coup in 2003 and went into exile in Togo.

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At a glance

Politics: Country described as a failed state in permanent crisis. UN has warned that risk of genocide is high and has described ethnic-religious cleansing targeting Muslims as a big concern

Economy: Decades of instability have undermined the economy. Diamonds are an important source of income – and rivalry

International: Suffers spill-over of violence from neighbours; assisted by French military; hosts African peacekeepers. UN to deploy peacekeeping force

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

Illegal weapons proliferate across the CAR, the legacy of years of unrest. The unrest has displaced tens of thousands of Central Africans; many of them have crossed the border into Chad.

Some progress towards stabilising the country was made between 2008 and 2012, before the new Seleka rebel alliance marched south and captured the capital in March 2013, ousting President Francois Bozize.

The country descended into ethno-religious violence, with thousands of people fleeing their homes and the UN warning that there was a high risk of genocide.

The CAR possesses considerable agricultural, water and mineral resources. But corruption is rife and undermines the timber and diamond industries.

The country is endowed with virgin rainforests and has some of the highest densities of lowland gorillas and forest elephants in Africa.

wpid 61796685 central african republic ba3 Central African Republic profile The Central African Republic has some rainforests as well as communities that follow tradition, such as this Bayaka tribesman climbing a 40 m tree to harvest honey

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 54138060 gambia The Gambia profile

The Gambia is one of Africa's smallest countries and unlike many of its West African neighbours it has enjoyed long spells of stability since independence.

President Yahya Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and has ruled with an iron fist ever since.

Stability has not translated into prosperity. Despite the presence of the Gambia river, which runs through the middle of the country, only one-sixth of the land is arable and poor soil quality has led to the predominance of one crop – peanuts.

This has made The Gambia heavily dependent on peanut exports – and a hostage to fluctuations in the production and world prices of the crop.

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At a glance

wpid 52685075 gambia voters afp2 The Gambia profile

Politics: The Gambia has been relatively stable under the iron-fisted rule of Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994

Economy: One of Africa's smallest countries has few natural resources and is highly dependent on peanut exports

International: The Gambia is seen as an important transit point for drug smugglers

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

Consequently, the country relies on foreign aid to fill gaps in its balance of payments.

President Jammeh wants to turn The Gambia into an oil-producing state. He says this could usher in a “new future”. However, the country has yet to strike crude oil.

Tourism is an important source of foreign exchange, as is the money sent home by Gambians living abroad. Most visitors are drawn to the resorts that occupy a stretch of the Atlantic coast.

In 1994 The Gambia's elected government was toppled in a military coup. The country returned to constitutional rule two years later when its military leader ran as a civilian and won a presidential election.

But the credibility of the poll was questioned by a group of Commonwealth ministers.

In 2013, President Jammeh announced The Gambia's departure from the Commonwealth, dismissing it as a “neo-colonial” institution. Critics said the move was motivated by anger at foreign criticism of the country's human rights record.

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 54199065 algeria Algeria profile

Algeria, a gateway between Africa and Europe, has been battered by violence over the past half-century.

More than a million Algerians were killed in the fight for independence from France in 1962, and the country has recently emerged from a brutal internal conflict that followed scrapped elections in 1992.

The Sahara desert covers more than four-fifths of the land. Oil and gas reserves were discovered there in the 1950s, but most Algerians live along the northern coast. The country supplies large amounts of natural gas to Europe and energy exports are the backbone of the economy.

wpid 65339521 algeria tamanrasset g2 Algeria profile Algeria includes large areas of the Sahara desert

Algeria was originally inhabited by Berbers until the Arabs conquered North Africa in the 7th century. Based mainly in the mountainous regions, the Berbers resisted the spread of Arab influence, managing to preserve much of their language and culture. They make up some 30% of the population.

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At a glance

Politics: President Bouteflika led his country out of the civil war that broke out when Islamists were denied an election victory; the Islamist insurgency continues in a new form

Economy: Algeria is a key oil and gas supplier

International: Tension persists between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara, where nomadic Saharans are seeking self-determination

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

Part of the Turkish Ottoman empire from the 16th century, Algeria was conquered by the French in 1830 and was given the status of a “departement”. The struggle for independence began in 1954 headed by the National Liberation Front, which came to power on independence in 1962.

In the 1990s Algerian politics was dominated by the struggle involving the military and Islamist militants. In 1992 a general election won by an Islamist party was annulled, heralding a bloody civil war in which more than 150,000 people died.

An amnesty in 1999 led many rebels to lay down their arms.

Although political violence in Algeria has declined since the 1990s, the country has been shaken by by a campaign of bombings carried out by a group calling itself al-Qaeda in the Land of Islamic Maghreb (AQLIM).

Economy improves

The group was formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, and has its roots in an Islamist militia involved in the civil war in the 1990s.

Although experts doubt whether AQLIM has direct operational links with al-Qaeda elsewhere, its methods – which include suicide bombings – and its choice of targets, such as foreign workers and the UN headquarters in Algiers, follow the al-Qaeda method. Islamist groups throughout the Sahara region are linking up under the umbrella of the new movement, reinforced by arms obtained during the Libyan civil war.

After years of political upheaval and violence, Algeria's economy has been given a lift by frequent oil and gas finds. It has estimated oil reserves of nearly 12 billion barrels, attracting strong interest from foreign oil firms.

However, poverty remains widespread and unemployment high, particularly among Algeria's youth. Endemic government corruption and poor standards in public services are also chronic sources of popular dissatisfaction.

Major protests broke out in January 2011 over food prices and unemployment, with two people being killed in clashes with security forces. The government responded by ordering cuts to the price of basic foodstuffs, and repealed the 1992 state of emergency law.

In 2001 the government agreed to a series of demands by the minority Berbers, including official recognition of their language, after months of unrest.

wpid 61951295 algeria ketchaoua g2 Algeria profile Algeria has been influenced by a variety of cultures over the centuries

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 54292134 kenya  Kenya country profile

Situated on the equator on Africa's east coast, Kenya has been described as “the cradle of humanity”.

In the Great Rift Valley palaeontologists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of man's ancestors.

In the present day, Kenya's ethnic diversity has produced a vibrant culture but is also a source of conflict.

After independence from Britain in 1963, politics was dominated by the charismatic Jomo Kenyatta. He was succeeded in 1978 by Daniel arap Moi, who remained in power for 24 years. The ruling Kenya African National Union, Kanu, was the only legal political party for much of the 1980s.

wpid 63489693 ken masai2 afp4 Kenya country profile Kenya is ethnically and culturally diverse

Violent unrest – and international pressure – led to the restoration of multi-party politics in the early 1990s. But it was to be another decade before opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki ended nearly 40 years of Kanu rule with his landslide victory in 2002's general election.

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At a glance

Politics: Presidential elections in 2007 led to widespread unrest, which resulted in the formation of a power-sharing government. Polls in 2013 were largely peaceful

Economy: The economy has been recovering over recent years

International: Kenya's military entered Somalia at the end of 2011 to fight al-Shabab Islamist militants, who have carried out major reprisal attacks inside Kenya

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

Special Report: Kenya Direct

Despite President Kibaki's pledge to tackle corruption, some donors estimated that up to $1bn had been lost to graft between 2002 and 2005.

Other pressing challenges include high unemployment, crime and poverty. Droughts frequently put millions of people at risk.

With its scenic beauty and abundant wildlife, Kenya is one of Africa's major safari destinations.

Kenya was shaken by inter-ethnic violence which followed disputed elections in 2007. Several prominent Kenyans stand accused of crimes against humanity for allegedly inciting the violence, and the authorities are increasingly sensitive to any attempts to stir up communal tension.

The next elections, in 2013, passed off without violence and resulted in victory for Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of independence leader Jomo Kenyatta.

Kenya's military entered Somalia in October 2011 to curb the threat of the Islamist militant al-Shabab movement, which it accused of the kidnap and killing of tourists and aid workers. Kenyan troops are now largely integrated into the overall African Union forces in Somalia. There have been some reprisal attacks in Kenya itself.

wpid 75554572 kenya nairobi b4 Kenya country profile The Kenyan capital Nairobi has grown into East Africa's biggest city

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 52533267 ivory coast Ivory Coast profile

Once hailed as a model of stability, during the first decade of the twenty-first century Ivory Coast slipped into the kind of internal strife that has plagued so many African countries.

An armed rebellion in 2002 split the nation in two. Since then, peace deals have alternated with renewed violence as the country has slowly edged its way towards a political resolution of the conflict.

For more than three decades after independence under the leadership of its first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast was conspicuous for its religious and ethnic harmony and its well-developed economy.

wpid 65030073 ivory cocoa g2 Ivory Coast profile Ivory Coast is the world's leading producer of cocoa, a key ingredient of chocolate

All this ended when the late Robert Guei led a coup which toppled Felix Houphouet-Boigny's successor, Henri Bedie, in 1999.

Mr Bedie fled, but not before planting the seeds of ethnic discord by trying to stir up xenophobia against Muslim northerners, including his main rival, Alassane Ouattara.

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At a glance

Politics: Civil war in 2002 split country between rebel-held north and government-controlled south; 2007 power-sharing deal held out prospect of peace; 2010 presidential poll led to further violence

Economy: Ivory Coast is world's leading cocoa producer; UN sanctions imposed in 2004 include an arms embargo and a ban on diamond exports

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

This theme was also adopted by Mr Guei, who had Alassane Ouattara banned from the presidential election in 2000 because of his foreign parentage, and by the only serious contender allowed to run against Mr Guei, Laurent Gbagbo.

When Mr Gbagbo replaced Robert Guei after he was deposed in a popular uprising in 2000, violence replaced xenophobia. Scores of Mr Ouattara's supporters were killed after their leader called for new elections.

In September 2002 a troop mutiny escalated into a full-scale rebellion, voicing the ongoing discontent of northern Muslims who felt they were being discriminated against in Ivorian politics. Thousands were killed in the conflict.

Although most of the fighting ended in 2004, Ivory Coast remained tense and divided. French and UN peacekeepers patrolled the buffer zone which separated the north, held by rebels known as the New Forces, and the government-controlled south.

After repeated delays, elections aimed at ending the conflict were finally held in October 2010. But the vote ushered in more unrest when the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to concede victory to the internationally recognised winner, Alassane Ouattara.

The ensuing four-month stand-off was only ended when Mr Ouattara's forces overran the south of the country, finally capturing Mr Gbagbo and declaring him deposed. In November 2011, Mr Gbagbo was transferred to The Hague to stand trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.

Officials have blamed several security incidents since then on disgruntled supporters of Mr Gbagbo.

wpid 65030075 ivory boat g2 Ivory Coast profile The coastal area has several lagoons, including Ebrie Lagoon where the economic capital Abidjan is to be found

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 53348565 liberia Liberia profile

Liberia is Africa's oldest republic, but it became better known in the 1990s for its long-running, ruinous civil war and its role in a rebellion in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Although founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves, Liberia is mostly inhabited by indigenous Africans, with the slaves' descendants comprising 5% of the population.

The West African nation was relatively calm until 1980 when William Tolbert was overthrown by Sergeant Samuel Doe after food price riots. The coup marked the end of dominance by the minority Americo-Liberians, who had ruled since independence, but heralded a period of instability.

By the late 1980s, arbitrary rule and economic collapse culminated in civil war when Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia overran much of the countryside, entering the capital in 1990. Mr Doe was executed.

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At a glance

wpid 55519539 liberia rubber afp5 Liberia profile

Politics: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became president in 2006 after the first polls since the end of the civil war

Economy: The infrastructure is in ruins. The UN voted to lift a ban on diamond exports, which fuelled the civil war, in April 2007. A ban on timber exports was lifted in 2006

International: 15,000 UN peacekeepers are in place; ex-president Charles Taylor has been convicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone; Liberian refugees are scattered across the region

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

Fighting intensified as the rebels splintered and battled each other, the Liberian army and West African peacekeepers. In 1995 a peace agreement was signed, leading to the election of Mr Taylor as president.

The respite was brief, with anti-government fighting breaking out in the north in 1999. Mr Taylor accused Guinea of supporting the rebellion. Meanwhile Ghana, Nigeria and others accused Mr Taylor of backing rebels in Sierra Leone.

Matters came to a head in 2003 when Mr Taylor – under international pressure to quit and hemmed in by rebels – stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government steered the country towards elections in 2005.

Around 250,000 people were killed in Liberia's civil war and many thousands more fled the fighting. The conflict left the country in economic ruin and overrun with weapons. The capital remains without mains electricity and running water. Corruption is rife and unemployment and illiteracy are endemic.

The UN maintains some 15,000 soldiers in Liberia. It is one of the organisation's most expensive peacekeeping operations.

wpid 61647095 08 img 24075 Liberia profile Liberia has a spectacular coastline, as adventurous surfers are beginning to discover

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