Behind the crisis in Ivory Coast

January 19, 2011

Matt Swagler argues that the Western powers threatening intervention against Ivory Coast's ruler Laurent Gbagbo are responsible for creating his regime.

FOR THE past two months, Ivory Coast has been embroiled in a conflict between two political leaders and their supporters, following a highly contested national election.

As Western commentators dramatically repeat claims that the country is headed toward the "abyss of civil war" or a "descent into madness," politicians in Europe, the U.S. and neighboring countries have increased calls for foreign intervention. However, these threats have only exacerbated tensions in Ivory Coast, and offer no means to address the nation's problems.

Recent presidential elections have resulted in a political deadlock, with both the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara declaring victory. In early December, both men claimed to have been officially sworn in as head of state, and have since created parallel administrations. The presidential elections, the first in a decade, were overseen by the United Nations, which has maintained a military force of nearly 10,000 troops in Ivory Coast since the country's 2002-2003 civil war.

Election posters advertise the campaign of Laurent Gbagbo
Election posters advertise the campaign of Laurent Gbagbo

After a runoff election on November 28, the national election commission declared Ouattara the winner, with 54 percent of the vote. However, Gbagbo's administration refused to accept the count, claiming that election fraud and intimidation had taken place in areas where Ouattara's support was high. When an election commission official first attempted to announce the results on television, officials backing Gbagbo intervened, grabbing the results from the spokesperson and tearing them up in front of the cameras.

With the situation unresolved, Gbagbo then sought legitimacy from a more favorable bureaucratic channel: the country's Constitutional Council. A loyal member of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI, according to its initials in French) heads the Council, which has the final say in election results. The Council promptly annulled hundreds of thousands of votes for Ouattara, and declared Gbagbo president for another term.

Since Gbagbo's attempt to dismiss the initial results, protests by oppositionists and Ouattara supporters have taken place across Ivory Coast, both in the north of the country and in the crucial southern port city of Abidjan. The protests have been met with violence, as security forces and suspected armed squads of Gbagbo's backers have been accused of intimidating, kidnapping and murdering dozens of opposition supporters.

Although reports and statistics aren't clear, it's likely that approximately 170 people have been killed since the election run-off, mostly at the hands of pro-Gbagbo police and paramilitary forces. The United Nations has reported that more than 20,000 Ivorians have fled to neighboring Liberia since the election crisis began.

The United Nations General Assembly, European Union, U.S. government and neighboring African leaders all defended the electoral commission's findings and officially recognized Ouattara and his ministers and ambassadors as official representatives of Ivory Coast.

However, for the moment, Ouattara's political authority is very precarious. State security forces and the military have remained committed to Gbagbo, and the incumbent continues to control the most important press outlets. Since the election run-off, Ouattara and his government have only been "ruling" from under lockdown within a posh hotel in the city of Abidjan, under protection of armed allies and hundreds of UN troops.

Though Gbagbo's representatives have signaled that they may be willing to accept a power-sharing arrangement similar to those negotiated in recent years in Kenya and Zimbabwe after contested elections, foreign leaders, including President Barack Obama, have largely ruled out the possibility, declaring Ouattara the unquestionable victor.

The EU and U.S. have already passed "selective sanctions" on Gbagbo's circle of supporters, implementing travel bans and freezing assets in overseas bank accounts. In late December, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, announced after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that the bank would be cutting off all loans to Ivory Coast.

The economic boycott of Gbagbo has since escalated, with the Central Bank of West African States granting only Ouattara access to state funds. With Gbagbo now cut off from key finances needed to pay soldiers and civil servants, foreign supporters of Ouattara are hoping that state employees and the military will follow the source of their paychecks and defect to Ouattara's camp.

Ivory Coast's former colonial overlord, France, has been leading the European call for Gbagbo to step down, a warning backed by nearly 1,000 French troops based in the country. While it currently seems unlikely that the French government will use its troops to oust Gbagbo, the possibility of foreign military intervention remains. Ouattara's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, neighboring African leaders and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have all endorsed the use of outside force "if needed."

In response, Gbagbo has tried to tap into public bitterness over French presence in Ivory Coast, declaring that foreign support for Ouattara represents an attempted "coup d'état by France." Many Ivorians who previously supported Gbagbo have become angry and disillusioned over the course of his decade-long rule. But the recent threats and ultimatums by Western governments have provided him with an opportunity to cynically mobilize "anti-imperialist" rhetoric to whip up support.

MOST WESTERN journalists have been quick to tail their governments' rhetoric and embrace a simplistic narrative: Gbagbo as a nefarious African tyrant clinging to power by mobilizing violent death squads, and Ouattara as the righteous oppositionist who must be established as the democratically elected president. There is an important grain of truth in this, but it ignores the role of French military and economic power in Ivory Coast, the ongoing occupation of the country by UN troops, and Ouattara's own unsavory history.

Those concerned with the lives of the vast majority of Ivorians will find little to defend in Gbagbo's record as president, but Ouattara offers no significant alternative. Further foreign intervention to install Ouattara, regardless of the election outcome, will only sow deeper division and crises in Ivory Coast.

Moreover, behind the grand rhetoric about "democracy" lurks Western corporations' financial interests. Ivory Coast has the largest economy among the former French colonies of sub-Saharan Africa, and produces more cocoa than any other country on the globe--more than one-third of the world's supply. The recent national political crisis alone has elevated international cocoa prices by 10 percent.

French corporations and French citizens settled in Ivory Coast have long enjoyed lucrative trade and resource exploitation concessions, and have virtual control over industrial and public works contracts. In the past decade, U.S. corporate investments have also climbed, and the prospects for increased profiteering remain high as oil extraction expands off the country's coast.

In 2002, a brief but bloody civil war exposed numerous tensions that continue to drive the current conflict. The war ostensibly split the country between the North, run by various rebel groups, (collectively referred to as the New Forces), and the South, controlled by the state government. As today, the Western media was quick to highlight the differing religious compositions of the regions, as Muslim populations are concentrated in the North, and Christian populations are concentrated in the South.

However, this is both a demographic oversimplification and a misreading of the sources of the conflict. The crisis--then and now--has been driven primarily by unemployment, a growing wealth divide, and the discrimination faced by many Northern residents who are, or are presumed to be, immigrants from neighboring countries. These "Northern" populations are the backbone of the Ivorian labor force, producing vast profits for foreign and Ivorian elites, while facing the greatest poverty and instability.

Ouattara draws much of his support from this section of the population, who hope he will lift them out of second-class status. Hailing from the north of Ivory Coast, Ouattara himself has been accused of being "non-Ivorian" by his political opponents.

WHAT IS rarely mentioned in news reports about Ivory Coast is that foreign intervention is already at the center of the conflict. Since the 2002-2003 civil war, the UN has maintained a military force of nearly 10,000 troops, and the French army has kept soldiers and a military base inside the country throughout the five decades of Ivory Coast's political independence. While Ivorian presidents have historically accepted the ongoing presence of the French military, for many Ivorians, these troops are a bitter reminder of past abuses.

The French claimed colonial control of the area of Ivory Coast at the end of the 19th century, but faced stiff resistance from those who lived in the region. French attempts to implement head taxes and forced labor regimes fueled ongoing struggles, and the French were only able to assert control over the territory after 1915.

Unlike most West and Central African colonies, Ivory Coast had a significant white settler population, dominated by French plantation owners who profited from the forced labor of African agricultural workers producing bananas, cocoa and coffee. Although forced labor ended in 1950, and Ivory Coast became independent in 1960, French corporations and settlers have continued to dominate important sectors of the economy.

French military intervention is also hardly a thing of the past. In response to the outbreak of civil war in 2002, France sent 4,000 troops to Ivory Coast. However, their presence enflamed hostilities, with antagonists on both sides of the war claiming that the French were acting in support of their opponents.

By 2004, the situation had deteriorated dramatically when Ivorian forces bombed a French base in the north of country, killing nine French soldiers. Gbagbo claimed the bombing was a mistake, but the French maintain that it was a deliberate attack. Then-French President Jacques Chirac responded immediately by ordering French jets to completely destroy the Ivorian air force.

During subsequent protests against foreign intervention, French helicopters dropped concussion grenades and soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing as many as 68 and injuring hundreds. The general in charge of French forces, Henri Poncet, was censured and suspended less than a year later for covering up the death, and possible execution, of an Ivorian prisoner. Coming just a decade after extensive French complicity in the Rwandan genocide, France's violent intervention in Ivory Coast only strengthened Gbagbo's supposed "anti-imperial" credentials and bolstered the resolve of his supporters.

Now with the UN footing the bill for a large portion of the election costs, and French-supported UN soldiers guarding Ouattara's administration in an Abidjan hotel, it has become easy for Gbagbo to once again claim that foreign forces are trying to destabilize the country.

HOWEVER, GBAGBO'S present invocation of "anti-imperial" principles is both cynical and hypocritical. Gbagbo was a trade union and opposition leader throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and came to power after winning the 2000 presidential election.

In a mirror image of the current situation, Ivory Coast's then-military leader, Robert Guéï, attempted to cling to power after the election and deny Gbagbo's victory. Gbagbo was able to assume the presidency only after popular protests finally forced Guéï to step down. However, over the past decade, Gbagbo has embraced both the profiteering of foreign corporations and the xenophobia encouraged by his predecessors.

Despite his "anti-imperial" claims today, Gbagbo has been quite accommodating to French capitalism. Maurice Fahe, a member of the Worker's Party of Ivory Coast, points out that while Gbagbo has found himself in the midst of political clashes with the French government during his presidency, economic relations with both France and the United States "have never been better."

According to Fahe, Gbagbo granted a record number of favorable contracts to the French in electricity production, water, oil and gas exploitation, and public works projects. Had the large French population of Ivory Coast been allowed to vote in the election, Fahe told me, it wouldn't have been surprising to see 100 percent of their votes go to Gbagbo.

Pierre Haski backed up Fahe's observation in a recent Guardian article, noting that "throughout Gbagbo's 10 years in power, French businesses landed the biggest contracts: Total for oil exploration, Bolloré for the management of Abidjan's harbor, Bouygues for telecoms." To this day, 600 French corporations remain invested in the country under the Gbagbo's regime.

By the middle of the 2000s, as South African author and activist Patrick Bond noted, Ivory Coast's exports were booming, but at the expense of the vast majority of the Ivorian people. The World Bank reported that after subtracting capital depreciation, resource depletion and pollution damage, the country's gross national income was actually negative $100 per capita.

Not only were foreign investors becoming rich off the exploitation of the country, but Ivorian elites, (including those around Gbagbo), were sure to take their cut as well, and stashed the money in foreign banks. By 2005, the amount of money being sent out of the country by French settlers and the Ivorian ruling class had reached $15 billion more than the country's entire national debt.

The Workers Party's Fahe also pointed out that Gbagbo has continued to develop highly profitable corporate investments in cocoa and coffee by granting favored status to two American multinationals, ADM and Cargill. But if the American and French capitalists have benefited from Gbagbo's presidency, why are both countries supporting Ouattara? According to Fahe:

The current position of France the USA has nothing to do with democracy. The idea is to use "democracy" to promote the person that they think is the most capable of realizing favorable conditions for pillage. The problem with Gbagbo is that he has been unable to resolve internal contradictions, to bring the order necessary for the pursuit of the peaceful plundering of the country.

France is eager to maintain its dominant role in the Ivorian economy, and the U.S. is equally keen to gain more of a foothold. Currently, Chinese investment is relatively low, and both Sarkozy and Obama would like to keep it that way. Even as their respective corporations battle for contracts, the U.S. and France are hoping that Ouattara will be able to maintain the political stability most favorable to their continued exploitation of the country's markets, land and resources.

TO MAINTAIN his grip on power, Gbagbo has fostered racism toward Ivory Coast's 4 million immigrants.

During the presidency of Henri Konan Bédié, from 1993 to 1999, the term "ivoirité," the idea of being a "true Ivorian," became a term of exclusion. Bédié and other politicians who emerged out of the Southern economic and political networks established during the 33-year reign of former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, used the concept to scapegoat and expel residents from the north of the country. While the Gbgabo administration's rhetoric has not been as virulent as his predecessors, he has continued to use anti-immigrant sentiment to his advantage.

From the beginning of Ivory Coast's history as an independent country in 1960, the economy has relied steadily on the labor of a large population of immigrants, especially those from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. By 1965, the "foreign" African population in Ivory Coast was already one-quarter of the population, as it is today, with one-half to two-thirds of the rural labor force composed of immigrants. Official attacks on immigrant workers represent an attempt to divide "Northern" and "Southern" populations while unemployment remains high and wages low.

Attempts to establish ivoirité as an exclusive category also fall victim to the country's history. The boundaries that separate Ivory Coast from Mali and Burkina Faso were arbitrarily created by the French during colonization, and for much of the colonial period, the French included territories from today's Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso within the same colonial territory. Thus, the borders separating Ivory Coast from its northern neighbors are, like most borders in Africa, arbitrary products of the recent past.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Ivorians, an Ouattara presidency would hardly represent a significant political change.

As a Muslim from the north of Ivory Coast, he maintains the support of many Northern residents who originated in Mali and Burkina Faso. For the millions of residents who have been the target of Bédié and Gbagbo's scapegoating of "foreigners," Ouattara represents some hope for acceptance.

However, many of Ouattara's backers were criticized in a recent African Union report for violently attacking his opponents and intimidating voters in the lead up to the presidential elections. While Ouattara has attempted to distance himself from the New Forces (FNCI) rebel groups of the 2002-2003 civil war, these same forces now act as his primary means of military power. Western journalists have rarely raised criticism of the New Forces groups, despite their own history of egregious abuses toward local populations.

Ouattara is not an innocent newcomer to Ivorian politics, having served as Prime Minister under the exceptionally pro-corporate, pro-French presidency of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Before entering Ivorian politics, he served for many years a high-ranking leader of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). During Ouattara's time at the IMF, this major financial body forced many African nations to accept devastating structural adjustment programs that mandated cuts to government social services and the acceptance of a flood of foreign imports from Europe and the United States.

Ouattara is also no stranger to French political circles, and none other than right-wing politician Nicholas Sarkozy--now the president of France--administered his marriage ceremony outside of Paris. An Ouattara presidency will likely result in much of the same pandering to the wishes of French and other foreign corporations, and few resources for the vast majority of people. His campaign recently called upon the UN to grant their troops in Ivory Coast "intervention" status, allowing them to actively fight to install Ouattara. Such a mobilization of foreign UN troops would likely set off a greater escalation of violence, anger and resentment among millions of Ivorians.

Given two bad choices, what position have activists taken in Ivory Coast?

As Maurice Fahe explained to me, some in "left and intellectual circles" have continued to rally around Gbagbo: "When a political leader gives the impression of opposing the former colonial power, there are of course people who will support him," Fahe said. But Gbagbo has long failed to represent either democracy or resistance to imperialism, which is why Ouattara has maintained broad support, despite accusations of collaboration with the French or United States.

Fahe argues that activists in Ivory Coast must fight for democracy, and therefore should reject Gbagbo's opportunism and attempt to steal the election. So long as Gbagbo clings to power, Fahe believes that radicals and socialists will find it more difficult to organize for significant changes. But in opposing Gbagbo and pushing him to step down, Fahe notes, activists need not raise the banner of Ouattara, whom he describes as "the most successful product of neo-liberalism."

While conditions for organizing are difficult, ultimately the actions of activists and the majority of the Ivorian population represent the only chance for a fundamental solution to the divisions and poverty that haunt the country. Neither France, the U.S., the UN, nor even other African leaders ought to be trusted to defend "democracy" in Ivory Coast.

Among Western pundits and politicians, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has been elevated as an alternative to French or UN intervention--a supposedly "African" solution to an "African" problem. After the election, this 15-nation economic alliance suspended Ivory Coast's membership in the group in order to censure Gbagbo, and has acknowledged Ouattara as president.

However, some of the sitting presidents of ECOWAS nations themselves came to power under suspicious or outright fraudulent conditions. Goodluck Jonathan, president of Nigeria, the most powerful state in ECOWAS--and the likely source of most troops in the event of military intervention--rose to power because of the death of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, who was fraudulently elected in 2007. Similarly, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé was installed by the military after his father's death and held on the presidency through a questionable electoral victory in 2005. Last year, Col. Salou Djibo, the current leader of Niger, was installed by a military junta in aftermath of a coup.

The UN and the U.S. have even less recent credibility in "defending democracy" after organizing and approving corrupt elections in Haiti in November. As Kim Ives explained, the elections were a sham before they even took place: "The real power in Haiti lies militarily with the 13,000 soldiers of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and economically with the Interim Commission to Reconstruct Haiti (CIRH) headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton." The United States picked up half of the tab for the $30 million election, while excluding Lavalas, Haiti's most popular party, and celebrated the elections despite evidence of egregious misconduct.

This embarrassment follows closely on the heels of the U.S.-endorsed fraudulent elections in occupied Afghanistan in 2009, which pitted two pro-U.S. henchmen against each other gross display of mutual "vote stealing, ballot stuffing, proxy voting, [and] intimidation."

Thus, the U.S., the UN and many ECOWAS leaders, like the French, should have little credibility in defending democracy in Ivory Coast. And the more foreign ultimatums and threats of military intervention escalate, the more pressurized the Ivorian political conflict is likely to become.

While we should stand in solidarity with activists fighting for democracy and equality in Ivory Coast, we should also resist calls for yet another devastating foreign intervention in Africa.

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