The Ivory Coast: from one crisis to another

Article published on July 27, 2004
community published
Article published on July 27, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Ivory Coast is getting deeper into a crisis that is destabilising an entire region. Europe, and France in particular, have found themselves on the front line, for good and bad reasons.

When President Houphouët-Boigny died, old and tired, in 1993, observers wondered who would succeed the patriarch - the Prime Minister Alassane Dramane Ouattara, or the president of the Ivory Coast National Assembly, Henri Konan Bédié, whose constitution assures him a pre-eminent role. Very soon afterwards, Bédié quickly appeared on television to take power and to ask the people “to acknowledge his presidency and, consequently, to be at his service”!

Henri Konan Bédié, a weak president of a country caught up in a bitter economic crisis, transformed the concept of “Ivoirity” (a sense of national Ivorian identity) into a weapon of exclusion. This local version of “national preference” (or discrimination in favour of Ivory Coast nationals) also had the advantage of allowing him to bring discredit on some of his most dangerous political opponents, one of which was his rival Ouattara.

At the end of 1999, with the approval of the vast majority of the population, General Gueï (head of the army under Houphouët) deposed Bédié. Disillusion quickly descended. Gueï took a liking to power and took up the torch of “Ivoirity” in order use divisions to better establish his power.

Power born of protest and violence

In October 2000, elections took place in great haste. With the collusion of Laurent Gbagbo, Gueï dismissed 10 of the 15 other presidential candidates. The participation was laughable. Gueï proclaimed his victory but quickly gave in in the face of street demonstrations. Elected as president in these calamitous conditions, Laurent Gbagbo drove the point home. Ivoirity was pushed as far as it would go. The entire population had to obtain a new identity card, with different colours for different regions or peoples - more difficult to obtain, of course, in the areas least favourable to those in power.

At the same time, violence became a common tool for the Government, as United Nations enquiries have shown. The militia became organized, death squadrons suddenly appeared, acting within the country (the Yopougon mass grave found in October 2000) as well as abroad (the Keita affair in Burkina at the start of 2002).

A half-coup tears the country in two

On 19 September 2002, a rebellion broke out, which failed in Abidjan but took control of the North of the country. Gbagbo invoked a defence agreement with France, who was evidently the military superior, so that the rebel’s advancement was blocked. The front stabilised, cutting the country in half. Thus a cycle of endless negotiations began, which reached a high point in January 2003 at Marcoussis near Paris, where a framework agreement was ratified by the main players in the conflict, outlining a roadmap to reconciliation. This set out everything, from the setting up of a unified national government around the Prime Minister appointed by consensus to disarmament and the help promised by the European Union.

Gbago, who was tired and had only just got back to Abidjan, turned a deaf ear and opposed the agreement. He no longer wanted any of his powers transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office. Since then, the few advances (the signing of a ceasefire) have been accompanied by catastrophes, such as the savage repression by militia and police of a peaceful demonstration on 25 March last year, which killed at least 120 people.

Political life froze, between a president fixed in his positions, a rebellion henceforth organised under the name “New Forces” and ruling 60% of the Ivorian territory, along with a coalition of the main Ivorian political parties (with the exception of Gbagbo’s FPI party), who share the said New Forces’ programme.

The problem of the right to intervene

Summoned by Laurent Gbagbo to save his regime, international forces, especially from France, intervened and stayed involved in order to avoid tragedy, an ever-present possibility. France, in particular, was very concerned for the 15,000 French and French Ivorians living there.

Untangling “humanist” intervention from protection of colonial interests is of course not obvious. Determining to what point the international community can become involved in an internal conflict is no easier.

It remains that, in the case of the Ivory Coast, the country’s becoming destabilised is a major risk for the entire region. For 40 years the Ivory Coast has been a pivotal country; it is the least poor country in the CFA zone, and houses the West African central bank. Following the crises in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the disorder in the Ivory Coast had already deeply ravaged Mali, Burkina-Faso, Guinea and Senegal.

Now, faced with the incompetence of some Ivorian main players, the situation invites foreign intervention. Multilateralism is thus needed to avoid the imperialism of a single state, whether it is that of an African neighbour, America or France. The latter, in particular, has a heavy responsibility towards an Ivory Coast that has never really been independent. Big industrial groups like Bouygues and Bolloré, which have major political influence and are notoriously close to Jacques Chirac, have made big investments and reap considerable profits from the Ivory Coast, almost all of which are not subject to tax.

It seems, then, that in order to get out of this crisis, international pressure should continue to be exerted upon Ivorian agents, and even stepped up. But intervention should be the result of subtle collaboration between the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations.