Cote d’Ivoire’s House Divided

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Mark Brenner

THE WEST AFRICAN nation of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) on September 19, 2002 was once again engulfed in political turmoil and military conflict, as nearly a thousand soldiers staged a coordinated uprising in three of the country’s major cities.

These events mark the third major spate of political violence in Côte d’Ivoire in as many years, and run the very real risk of embroiling at least two neighboring countries in a larger regional conflict. While there is ample reason to fear the worst, current signs are hopeful, as both sides signed a cease-fire brokered by Senegal’s foreign minister on October 19, 2002.

The combatants initially rebelled against a government plan to begin decommissioning those soldiers inducted into the armed forces during a period of military rule in 2000, but they soon began calling for the ouster of President Laurent Gbagbo and the organization of new elections.

Following the initial uprising the mutinous soldiers established effective control over more than half of the country’s territory, primarily the Muslim-dominated Northern region, and they have successfully repelled efforts by the army to re-establish control over the nation’s second largest city of Bouaké.

The October 19 accord calls for a buffer force of French soldiers to be stationed between the two sides, eventually to be replaced by West African troops drawn from several neighboring countries. Regional leaders hope to proceed quickly to direct negotiations with both sides thereafter, although decommissioning the rebels promises to be much more difficult to achieve than the cease-fire.

Why Anti-Immigrant Violence?

Whether or not a political compromise can be reached, the current crisis has unleashed simmering religious, national and ethnic chauvinism throughout the country. Intense communal violence has plagued several parts of the South, most notably the immigrant suburbs of Abidjan, the nation’s economic capital.

Government forces have been an integral part of the process, displacing thousands of people in a campaign to “root out rebel forces,” which has amounted to bulldozing several shanty-towns in the Abidjan area.

Immigrants, who comprise nearly thirty percent of the country’s population, remain the prime targets of both communal and state-sponsored violence — particularly natives of Burkina Faso, the largest immigrant group in the country.

These cleavages stem from an increasingly unstable ethnic and religious arithmetic. Two ethnic blocks — Akan in the South and Mandé and Voltaic in the North — each comprise approximately thirty percent of the country’s population.

Historically, the locus of political power in Côte d’Ivoire has been centered in the largely Christian South, among ethnic groups in the Akan family. Northerners (largely Muslim) belong to various ethnicities within the Mandé and Voltaic families, also widespread throughout Mali and Burkina Faso (Côte d’Ivoire’s northern neighbors).

This rough parity is upset by the character of immigration, however, as close to forty percent of current immigrants come from Burkina Faso (with ethnicity overlapping the Voltaic family), and a full seventy percent of the country’s immigrants are Muslim. This strength in numbers is incongruous with the low degree of political power exercised by the North historically, and feeds a very real sense of second-class citizenship.

Northerners routinely face difficulty obtaining national identity cards or registering to vote because of “foreign-sounding” surnames, and are pejoratively referred to as “foreigners” throughout many parts of the country.

Although this situation has not yet produced the large-scale ethnic violence seen elsewhere in Africa, it has already created substantial internal displacement. Indeed, reports indicate that as many as 200,000 refugees have fled the city of Bouaké alone since the outbreak of fighting last month, a situation the UN’s World Food Program likened to that of Rwanda and Burundi.

“All the ingredients are present for a large-scale humanitarian crisis through a massive displacement of people in the country and possible outflow of immigrant workers into neighboring countries,”
the WFP said.

Agricultural and Economic Disaster

Meanwhile the economic consequences of the conflict are already being felt in at least one important sector — cocoa. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest exporter of cocoa, accounting for approximately forty percent of the world’s supply; cocoa exports are the backbone of the Ivoirian economy, accounting for approximately eight percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

The current rebellion has severely disrupted this year’s harvest, as much of the agricultural workforce comes from Burkina Faso and has fled in the wake of the violence. Some of the heaviest fighting has also occurred in the country’s largest cocoa-producing area, in and around Daloa, which at least twice changed hands between rebel and government forces.

The Roots of the Crisis

While it is too early to tell if a durable peace can be established, this conflict with the specter of large-scale ethnic violence, and possibly a regional war, has dragged Côte d’Ivoire squarely back into its “Third Period” of national politics.

This situation stands in stark contrast to the political stability that characterized the country for most of its post-independence history. How did the political fortunes of the nation change so dramatically?

Côte d’Ivoire ‘s “First Period” of national politics began with independence in 1960. With the assent of Charles de Gaulle, Félix Houphouët-Boigny — a wealthy cocoa grower turned political figure — led the newly formed republic of Côte d’Ivoire out from under French colonial rule.

Houphouët-Boigny maintained close ties with the former colonizer, receiving copious aid and technical assistance. He also staffed many high-level government positions with French nationals, who helped catapult Côte d’Ivoire forward onto the world stage in the production of agricultural products such as cocoa, coffee, pineapple and palm oil.

This agricultural success was also tied to Houphouët-Boigny’s liberal immigration policies, which opened doors to millions of migrants from all over West Africa, and provided a ready source of cheap labor for indigenous growers.

Politically shrewd, Houphouët-Boigny deftly managed the competing demands of different regions and ethnicities, drawing key traditional leaders from the North into his Partie Democratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). At that time opposition came from the West, and ethnic groups in the Krou family, which Houphouët-Boigny effectively parried through political alliances with the North.

These balancing acts, manageable in the context of Côte d’Ivoire’s rapidly growing economy which expanded at nearly ten percent a year in real terms into the 1980s, became much more difficult with the global recession of the early 1980s and a drastic decline in world commodity prices.

Moreover, the slowdown in the country’s economy laid bare the enormous corruption and fraud within the highest reaches of the government. This graft and financial mismanagement is perhaps best symbolized by Notre Dame de la Paix, the world’s largest basilica, constructed by Houphouët-Boigny in 1989 with “private funds” in his hometown of Yamoussoukro.

With the country in the midst of economic crisis, a national strike by civil servants and university students forced Houphouët-Boigny to open up that year’s presidential elections to parties other than the PDCI, and ushered in the country’s “Second Period” of national politics.

Coalition Falls Apart

In 1993 Houphouët-Boigny died, and was succeeded by Henri Konan Bédié, the former speaker of the National Assembly. Bédié’s ascension was at the expense of Alassane Dramane Ouattara, Houphouët-Boigny’s last Prime Minister, and a popular leader from the North who also has held senior positions at the International Monetary Fund.

Bédié’s heavy-handed play for the presidency sounded the death knell for Houphouët-Boigny’s ruling coalition, and less than a year after his death several key political leaders from the North left the PDCI and formed the Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR).

Under Bédié’s tutelage the national economy continued to stagnate, and social unrest increased. Particularly noteworthy was the growing hostility towards immigrants, who were thought to be exacerbating unemployment and “stealing” business opportunities from Ivoirian nationals with their extensive presence in the country’s petty-trading and informal sectors.

The fifty percent devaluation of the CFA (the regional currency used by fourteen West African countries, which is pegged to the French franc) in 1994 helped stimulate growth in the years immediately following, but income inequality widened sharply and ethnic and national tensions increased.

These divisions were given voice on the national political stage as the Bédié government tightened its grasp on the nation’s political reins following a victory in the 1995 elections. Aside from jailing hundreds of oppositionists, Bédié introduced and began to promote the concept of ivorité (“Ivorianess”) designed to cultivate nationalist sentiment among the population.

Bédié also spearheaded an effort to amend the nation’s constitution to prohibit anyone not born to both an Ivoirian mother and Ivorian father from becoming president. This was, in practice, designed to exclude Alassane Ouattara from national politics, as one of his parents is alleged to be of Burkina origin (leaving aside the fact that in 1942 — the year of Ouattara’s birth — neither Burkina Faso nor Côte d’Ivoire existed).

By late 1999 several ethnically motivated attacks on foreigners had occurred in the country, forcing close to 15,000 nationals of Burkina Faso to flee northward, and there was again unrest among civil servants as well as the military.

On Christmas Eve, 1999, General Robert Gue&iuml deposed Bédié in a nearly bloodless coup d’tat, ushering in Côte d’Ivoire’s “Third period” in national politics, and marking the first time the Ivoirian military inserted itself into the national political scene.

Gbagbo Comes to Power

Not content to simply lead the military junta, Gueï attempted to orchestrate his election as president — this time as a civilian — in October 2000. Running as an independent, Gueï barred candidates from virtually all major political parties from the ballot.

The one candidate that Gueï did not bar from the election was Laurent Gbagbo, a historic opposition figure from the time multi-party elections were first introduced in Côte d’Ivoire. Much to Gueï’s surprise, Gbagbo and his party the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), won the election with sixty percent of the vote.

This victory, however, was clouded by a widespread boycott called by the PDCI and its main rival the RDR. Once the results were announced, Gueï attempted to nullify them, declaring himself president.

This tactic provoked spontaneous street demonstrations in the economic center, Abidjan. Security forces were largely overwhelmed by the protesters, and within hours Gueï was on a helicopter bound for Togo.

Gbagbo and the FPI partisans immediately seized on the occasion to declare Gbagbo president, while both the RDR and PDCI called for new elections. Violent confrontations between the RDR and FPI partisans ensued, and over the four days following the elections dozens were killed, including sixty-four people in a mass execution by armed forces again in the immigrant suburbs of Abidjan.

While the country, at that time, pulled back from the brink of full-scale conflict, and Gbagbo was “accepted” as the national president, this opened the door to the political contestation that continues to this day.

Failed Reconciliation

The armed conflict of the past month is also a major setback from the National Reconciliation Conference that took place earlier this year. Organized with the intent of constructing some sort of detente at the upper echelons of power, this conference brought together all the major political parties and personalities — including Bëdië, Gueï, Ouattara, and President Gbagbo — for the sake of “national unity.”

One of the most important products of the event was an unambiguous affirmation on the part of the Gbagbo government that Alassane Ouattara was indeed “Ivoirian” and would be allowed to stand in upcoming elections.

However, as so often is the case, this progress was accompanied by setbacks in other areas, as the Gbagbo government continued to arrest and detain oppositionists, purged the army of several top officials suspected of supporting Gueï, and was implicated in the July murder of a close political associate of Robert Gueï in exile in Burkina Faso.

These and other excesses of the nominally “socialist” FPI government were detailed in a stinging report released by Human Rights Watch in 2001, and have showed few signs of abating in the year since.

Unfortunately, as is often true, other events — in this case the decommissioning of soldiers — have triggered the present conflict, and arrested whatever promising developments recent months produced.

France’s historically heavy hand in the region only serves to complicate matters. Approximately 20,000 French nationals were living in Côte d’Ivoire at the onset of armed conflict and French soldiers maintain a permanent presence in Abidjan.

These forces have provided “logistical” support to the government troops throughout the conflict, and it is not clear whether their “buffer force” will be able to credibly keep the peace between the two sides. Most recently French forces have threatened to pull out of the cease-fire process altogether, following a recent attack on the French military base in Abidjan, where ironically Alassane Ouattara has taken refuge.

Uneasy Prospects

The rebels have yet to make clear their political intentions — beyond the broad denunciations of the current regime — but it seems difficult to imagine a scenario short of a third-party monitored transitional government and new national elections.

Obviously any future transition must be predicated on stabilizing the current situation and addressing the humanitarian needs of the population; the United Nations has yet to seriously engage the current crisis, however, and it is not obvious that the regional Economic Community of the West African States (ECOWAS) will be able to do more than offer peacekeepers.

Experience from neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone offers little hope for interventions by either of these institutions, and the continuing involvement of the French is too tainted by uncritical support of past regimes. Unfortunately, the political center of gravity shows no signs of shifting, and Côte d’Ivoire may be stumbling into full-scale civil war, and possibly even genocide.

ATC 101, November-December 2002