The Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire

Image: Flickr, Nicolas Raymond
Image: Flickr, Nicolas Raymond

The path back to peace requires barring all current political rivals, establishing an interim government and holding internationally conducted elections.

For the international community to intervene decisively in a particular conflict, it is always better if a clear picture of good guys and bad guys can emerge. Anything less and the world dithers. Most decision-makers take an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ approach to ruling parties and rebels. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to give easy answers. At times, all the protagonists are unfit to rule. What can the international community do then? That is the fundamental problem in Côte d’Ivoire today.

Until last month, an uneasy ceasefire held between the government and rebel troops, who seized the northern half of the country in 2002. Despite the presence of UN peacekeeping troops the Ivorian government broke the détente by bombing rebel positions. In the process, nine French soldiers and an American aid worker were killed. In retaliation, the French army destroyed most of the Ivorian air force.

Recently, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo, a welcome first step but not enough to end the cycle of violence in what was once regarded as the most stable country in a very unstable region. Before mediators can find a solution, they must understand the depth and complexity of the country’s leadership crisis.

The present crisis began to take shape in 1993, when the country’s first president, Felix Houphoüet-Boigny, died after 33 years in power. Under his reign, Côte d’Ivoire became the most advanced economy in West Africa. As the world’s top cocoa producer, the country was able to afford a modern capital and an impressive network of roads. Foreign investment and a policy welcoming migrant labour from neighbouring countries were part of the country’s success story.

The glory of days gone by

During the boom years, millions of economic migrants from all over West Africa settled permanently in Côte d’Ivoire. With time they acquired Ivorian citizenship and their children were born in the country.

By the time Houphoüet-Boigny died, Côte d’Ivoire was on the verge of implosion. The winds of democratisation were sweeping Africa. Prices for the nation’s major crops, cocoa and coffee, were dropping, the currency, the CFA franc, was devalued. National debt had risen to unsustainable levels and unrest gripped the country.

Former finance minister Henri Konan Bédié succeeded Houphoüet-Boigny. To bolster his power base and exclude rivals from contesting for power, Bédié promoted a new concept of ‘Ivoirité’ (Ivorian-ness), which sought to distinguish between ‘real’ Ivorian citizens and foreigners.

Hidden behind this question was the issue of land ownership, entitlement to what was left of the riches of the country and access to political power. Due to their geographical proximity and cultural links to countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, the burden rested (and still rests) on people from the northern part of Côte d’Ivoire to prove that they are not foreigners. In the past few years identity cards have been denied to a lot of people on the basis of their Malinké sounding names. Consequently, during the last elections a substantial number of northerners were disenfranchised.

Alassane Ouattara became the flashpoint of this politics of exclusion. He draws much of his support from the north. He served as prime minister in Houphouët’s last government and was, with Gbagbo, the most popular rival to Bédié. Being a Muslim of Burkina Faso descent, Ouattara’s Ivorian citizenship has been contested by Bedié and Gbagbo’s governments. This has effectively barred him from being a presidential candidate.

In December 1999, Gen. Robert Guéi toppled Konan Bédié in a coup d’état. Despite promises to the contrary, Guéi stood as a candidate in elections that also barred Ouattara from participation. Guéi declared himself the winner, but was forced to flee by popular uprising. Laurent Gbagbo, long an opponent of Houphouët’s ruling party, took power as the presumed winner of that flawed election. Ouattara called for fresh elections, but Gbagbo refused. Fighting erupted between Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters.

Instead of conciliation, Gbagbo continued to stir ethnic division. He financed and armed the Young Patriots, a party militia that has staged violent demonstrations, attacked foreigners and is accused of extra-judicial killings of opposition party organisers.

Within two years, rebel soldiers from the north rose against his government and succeeded in cutting the country in two. Rapid deployment of French troops stalled the conflict, but neither side has shown willingness to compromise. Both sides have broken the Marcoussis peace accord brokered by the French as well as the Accra II and III agreements. Gbagbo continued to re-arm and failed to follow through on pledges to reform electoral and citizenship laws.

French troops and political pressure were without doubt instrumental in stopping all-out civil war. But as the former colonial power, France does not have the profile of a neutral party. Through state media propaganda, Gbagbo effectively used the destruction of the nation’s small air force in November to whip up anti-French sentiment among the population and divert international attention from his abrupt violation of the cease-fire.

Left alone, the country will return to war, which will have devastating consequences for the region. Fresh elections are necessary, but many issues must be settled first.

Given their track record, it seems unlikely that either Gbagbo or Guillaume Soro of the rebel forces will lay down their arms unless the international community imposes its will. Elections must be organised by a body that is broadly accepted as neutral but is forceful enough to insist on fair play. Unless the elections are free and fair, the conflict will start again.

Ouattara and Bédié are planning to join forces and contest the elections together, with Bédié running as president and Ouattara as prime minister. Bédié pledged to serve only one term and hand over to Ouattara. An alliance between Ouattara and Bédié, a Christian, is capable of defeating Gbagbo in a fair vote and would help diffuse the threat that southern Christians perceive from a northern Muslim running the country.

The first step to effective outside mediation is recognising the extent to which all players have acted in bad faith so far. Grand corruption went unchecked under Bédié, who celebrated his outrageous fortune with champagne and caviar. He also fathered the present politics of exclusion. Gbagbo has stirred ethnic tension, continually delayed implementation of the peace accords, unleashed the violent Young Patriots and pumped out hate speech on state media. He is not committed to a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. As for Ouattara, although he could have diffused tensions and relinquished control of his party to someone with less problematic nationality, he led his party to boycott elections even though this was a bad political move. The northern rebel forces, who remain tainted for having tried to violently seize power, have no political experience or party organisation able to assume leadership. Moreover, the government has accused them of being backed militarily by Burkina Faso. Given this background, the best option would be to bar Gbagbo, Bédié, Ouattara and Soro from politics. Indeed, judging from previous actions, Gbagbo’s government will try everything to prevent the elections from taking place in the face of the Bedié-Ouattara alliance or will simply bar Bédié from being a candidate.

An interim government must therefore take over and lead the country to internationally supervised elections.