Eye on Africa: The Ivory Coast Illusion

Posted in Africa | 18-Jan-05 | Author: Mvemba Dizolele

Alassane Ouattara (left) and Konan Bedié

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- For 33 years, the Ivory Coast or La Côte d'Ivoire, as the French named it, had it all: a powerful economy, stability and a bright future. Compared to the chaos in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali and Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire was an oasis of peace in West Africa.

But, it was an illusion. Like its neighbors, Côte d'Ivoire had all the ingredients for a volatile mix: a dictator, a mosaic of ethnic groups, religious suspicion and a weak political opposition -- a deadly cocktail for 17 million Ivorians.

A former French colony, Côte d'Ivoire did not experience a bloody independence war. The Ivorian transition to independence from France was relatively peaceful. In 1960, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, a physician who had served in various French colonial governments, emerged as the first president. During his 33-year reign, Côte d'Ivoire maintained close ties with France. The country remained as dependent on France as it had been before independence.

A pan-African visionary, Houphouët-Boigny encouraged immigration from neighboring countries to help with the economic growth. Roughly 26 percent of Côte d'Ivoire's inhabitants are immigrants.

Côte d'Ivoire is the world's largest cocoa producer. It is also a large exporter of coffee and palm oil, and has substantial deposits of petroleum, diamond and natural gas. Its ties to France and foreign investment made the country an economic success story.

Politically, however, the country resembled any other African dictatorship.

For 30 years, Houphouët-Boigny's Parti Démocratique de Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI), ruled alone, with all the benefits of a single-party state. Reelected several times, he did not allow opposition parties until 1990. At the time of his death in 1993, Houphouët-Boigny had neither designated nor prepared a successor, setting Côte d'Ivoire on the road to chaos.

As the constitution prescribes, Konan Bedié, president of the national assembly and PDCI member, became the Côte d'Ivoire president, pending new elections.

Two years later, in the 1995 elections, Bedié won a five-year term, and quickly began consolidating his power. Under his party's majority, the assembly amended the constitution and changed the presidential term to seven years. He launched a national identity campaign known as Ivoirité, designed to give all power to Ivorians.

On the surface, it sounds like a patriotic mission. However, in a country, which has historically relied on foreigners to build its economy, Ivoirité proved divisive and explosive.

Bedié had hoped to alienate his main opponent, Alassane Ouattara.

An economist, Ouattara built a stellar career at the International Monetary Fund and the West African Central Bank. He eventually served as Houphouët-Boigny's prime minister (1990-93). His detractors accused him of being from neighboring Burkina Faso. He had allegedly held Burkinabe citizenship in the past. Ivoirité provided a cover for the witch-hunt.

"Issues of citizenship are not unique to Côte d'Ivoire," says Leonard Robinson, president and CEO of the Africa Society and former deputy secretary of State for African affairs. "How you deal with them is more important. In this country, there are talks of Arnold Schwarzenegger's presidential run. You use the law."

Bedié's maneuvers backfired. Africa is the epicenter of unintended consequences. On Christmas Day 1999, he was overthrown in a coup by a group of military officers. Retired General Robert Guei, former chief of staff of the armed forces, emerged as the new president.

Although the Ivorian people had enough of Bedié and wanted him dismissed, they were not ready for a military regime. They demanded the right to choose their leader. Gen. Guei was not yet ready to relinquish power. Under international pressure, he organized elections. But, with the exception of Laurent Gbagbo of the Front Populaire Ivoirien, Guei barred all candidates representing the major parties from the race. Gbagbo won by default.

A former university professor and member of the national assembly, Gbagbo is charismatic: a man of the people. Ivorians expected he would redress the truncated process and quickly build a government of national unity. To their dismay, Gbagbo proceeded as if he had won a full mandate.

He appointed representatives of small parties into his government, but kept all major political figures out of the administration. Unfortunately for Gbagbo, he needed their presence and experience to signal his goodwill to the nation.

A rebellion broke out in September 2002. The rebels demanded that Gbagbo resign and new elections be held. The Gbagbo government refused. The ensuing war has divided the country in two, with the rebels controlling the North.

In order to prevent further degradation, France, which has maintained a substantial military presence, sent troops to serve as a buffer between government and rebel forces. The two countries have a defense agreement.

Last November, Ivorian forces attempting to reclaim rebel-held territory, bombed a French military camp and killed nine troops. The details of the operation remain murky. However, the French retaliated and destroyed the Ivorian air force.

"We do not want to make matters worse," says Philippe Djangoné-Bi, Côte d'Ivoire's ambassador to the United Nations. "Let diplomacy follow its course. The French are our friends, but what their government did was horrible."

The Gbagbo government alleges that France has failed to keep its part of the defense agreement. Côte d'Ivoire had asked France for help in its fight against the rebels, who it claims are armed by Libya and Burkina Faso.

The rebels, on the other hand, have also clashed with French forces. They accuse the French of supporting government troops.

The French maintain they are there to help create the conditions for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. They see their role as a mediator in an internal conflict that requires a national solution.

The belligerents have met three times to try and hammer peace accords. Yet, the situation on the ground remains unchanged. "How do you organize elections when the country is split in half?" asks Djangoné-Bi. The rebels continue to demand that Gbagbo step down and new elections be held. The government asks that rebels disarm before any electoral process is initiated.

The conflict has the same elements we have seen elsewhere in Africa. Ivorians should draw lessons from these crises and their own recent history. Only then will they spare their country the destruction that has befallen other nations. Angola and Sudan are primary examples of unnecessary wars that boosted egos of a few leaders, but ruined millions of lives in two rich countries.

The solution to the Ivorian crisis lies in the missteps of leaders following Houphouët-Boigny's death: ivoirité, coup d'Etat, and ethnic and religious manipulation. In a complex society like Côte d'Ivoire's, there is no shortcut to stability. Only through an inclusive democratic process will the country recover as a true oasis of peace for all.

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