Cote-d’Ivoire a Who’s Who

Saturday 2 November 2002, by Daphnée DION-VIENS

In September, the political landscape of Cote-d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) was thrown into disarray. An attempted coup against President Laurent Gbagbo, and the occupation of several northern cities by renegade units of the army, exposed the social and political instability that has plagued the country since a previous coup in December 1999. But the real face of the rebellion remains obscure.

The current crisis began on the night of September 18th, with the assassinations of interior minister Boga Doudou (a close political ally of the president) and Robert Gueï, himself the leader of the 1999 coup. In the fighting, northern cities-including Bouaké, the country’s second largest, fell to the rebels. Despite a cease-fire on October 17th, and the deployment of French troops to keep the government and rebel forces apart, tensions between the two sides remain high.

In the first few days of the rebellion, it was believed to be an uprising of mutinous army units protesting the government’s decision to demobilize 750 soldiers, officially explained as a budget-cutting measure. The demands of the insurgents have since grown more political: rebel spokesmen are now demanding Gbagbo’s resignation and multi-party elections to select a new president and legislature. It seems the announcement of the cutbacks merely touched off a crisis that had long been threatening to explode.

A decade of political instability

Observers have long considered Cote d’Ivoire a model of political and economic stability in West Africa. The death in 1993 of former President Felix Houphout-Boigny, who had led the country since its independence in 1960, contributed to a growing climate of political insecurity.

Henri Konan Bédié, a former speaker of the National Assembly, was elected president in 1995. Former prime minister Alassane Dramane Ouattara of the Rassemblement des républicaines (RDR) was barred from participating in the elctions due to his "uncertain nationality;" his mother’s family came from neighbouring Burkina Faso.

A general and former army chief, Robert Gueï led a coup against Bédié in December 1999. During the presidential elections in October 2000, Ouattara was again blocked from participating. Laurent Gbagbo of the Front populaire ivoirien (FPI) was Gueï’s only rival, and after winning an otherwise free and fair election sought to legitimize and consolidate his power.

The motives behind the rebellion

The exact motive or motives behind the current army uprising are unclear.
One possibility is that the rebels mobilized in reaction to the growth in ivoirité, or "Ivoirianness," an ethnic-nationalist policy promoted by the government. Invoked by then-President Bédié to keep Ouattara out of the 1995 elections, ivoirité aims to exclude "foreigners" from public life. Its adherents claim that full Ivoirian citizenship should be limited only to those whose parents were born in Cote-d’Ivoire. In reality, nearly a quarter of the country’s population is of foreign descent, mostly from neighboring West African countries.

Abdirahaman Ousman, editor in chief of the Niger based newspaper Alternative, believes that Gbagbo "made ivoirité the fulcrum of the new political doctrine of the FPI, which was founded on exclusion and racism." According to information obtained by Le Courrier international, which has spoken of the "reorganization of Cote d’Ivoire on an ethnic basis," the Gbagbo government has used the military and police in numerous waves of ethnic cleansing. In addition, it has issued identity cards that divide Ivoirians into first- and second-class citizens according to their ethnicity.

Rebel spokesman Sergeant Shérif Ousmane has maintained that Cote d’Ivoire should remain united and inclusive. "It is because of too much injustice, arbitrairiness, and exclusion between Ivoirians on one side and Ivoirians and foreigners on the other that we have taken up arms... In Cote d’Ivoire, there is a place for everyone."

Other statements, however, seem to contradict the idea that the current government’s support of ivoirité gave the impetus for the uprising. A different rebel spokesman told the media that preparations for the coup had started three years before Gbagbo became president.

Alternatively, Le Monde has reported that that a Northern secessionist plot could be behind the September 19th uprising. Since 1995, the political brouhaha around the exclusion of Ouattara from the presidential elections has exacerbated tensions between the Muslim north of the country and the Christian and animist south.

Journalist Stephen Smith believes that the rebel forces are in fact led by Chief Sergeant Ibrahim Coulibaly, Ouattara’s bodyguard. "[Coulibaly] has become the promoter of one cause: that of the north of Cote d’Ivoire, the humiliated half of the country." The rebel spokesmen quoted earlier are in fact close to Coulibaly, the head of a clandestine organization based in Burkina Faso.

For Jean-Hilaire Yapi, president of the Collectif des Ivoiriens du Canada, the link between the army uprising and Ouattara’s party is becoming clearer. "After the 2000 elections, Ouattara and the RDR asked for new elections and contested the legitimacy of President Gbagbo. This is exactly what the rebels are demanding," Yapi noted. In Cote d’Ivoire itself, demonstrators supportive of the northern insurgents are heard to chant "Gbagbo voleur, on veut ADO" (Gbagbo is a thief, we want Ouattara). Yet to his credit, Gbagbo has granted Ouattara Ivoirian citizenship and installed a broad-based government of national unity.

France’s role

According to one analyst from the SYNARE trade union, "this aggression would not have been possible without the complicity and support of individuals or organizations on the inside. But it is also evident that foreign people or interests are the principal ringmasters."

France has had much to lose economically since Gbagbo came to power. Cote d’Ivoire has long been one of its principal trading partners in sub-Saharan Africa. Gbagbo represented a threat to this relationship as he has sought to enlarge Cote d’Ivoire’s trade with other industrialized countries, notably China and Japan. Abdirahaman Ousman of Alternative concurs with this analysis, as does Jean-Hilaire Yapi who describes Gbagbo as "a nationalist who refused French assistance with the Ivoirian economy."

Yapi recalls the close relationships between Ouattara, himself a former advisor to the International Monetary Fund, and French big business. During his tenure as prime minister, Ouattara was the architect of privatisation in Cote d’Ivoire, signing contracts for public services with French multinationals. These contracts come up for renegotiation in 2005.

Despite these longstanding ties, demonstrations are being held throughout Cote d’Ivoire condemning the French military intervention in the conflict.
The resolution of this crisis should be watched carefully. The complexity of the situation reflects Cote d’Ivoire’s role as a key player in West Africa, a region already stricken by multiple civil wars

Daphnée Dion-Viens, Editorial Assistant, Alternatives Newspaper.

À propos de Daphnée DION-VIENS

Assistante à la rédaction, Journal Alternatives

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