General Guei, who seized power in a coup last Christmas Eve in Côte d'Ivoire, was forced to quit after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Abidjan, the capital. This followed presidential elections last Sunday in which Guei excluded most of the candidates and had expected to top the poll.
Opposition leaders called for a boycott, resulting in a low turnout. The remaining oppositionist of any standing still on the ballot, Laurent Gbagbo, apparently gained a majority of the votes, although the final count has yet to be announced. Gbagbo has now been sworn in as President and claims he will establish “a broad-based government of national unity.”
Commentators have presented the ousting of Guei as another example of a democratic popular uprising removing a dictator, following the example of the ousting of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic's. As in Yugoslavia, this interpretation is questionable to say the least. Gbagbo's supporters carried out the protests after Guei dissolved the electoral commission and declared himself the winner of the election.
Unarmed protesters numbering thousands at the most would hardly have represented a problem for the troops defending Guei, and about thirty were shot dead over the two days of rioting. However the protesters were supported by the gendarmerie-a paramilitary police force-and were soon organising their attacks on the troops with police support and guns. The turning point in the conflict occurred when four police armoured personnel carriers mounted with cannons and heavy machine guns stormed the capital's TV station and defeated the troops still loyal to Guei defending it. Gendarmes then escorted Gbagbo inside so that he could make a brief broadcast announcing he had taken power. By this time, more and more units of the army were changing sides, and within hours Guei was forced to step down.
It is not difficult not to detect the hand of France behind these developments. With major economic interests in Côte d'Ivoire, in public statements last July France made clear that it was opposed to Guei's presidential ambitions. Paris has 550 troops stationed in the country, including a squadron of Foreign Legion light tanks, as well as an assault ship stationed off the coast. There was no need to use these forces openly, however—and risk accusations of colonial interference-it sufficed to work through local forces. As the Washington Post reported, “the decision by gendarmes to attack the army was unprecedented here. Diplomats said commanders of the gendarmerie are close to the French, the former colonial rulers here, and said France had used its influence to at least keep the force from moving against the demonstrators.”
There are strong links between the Socialist Party (PS) government in France and Laurent Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which like the PS, Britain's Labour Party and the German Social Democrats, belongs to the Socialist International. Leading PS deputy Michel Rocard received warm applause when he announced to a study group that Guei had been overthrown and "our comrade Gbagbo is President of Côte d'Ivoire.” Henri Emmanuelli, a French PS deputy who heads the France-Côte d'Ivoire Friendship Group, strongly supported Gbagbo as the new President, saying that he has “a democratic culture and the force of character to carry through a functional democracy.”
In contrast to France's endorsement of Gbagbo, a chorus of demands for new elections and for the present constitution to be scrapped is being led by the United States and echoed by South Africa and some other African states.
Following a referendum last July, a new constitution was adopted, which decreed that a presidential candidate must have both parents born in Côte d'Ivoire. Guei was then able to use a court ruling to exclude his main opponent Alassane Outtara, leader of the Rally of Republicans (RDR), from standing in the elections, claiming his origins were in neighbouring Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). He also used the courts to rule several other candidates out of order, including Emile Constant Bombet of the Côte d'Ivoire Democratic Party (PDCI). The PDCI was the party of Henri Konan Bedie, the President ousted by Guei, and which had formed the ruling party since independence in 1960. Outtara, a former IMF official, is clearly the favoured US candidate. As Prime Minister of Côte d'Ivoire in the early 1990s he rigorously applied free-market policies and slashed government spending.
France is not calling for fresh elections. In an article headed “Divergent advice from Paris and Washington”, Le Monde asked if Sunday's election conferred upon Gbagbo “the necessary legitimacy”, concluding that for the French government, “it is clearly not the moment to question the election.” Installing Gbagbo would enable the country to “avoid chaos,” the paper declared. French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine declared the election "legal in the sense that it conforms to the legality of the Côte d'Ivoire".
The exclusion of Outtara from the election was the result of Guei's increasing embrace of the chauvinist trend introduced into Ivoirean politics by Konan Bedie in the 1990s.
As the world's biggest cocoa producer, Côte d'Ivoire was regarded as the economic hub of West Africa. It produces nearly half the total of the West African CFA zone's GDP—whose currency is tied to the French franc. But falling cocoa prices and IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes have resulted in economic decline, mounting poverty and unemployment.
Thousands of immigrant workers from Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria and other West African countries have moved into Côte d'Ivoire over several decades, so that they now constitute up to half of the population. Bedie and other political leaders developed the concept of “Ivorité” (those whose origins are supposed to be in Côte d'Ivoire-even though the many tribal groupings in the area extend across the present borders and Côte d'Ivoire itself was created through an arbitrary division of colonial French West Africa).
Bedie's intention was to whip up discrimination against immigrants as a diversion from the country's economic plight and to drive thousands of them out of Côte d'Ivoire. He particularly targeted Outtara as a Muslim from the north where Burkinians predominate-the south is mainly Christian. Given the absence of any alternative, thousands of workers and immigrants are now supporting Outtara despite his pro-IMF agenda.
Gbagbo has a long history as a trade union leader and oppositionist from the 1970s onwards, and claims to be a socialist. But from the 1980s he has also strongly embraced Ivorian chauvinism. This aspect of his politics has been conveniently forgotten in the speeches of the French PS deputies.
France was opposed to Guei standing as president because of doubts about his ability to hold together the warring cliques at the top of Ivorian society, and not because of his anti-immigrant stance. Le Monde quoted a French Foreign Office source who admitted Gbagbo's racist defence of “Ivorité”, but claimed that Gbagbo was the “least worst” candidate: "Côte d'Ivoire is today confronted with an identity crisis upon which most are riding... It's a reality that has to be considered... Ouattara is hated by a large part of Côte d'Ivoire citizens”.
Immediately after Gbagbo's announcement that there would be no new elections, further conflict took place on Thursday October 26, this time between Gbagbo's supporters and RDR protesters. Thousands of Gbagbo's FPI members, backed again by gendarmes, attacked Outtara's residence. Outtara fled to the nearby German embassy. Latest reports indicate that at least 20 of his supporters were killed. Whilst Gbagbo and leading RDR members have since appealed for calm, Côte d'Ivoire's spiral into increasing civil unrest looks set to continue.
Threat of civil war and French intervention in Côte d'Ivoire
[22 September 2000]
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