Côte d’Ivoire––Landmark or Landfill?
by Ross Peterson
Côte d'Ivoire can be called a political quagmire. Now, wth President
Laurent Gbagbo shaking hands with rebels who control two-thirds of the
country, have they discovered a path out of the swamp? By inaugurating
a Government of National Reconciliation this year, will the people who
fled the country return to no longer live in fear?
in the fall, it looked like the original rebel group, the Patriotic
Movement of Côte d’Ivoire, or MPCI, would march on Abidjan. Almost all
16,000 French and foreign nationals fled the country. Over 900,000 Ivorians
were displaced, with several hundred thousand fellow Africans returning
north to Burkina Faso. Operation Licorne was launched by the French
military and a cease-fire agreement between the combatants was signed
by the third week of the uprising, in mid October. Then two more rebel
formations emerged in late November, and the bloodiest theatre of the
war opened in the western zone.
the fears of the residents in the loyalist south mounted, so did the
xenophobic attacks on immigrants and Muslims living there. Human rights
abuses of every description occurred. The opposition and international
media were shut down. Political assassinations were rife.
fear was neither new nor does fear alone explain the reprisals carried
out (in September, October, and throughout January ) by extreme loyalist
factions against fellow Africans. The anger focussed against French
symbols of neocolonial power certainly has deep roots and fits nationalist
aspirations. Xenophobia and economic domestic divisions along territorial
and ethnic lines are the very tissue of what Côte d’Ivoire’s political
class has manipulated to stay in power while dividing the masses.
as the economic heartland of the nation realized how weak their military
defenses were, something new was added to the equation. The president’s
party knew how to exploit the nation’s need for a collective enemy bigger
than the home-grown rebel movement. The south was forced to realize
that the nation was ripe for destabilization by any of a number of potential
scapegoat states, intervening from beyond the Ivorian borders.
it is common knowledge that the second front owed its birth to support
from Charles Taylor’s regime in neighboring Liberia. Less is known about
the debt the MPCI owes to Blaise Compaore’s government in Burkina Faso,
to the north of the MPCI strongholds.
any case, whether the rebels were armed by neighboring states or not,
the Ivorian army was in no shape to defend their nation. The well-trained,
disciplined incursion from the north was led by ex-officers from within
the very ranks of the Ivorian army and its elite security forces. The
MPCI leaders were former student militants who had a program of sound
reforms in the area of ethnic rights and citizenship. And they all had
good reasons to overthrow Laurent Gbagbo as the battle lines were drawn.
But good reasons to crush Gbagbo, when facing down the French military,
were not enough. It was evident by January that the rebellion would
have to lean more heavily on the reform program. France could support
that, and all the parties were convened in Paris to hammer out an accord
that was signed on 24 January 2003.
perhaps, resolving the mess on the western front (with Liberian mercenaries
fighting on both sides) may go down in the books as the greatest challenge
for this phase in West African affairs. Even Taylor is sending in troops
on the Liberian side to secure the border, while on the Côte d’Ivoire
side we will soon see France and the Economic Council of West African
States intervene with their respective peacekeeping forces. But the
porous borders of African states threatened by hostile neighbors is
one thing. In the political arena, how power-sharing works between the
MPCI and the government deserves our attention because it poses the
question of state power: reform versus revolution. The eternal question.
Does power flow from the ballot or the bullet?
the Ivorian republic be reformed? Will the bargain serve as a model
of what can or what cannot be resolved through power-sharing? Can an
insurrection / revolution / civil war be interrupted and still bring
about progressive reforms or redistribution of power and wealth?
d'Ivoire is not out of the swamp yet; the politicians sharing power
may stumble, like a mastodons stuck in a tar pit. Out-and-out civil
war has probably been avoided, but the signposts away from danger using
democratic reforms to avoid disaster have never been clearly marked
at any time over the country's postcolonial history.