Wednesday, February 2, 2011

IVORY COAST ON THE BRINK: Yohannan Chemerapally

THE elections held in Ivory Coast in November 2010, the first since the disputed elections of 2000, was meant to bring an amicable end to long running political and military feud that had polarised the country for more than a decade and a half. Instead, the elections, which resulted in the victory of the opposition leader, Alassane Outtara, now threatens to plunge the country into an even bigger crisis. The incumbent president, Laurent Gbabgo, has been in power since 2000, after being installed in office following a popular uprising against military rule. The military had seized power in 1999.

The country’s new ambassador to the UN, Youssoufou Bamba, issued a stark warning in the last week of December that the Ivory Coast is “on the brink of genocide.” Bamba, an appointee of Outtara, said that forces supporting Gbabgo, have already identified houses and neighbourhood in the capital Abidjan on the basis of ethnicity. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) already estimates that more than thirty thousand Ivorians have already fled to neighbouring countries like Liberia. The UN secretary general, Ban ki-Moon has also said that there is a serious threat of civil war erupting once again in the country


In the last decade and a half, Ivory Coast, which was once the economic power house of West Africa, has been experiencing political turmoil. The country is the biggest producer of cocoa and the third biggest producer of coffee. The falling international price of cocoa and coffee, the country’s main exports in the international market, had contributed to the economic decline. Felix Houphet Boigny, the country’s authoritarian ruler since independence in 1960, died in office in 1993, leaving behind a political void. Signs of the trouble ahead were already evident during the last years of his rule. There were huge popular protests in 1990, forcing Boigny to reluctantly allow multi-party democracy to be introduced. His successor, Henri Konan Bedie, is the man most Ivorians hold responsible for the divisiveness that has characterised the country’s politics. It was Bedie who coined the word “Ivorite.” The word initially referred to the cultural identity of the people of the country but within a few years it stood for those Ivorians whose parents were born in the country before independence. Bedie had contested the recent elections but had come a dismal third in the polls.

During the economic boom of the sixties and the seventies, the country had welcomed people from the neighbouring states to work in the cocoa, coffee and rubber plantations. These workers were in a way responsible for the short-lived Ivorian economic miracle. Soon the term “Ivorite” in the parlance of those in power, came to stand for the people in the predominantly Christian South of the country. Significant sections of the population in the North have their roots in neighbouring countries like Burkina Faso and Mali. About one-third of the country’s population comprises of first generation citizens and their offspring from other West African states. Before the holding of the controversial 2000 elections, the military dominated government at the time had passed a law requiring both parents of a presidential candidate to have been born in the Ivory Coast. This law was used to debar Outtara, a former prime minister, from contesting previously planned elections on the grounds that both his parents hailed from Burkina Faso. Outtara, who has held senior positions in the IMF and other financial institutions, has always denied the allegation.

Gbabgo, who in his younger days was a trade union leader with leftist pretensions, continued with the xenophobic policies of his predecessors, after he took over in 2000. In 2002, the Northerners feeling excluded and deprived of fundamental political rights rose in revolt. It was the intervention of French troops garrisoned in the country that prevented the fall of Abidjan, the seat of power, to the rebel army. In the civil war that gripped the country between 2002-2004, the government in Abidjan under Gbabgo managed to hold on to power but in the process lost control of the North. In 2003, the government and the rebels signed an accord creating “a government of national unity.” Elections were supposed to be held in 2005 but continuing clashes and mutual suspicions led to postponement of the elections. The elections, under tight international supervision, could be finally held at the end of 2010 only.


Gbabgo was confident that he would emerge the winner, given his hold over the South and his influence in the bureaucracy and the army. In the first round, he got the most number of votes but failed to cross the 50 per cent barrier that would have prevented a run-off. In the second round, it was Ouatarra who emerged as the clear winner getting 54 per cent of the votes polled. The elections were conducted in the presence of international observers, including those from the UN and the African Union (AU). But Gbabgo, with the support of the leadership of the armed forces, immediately refused to concede, alleging that Outarra had “rigged” the elections. Despite the angry protests from the international community, including the UN and the AU, Gbabgo got himself anointed once against as the president. Not a single country so far has recognised him but he seems to be betting that the recent discovery of sizeable offshore oil and gas deposits would make some countries eventually change their minds. Angolan and Russian companies had recently signed deals with the Ivorian government.

The UN, the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have all demanded that he make way immediately for Outarra. Outarra was sworn in as president in a parallel ceremony held in an Abidjan luxury hotel, heavily guarded by UN peacekeepers. In the face of continued intransigence by Gbabgo and his supporters, the ECOWAS has threatened military intervention to ensure that a legitimate government is installed in Ivory Coast. In the last week of December, ECOWAS sent a team of three heads of state to Abidjan to present Gbabgo with an ultimatum to step down or face action. ECOWAS peacekeepers had previously intervened in Liberia, Cape Verde and Sierra Leone. The presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde who met with Gbagbo have said that they will return again in the first week of January, for a last ditch attempt to convince Gbabgo to acknowledge the writing on the wall.

ECOWAS had issued a statement after the December visit of three heads of state which said: “In the event that Gbabgo fails to heed the immutable demand of ECOWAS, the community would be left with no other alternative but to take to other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people.” The AU had also despatched a team led by the Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, in a bid to persuade the Ivorian President to step down gracefully. The AU has already suspended Ivory Coast’s membership of the organisation.


Gbabgo has not given any indication that he is in a mood to relent. His spokesman in fact issued a belligerent statement when the ECOWAS heads of state were in the country. “Let’s avoid political delinquency. No international institution has the right to intervene by force to impose a president in a sovereign state,” he said. Gbabgo supporters have also started targeting UN personnel. Already, more than 170 people have been killed since the election results were announced. In the last one decade, supporters of the pro-Gbabgo “Young Patriot” movement have run amok, killing thousands of Ivorians hailing from the North. The head of the Young Patriots, Charles Bie Goude, is also the minister of youth, in the government headed by Gbabgo. Goude is reportedly mobilising his forces for yet another round of blood-letting. The UN has confirmed that mercenaries, including former combatants from Liberia’s infamous civil war, have been recruited “to target certain groups in the population.”

Gbabgo has demanded that the UN peacekeepers, along with the French military contingent stationed in Ivory Coast, leave immediately, declaring that the “international community has declared war” on his country. He has accused them of siding with his political opponents. There are around 13,000 French troops in Ivory Coast. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has in a strongly worded statement said that Gbabgo “must choose now if he wants to go down in history as a man of peace or be considered a criminal.” The intervention of the former colonial power in the internal affairs of a sovereign country in normal circumstances would not have gone down well, especially in the African continent. But on Ivory Coast, the international community has so far presented a united front.

The French previously were in favour of cohabitation between Gbabgo and Outtara. Paris had virtually acquiesced to Gbabgo’s illegal hold on the levers of power for the last ten years. The French troops are in control of Abidjan’s airport which they had taken over after destroying the country’s air force. That incident took place in 2004 after Ivorian security forces killed a few French soldiers. Under the terms of a treaty signed between the two countries, French troops can intervene militarily if there is a request for help from the Ivorian president. As Outtara is now the internationally recognised president of the Ivory Coast, he could legitimately put in such a request. But most observers are of the opinion that the French are unlikely to openly intervene. The West would prefer that the job be done by a joint ECOWAS/AU military force. The French of course would be playing an important behind-the-scenes role with a sizeable force already on the ground. The UN has a 10,000 strong peacekeeping force in the country but they do not have the mandate to intervene militarily.

Courtesy: www.pd.cpim.org/