The Dirty Politics of Africa: The Crises in the Ivory Coast - Part III

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 6, 2003

Since the Republic of Ivory Coast gained its independence from France in 1963, it was ruled by Felix Houphouet-Boigny until his death some thirty years later. Although there are those who credit him for steering the country into stability and relative prosperity while things seemed to be falling apart elsewhere in the region and continent-wide, there are those critics (including myself), who seem to think that the Ivory Coast effectively remained a French colony with Houphouet-Boigny as France's hand-picked overseer to run it as a plantation.

And, indeed, a plantation it was! Besides being the world's largest cocoa producer, a commodity that produced enormous economic returns, the Ivory Coast is among the largest producers of coffee beans and palm oil. But Mr. Boigny's legacy (as seen through Western eyes) boils down to "building the world's largest Catholic cathedral in the African jungle". What was the old man thinking, conceiving and constructing such an enormous and expensive project given the reality around him? The resources used to construct this massive complex could have been diverted to road construction and improvement, health care, education, just to name a few projects that would have benefited the masses. But, it seems benefiting the masses was never the old guru's main goal; his main goal was to impress his masters in France. Maybe in building this huge cathedral, it was Mr. Boigny's intention to have the French convince the Catholic Church to move its headquarters from the Vatican to Yamoussoukro, his home town. After all, he was a devout Catholic, too.

Well, the grand old man who had been a successful symbol of the French colonial experiment of "assimilation", finally succumbed to nature; he died in 1993. Yes, the man considered by many to be more "French" than "African", a man who was a member of the French parliament before taking over his special assignment to run the farm was now dead! And this oasis of peace, prosperity and stability found itself on sinking ground. Many found out it was only an illusion, a ‘house of cards', if you will.

As many of Africa's dictators are wont to do, Mr. Boigny made sure power was mainly concentrated in the hands of people of his ethnic and religious background. Mr. Boigny hailed from the "Baoule" people of central and eastern Ivory Coast, and was a devout and committed Catholic (a part of the package of assimilation).

Maybe being such a stout and devoted Catholic who was able and willing to build its biggest shrine, Mr. Boigny thought he was not an ordinary mortal. The president, who brought "peace, prosperity and stability", did not ponder the question of "Life after Felix Houphouet-Boigny". He did not install a democratic and pluralistic system that would eventually accommodate a smooth and peaceful transition. He merely groomed a personal successor under whom the chaos began to come to light.

Henri Konan Bedie, another Baoule and Catholic, succeeded Mr. Houphouet-Boigny, although the Prime Minister, Mr. Alassane Ouatarra felt he was next in line to succession. Did the fact that he was a northerner and a Muslim have anything to do with this? It's too early to tell. Mr. Ouattara protested and resigned and vowed to come back.

Mr. Bedie pursued divisive ethnic policies, just like his predecessor had done, but he did not have the personality and charisma of the old man to keep the people mesmerized in a slumber. The people saw through his game plan and decided to challenge him. A credible opposition emerged, with Mr. Alassane Ouattara (now the leader of the Rally of the Republicans), who had surfaced as one of the aspiring candidates for the up-coming elections in 1995.

To boost his chances of winning the election by avoiding his toughest challenger, Mr. Bedie and his government shamelessly pursued the policy of "Ivoirite or Ivorianess". According to this concept, been born and bred in the Ivory Coast did not matter. Both of one's parents had to be Ivorian citizens for one to claim citizenship. And they were claiming that Mr. Ouattara's mother was from Burkina Faso. (His lawyer provided evidence of genetic tests showing that he is the son of an Ivorian woman).

Mr. Ouattara boycotted the elections in 1995 but maintained he was Ivorian. But of course, he was Ivorian! Why else would he be allowed to serve as prime minister? These politicians, in their short-sightedness and blind pursuit of personal aggrandizement, could not see the full implications of this backward policy of exclusion. This policy, if pursued to the hilt reveals that about 40 percent of the country's 15 million inhabitants would be considered foreigners! That could become a potential powder keg as we shall see later.

In December of 1999, as yet another election period approached, General Robert Guei mounted a military coup and overthrew President Bedie, following months of instability sparked by attempts to discredit Mr. Ouattara. At first the coup appeared to be good news for Mr. Ouattara, and several of his supporters assumed senior positions in the military government.

But it soon became clear that General Guei was interested in the presidency himself. Similar tactics were employed to exclude Mr. Ouattara from the elections once more. Mr. Bedie, the former president, was not allowed to contest the elections and neither was Mr. Ouattara, on the same weak claim that he was a foreigner.

In the meantime, General Guei, sensing that Laurent Gbagbo, a historian and former trade union activist (leader of the congress of the Ivorian Popular Front), was not strong enough to defeat him (Guei), allowed him to run. Well, surprisingly, the historian and trade unionist was on the verge of defeating the general when the general halted the elections and declared himself winner in that shameless display of power commonplace in Africa.

But after boldly stealing the election, the Ivorian people decided they had seen enough. In an amazing display of "people power", ordinary citizens took to the streets to demand their government back. The general blinked. The people sent him packing from the State House to the doghouse, where he belonged. When the dust settled, Guei was the loser, Gbagbo the winner, but Ouattara was still the outsider. So close, yet so far away; staying on the outside, looking in.

Well, we know the tragic events that have transpired in the last few months and continue to this day. While President Gbagbo was on a State visit, General Guei re-emerged to stage a coup to topple Gbagbo. Well, some people never learn. The Ivorian people had spoken before: They didn't want General Guei. This time, to make their message clear once and for all, he was killed in the uprising. Ouattara was pursued; he fled into the French embassy – he will live to fight another day, maybe. Meantime, President Gbagbo returned to take control of a tragic situation, with things falling apart.

In examining the Ivorian crises, I think Mr. Gbagbo made a tactical and costly error in simply accepting himself as the winner and dismissing General Guei and Mr. Ouattara as losers. Mr. Ouattara was not allowed to compete in the race, and could not be rightly dismissed as a loser. His constitutional rights had been compromised. I think it was wrong and selfish of Mr. Gbagbo not to have risen above the petty policies of General Guei and the former President Bedie. After all, wasn't Gbagbo hailed as a proponent of human rights and democratic principles?

The fair thing, in my opinion, for Mr. Gbagbo to have done was to cancel those flawed elections rigged by the army general. As a man who had espoused and championed democracy, he should have proposed a new round of elections to give Mr. Ouattara his rightful due.

As it is Mr. Gbagbo gladly accepted an opportunity to become president prematurely and pretended the people had spoken. We know the difficulties that the normally peace-loving people of the Ivory Coast have become subjected to: civil war.

I do not claim to be a soothsayer and I cannot say with absolute certainty that these crises would have been averted had Mr. Ouattara been allowed to exercise his democratic rights in his own country. But I am willing to go on record supporting the old axiom: "You can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time."

When it comes to this business of democracy, remember, the people have the last say because they have the power. They can either send you to the State House or send you to the doghouse. Where do you belong?

[Postscript: As this article goes to press, a peace accord arranged in Paris remains shaky and tentative. Gbagbo is seen as an opportunist by the opposition. On the other hand, his supporters see him as too soft in giving away too much in the negotiations. He is now forced to share power with the Muslims and northerners. It's their country, too.]