Dancing with Rebels: Gbagbo and the Ivorian Revolution

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 17, 2003

Finally, after keeping everybody waiting for two weeks, the President of Cote d'Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo went on the air on Friday February 7 to give his interpretation of the Linas-Marcoussis Peace Accord, brokered by the French Government to end the civil war. The accords called for a government of"national unity" that would include rebels. After the signing of the accord, witnessed by French President Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan of the UN, Tabo Mbeki of South Africa and Omar Bongo of Gabon, Ivorian"patriotic" youth started a wave of demonstration in Cot d'Ivoire that led to looting of French properties and the departure of many French nationals. During the recent ECOWAS summit in Dakar, many West African leaders put pressure on the Ivorian president - who did not attend the meeting - to implement the accords.

In his speech, Gbagbo said that he"accepted the spirit of the Marcoussis Accords" but added that every important element in the text would have to be examined in light of the Ivorian constitution. The Ivorian president said:"Wherever and whenever there is contradiction between the Constitution and the Accords, the Constitution shall prevail." Problems began when the spokesperson of the major rebel group (MPC), Guillaume Soro a former ally of Gbagbo in the 1990s and former student leader went on French television to announce that he would become Minister of the Interior and that his friend would become Minister of Defense in the new government. Gbagbo returned to Abidjan and met with leaders of the military, the gendarmerie and the police, all of whom rejected the Accords. A day later, major political parties at the National Assembly voiced their opposition to portions of the Accords, rejecting the disarmament of the national army and putting Defense and the Interior at the hands of rebels.

Another problem in the Accord was that the (new) Prime Minister could not be removed until the 2005 presidential elections. Gbagbo insisted on the fact that according to the Constitution,"the prime minister is appointed at the will of the president.. The Prime Minister must submit a government to the president who has all latitudes to accept or reject the nominations." Therefore, Gbagbo said he would not allow the accords of Marcoussis to impose a new type of government on him because the constitution was never suspended.

How did the crisis grow from a mutiny to a civil war?
The crisis started on September 19, 2002, when a group of soldiers who had been recruited by General Guei in 2000 and were facing discharge after their normal 2- years service staged a mutiny and tried to force the government to keep them in the military. They tried to move into Abidjan but were stopped in their advance. Former military leader General Guei was killed by government troops. The French troops moved in to secure Yamoussoukro and stop the advance of the rebels from Bouake and Korhogo. In the confusion, former student leader Guillaume Soro surfaced in Bouake and met with the rebels. As a former member of the FPI and close friend of Gbagbo, many expected him to facilitate the negotiations. But instead, he turned out to be the spokesperson of the rebels. At the first peace talks held in Accra, the main issue for the rebels was to be re-integrated in the army and avoid being court-martialed. The government accepted the cease-fire agreement signed between the rebels and an ECOWAS negotiating team. However, upon their return to Bouake, the rebels started to call for the resignation of Gbagbo and the formation of a transitional government. They refused to disarm and threatened to move on Abidjan. ECOWAS met again and set-up a mediation committee headed by Togolese president Eyadema. Rebels and government were brought to Lome for a month long talks.

Meanwhile, the French government seemed to play an ambiguous role in the process. It deployed its forces to stop the rebels' advances but refused to engage into anything that"might jeopardize its neutrality," insisting that it was an intra-Ivorian conflict while the Gbagbo government insisted that it was under attack from Burkina Faso.

From the issue of re-integration the mutineers into the army, other matters surfaced, including grievances of Burkina Faso nationals who were"victimized by loyalist troops". The issue of land tenure and nationality as defined by the constitution also became part of the conflict. The new Ivorian constitution, principally written to stop opposition leader Ouattara, former prime minister under Houphouet, from seeking the presidency also bars foreigners from holding land. Many Burkina Faso farmers who had lived in the cocoa belt - where President Gbagbo is from - lost ownership to land they had controlled for generations. Others who held position in the government lost their jobs.

As the military situation evolved, every discontent political movement jumped on the bandwagon and inserted its grievances in the"mutiny" now turning into a rebelllion. Dacoury, another former ally of Gbagbo became a strategist for the rebels. The former ruling party of Bedie, the PDCI, just recovering from the 1999 military coup, inserted itself in the game, arguing that it was the"most credible political party in the country." Although he said the"legality must be preserved" Bedie never missed a chance to say that Gbagbo came to power"under special circumstances born out an illegal seizure of power by the army." Former soldiers who had fled into Burkina Faso years ago after a failed coup against Guei crossed the border and joined the rebellion.

Outside Cote d'Ivoire, Blaise Compaore used the rebellion to raise issues about the new laws in Cote d'Ivoire that deprived many of his compatriots of their wealth in Cote d'Ivoire. According to reports from Radio France, he was instrumental in getting cash from Kaddafi and arms from Taylor to the rebels. Liberian military personnel, both as mercenaries or regular Liberian government troops according to the Ivorian minister of Defense, joined some soldiers on the West to open a new front and create a new faction.

An African President who attended the Paris summit said:"West Africa was turning into a dangerous neighborhood." At this point, Laurent Gbagbo"became" the problem. The President of Senegal, ECOWAS Chairman at the time, said the Ivorian president failed to carry out recommendations of the national Reconciliation Conference, which had called for a government of national unity. His position, added to the grievances of Blaise Compaore served as a vehicle for the French government's policy: either remove Gbagbo or if it were to stay, weaken him by forcing on him a new type of government. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs traveled to Africa and called for peace talks in Paris. The talks in Lome that centered so far on the issue of re-instating"mutineers" soldiers into the army and an amnesty floundered. The rebels became more vocal in their insistence on the resignation of Gbagbo before any peace talks. Opposition leader Ouattara echoed their call by demanding new elections. The problem, for Gbagbo was now to save his job.

Gbagbo and the rebellion
Gbagbo was now blamed for all the"unjust laws" in Ivorian politics but it was Ouattara who, as prime Minister of Houphouet came up with the idea of"carte de séjour" for all foreigners. Ouattara said he did it to get money for the government coffers but he failed to realize at the time that people from Burkina Faso, who constituted the greatest number of foreigners, would suffer the most. The concept of"Ivorité" and its follow-up clauses on eligibility were created and inserted in the constitution by Bedie and General Guei, both in their attempts to stop Ouattara from entering the presidential race in 1995 and in 2000.

Gbagbo said he would make all necessary compromises to restore the rule of law and the territorial integrity of the country. He has accepted the nomination of Seydou Diarra to head the government. Diarra was prime minister under Guei and also convener of the national reconciliation conference of 2001 that brought all parties to the table and led to the formation of a new government. He is a man of consensus, according to many. But if his accession to power means the demise of the presidential powers of Laurent Gbagbo, Cote d'Ivoire still has long days ahead. Gbagbo, according a Radio France reporter, said,"If France likes to remind White House that Paris is not a suburb of Washington, France should be reminded that Abidjan is not a suburb of Paris."

In his speech, the president of Cote d'Ivoire said on two occasions that were he not president, he would be in the streets with demonstrators. He went on to take the blame for forcing a bitter pill down his compatriots' throats. But he said he did so to bring Cote d'Ivoire back on its feet. Observers believe that the anti-French demonstrations had the blessing of the government. The fact that its leaders were the first group Gbagbo met after the army upon his return from France is a clear indication that"Young patriots" are but the youth wing the ruling party. The group led by Charles Ble Goudé was responsible for that demonstration that forced the French Foreign Minister to seek protection when he was in Abidjan. Ble Goudé later said that he was joining the president to give the accords a chance.

The new relations between Paris and Abidjan
Relations between France and its former colony are strained, to put it mildly. In his entire speech, even when he thanked foreign leaders who took part in the Paris discussions, President Gbagbo never once mentioned the name of President Chirac, although he thanked France for her hospitality. Gbagbo also said that there was a revolution going on, a revolution that started decades ago. He recalled his days of exile, deprivation while fighting against the regime of Houphouet Boigny. During those years, the fight for democracy was also a fight against the French total domination of Ivorian political and economic life. The anti-French demonstrations therefore became the conclusion of a long fight. Gbagbo is using this fight to attain a second liberation, as if, in Freudian terms, he wanted to take the country through the resolution an Oedipus complex. Cote d'Ivoire is fighting under the leadership of Gbagbo a war it never had a chance to fight: the war of liberation, the dream war of any"freedom fighter" as Gbagbo and his friends used to call themselves in the 1960s. This is the war that Gbagbo had always wanted: reverse the colonial and paternalistic relationships between Cote d'Ivoire and France. To a certain degree, he has succeeded, at the risk of losing the presidency.

Whatever happens to the Marcoussis accords won't really matter in the aftermath: Gbagbo is now fully in control of power in Cote d'Ivoire as he has never been since he kicked Guei out in 2000. He took control the same way he imposed multi-democracy on patriarch Houphouet Boigny by using the power of the streets. Now he ended a certain era in French-Ivorian relations by also using the streets. People living under rebel control are growing impatient and very soon, Guillaume Soro and his group would be forced to accept anything Gbagbo would give them. On the one hand, after accepting the Marcoussis Accords as"theirs", they can no longer back away without appearing to be fighting for"jobs" rather than principles. On the other hand, they don't have much sympathy among African leaders, except Charles Taylor of Liberia and Blaise Compaore in Liberia, both using the rebellion for their benefits. Every African leader, in this new era, is wary of events in Cote d'Ivoire: that a group soldiers, after failing to overthrow a government, would take a city hostage and instead of being court-martialed, are rewarded with seats in the government, with the blessings of the international community. Viewed from that perspective, the Marcoussis Accords are a threat to democracy in Africa, notwithstanding the fact it is meant to prevent a much larger chaos. It sets a dangerous precedent that could have a long-term negative impact on the nascent democracies in the regions.

The future
The Gbagbo government was on a slippery slop after the National Conference. The president was torn between the hardliners in his party who refused any concession to other parties in sharing power and those who insisted that Cote d'Ivoire needed a period of cooling off after the military coup and its aftermaths. Gbagbo had managed to put together a government of national unity that did not last long. Ouattara's RDR had withdrawn its ministers from the government just a few days before the September 19"mutiny" while General Guei went on air on September 15, to declare that Gbagbo had betrayed too many people and that the time had come for him to"taste" his own soup. The former ruling party, the PDCI of Bedie had not forgiven him for"infiltrating" their party leadership and naming Laurent Donald Fologo as President of the Conseil Economique et Social, a very visible and influential political advisory branch of the government. Fologo had tried to wrestle the leadership of Houphouet-Boigny ‘s party from Bedie and when he failed, he moved closer to Gbagbo without leaving the party. Under these conditions, the best thing that could have happened to Gbagbo was a crisis that would have allowed him to re-arrange the room without losing his seat at the head of the table.

The Ivorian civil war is now ending where it started: about jobs. The soldiers who started the mutiny said at the beginning they only wanted to be re-integrated into the army. Guillaume Soro the student leader, Allasane Ouattara the contentious and perpetual loser of every Ivorian political crisis since the death of Houphouet Boigny in 1993, Blaise Compaore and Charles Taylor among others all brought their own layers into the conflict. Now that the dust is settling on the Marcoussis Accords, it comes down to what position in the government goes to whom. Seydou Diarra, the new prime minister who could not return into the country until Gbagbo's Young Patriots cleared the streets, is now negotiating with rebels and other parties and would try to make someone swallow a very bitter pill. He would have to convince the rebels that they couldn't have the Ministries of Defense and the Interior (in Cote d'Ivoire, the Interior controls the police, the gendarmerie and all other Para-military forces except the branches of the army which are under Defense). From Washington, DC, at Capitol Hill where Congress just held hearing on the issue, to Paris, where both the Communist and Socialist Parties issued communiqués over the past days, there seems to be an agreement that accommodating rebels to avoid a carnage is one thing but giving them control of the military is bit too much.

In his speech, Gbagbo said that the current event were part of a revolution that started more than 20 years ago. He said the French government organized the Marcoussis meeting among political parties and dissidents and therefore the government would view everything as"recommendations." He did not sign the accords the Marcoussis Conference center, he took them to the Ivorian Embassy to"review them". Paris set the stage, but the solution would come from Gbagbo. In a way, they helped him accomplish that revolution of the minds he always wanted. It would have been unconceivable, just ten years ago, to see Ivorians go against French interests in Cote d'Ivoire. This was the revolution Gbagbo has always sought. Independence always comes through a sense of revolt, something Ivorians never had a chance to express against their"colonial masters."

Gbagbo would set the terms of the final solution. Time is on his side. Rebels cannot hold on perpetually to zones under their control and with time, it becomes less and plausible for them to attack Abidjan. They are now angering Mali and Burkina Faso who are starting to feel the high cost of the rebellion. Both countries used Cote d'Ivoire as their trade routes and now they are paying dearly for exporting and importing their goods. Sooner than later, the rebels would need an"honorable exit", unless they launch an attack on Abidjan.

Gbagbo reminded Ivorians that Cote d'Ivoire was not just any country in the region:"We are the biggest producers of cocoa in the world and we have 40 percent of the GNP of the region." In a word, he is conscious of the weight of his country in the region, with the knowledge that the international community, especially France, would never let it go down the drain like Liberia and Sierra Leone.