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The crocodiles are coming home to bask in Cote d'Ivoire


Africa, Politics

The crocodiles are coming home to bask in Cote d’Ivoire

After almost two centuries of turmoil, interspersed with periods of stunning well-being and economic prosperity, the latest crisis in Cote d’Ivoire once again threatens to plunge the iconic West African nation into civil war – complete with two self-proclaimed presidents. By BROOKS SPECTOR.

In 1984 V S Naipaul, the chronicler of third-world drift and despair, had written lyrically of the economic and political success of the Ivory Coast (now Cote d’Ivoire), its beguiling ruler, his outsized ambitions, and his moat filled with very symbolic crocodiles. In his famous New Yorker article, The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro, Naipual wrote then:

“Yamoussoukro, a place deep in the wet forest zone of the Ivory Coast, is one of the wonders of black Africa. It used to be a village, and perhaps then it was like some other West African bush villages, where grass huts perish after two years. But Yamoussoukro was also the seat of a regional tribal chief; and the authority of the chieftaincy – moral or spiritual or magical authority – was not forgotten. The very old man who is still chief, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, received a French education… He has used the French as technicians, advisers, administrators; and, with no ready-made mineral wealth, with the resources only of tropical forests and fields, he has made his country rich. So rich that the Ivory Coast imports labour from its more depressed or chaotic African neighbours.”

I once knew a child of this French technical class who, when she reminisced about that life, would inevitably remember the fresh-baked baguettes, reasonably-priced imported cheeses, the good local education and clean beaches.

It is all gone now. Cote d’Ivoire has finally suffered through an election that had been delayed for half a decade that, in turn, had followed a civil war that effectively split the country into northern and southern halves and shattered the economy in the process. Now, after this election, the country has two rival president-claimants and the looming threat of yet another civil war to look forward to in 2011 as thousands of demonstrators already protest the way things seem to be turning out.

Incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to concede the election to rival candidate Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara has been a long-time economist with the International Monetary Fund, while Gbagbo has ruled the southern half of the country since the 2002 civil war. In the election, Ouattara’s support came primarily from the northern and more Muslim half, while the bulk of Gbagbo’s support comes from the southern, Christian and animist half of the nation. Not a good recipe for national unity.

Photo: Ivory Coast’s President Laurent Gbagbo shakes hands with former South African President Thabo M’beki (L) in the Ivorian resident palace in Abidjan December 5, 2010. Mbeki sought on Sunday to mediate an end to a dispute over Ivory Coast’s presidential election that has threatened to trigger unrest in the divided West African nation. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Election results appear to show Ouattara actually won the overall election, however, and international support now seems to be coalescing around him.  On Tuesday the UN’s envoy in Cote d’Ivoire, Choi Young-jin, told the UN Security Council there was “only one winner” in the election with 54% of the vote – and that man wasn’t Laurent Gbagbo. Choi added that as the official certifier of the 31 October runoff election, he had personally examined more than 20,000 tally sheets provided by Ivorian authorities and, “The result I obtained through my certification methods was very clear. There was only one winner with a clear margin.”

However, that result for Ouattara was almost immediately tossed out by the country’s constitutional council, not surprisingly headed by a key Gbagbo supporter, who promptly disallowed votes from Ouattara’s strongholds. (Where did this guy get his training – in Chicago in the 1960s?)

Choi is now asking the UN Security Council to step up and take more serious action against Gbagbo. Meanwhile, the West African regional association, Ecowas, suspended the country’s membership in that body and told Gbagbo to surrender power to Ouattara in a resolution that said “The summit called on Mr. Laurent Gbagbo to abide by the result of the second round of the presidential election … and to yield power without delay.”

Over the weekend, former South African president Thabo Mbeki flew into the country from the Sudan as the AU’s representative to attempt to sort out the mess. After several apparently fruitless days, Mbeki returned to the Sudan, on the other side of the continent, to get back to work trying to settle the problems of that distressed state instead. The South African government, in contrast to many other nations, has not yet come forward strongly on behalf of Ouattara’s apparent victory or opposed Gbagbo’s effort to hold power.

Inside that unhappy nation, the growing uncertainty has encouraged hundreds to flee and the UN has already started to evacuate some of its staffers. Meanwhile, Gbagbo has effectively thumbed his nose at international opinion, naming a new cabinet and adding he was there to stay. On the other side of town in  Abidjan, Ouattara set up his headquarters in the Golf Hotel, more modest than the presidential palace, and guarded by UN peacekeepers, who have been in Cote d’Ivoire since the civil war ended.

Ouattara apparently doesn’t feel entirely in control of events. Together with his new prime minister he has been telling Western diplomats there is a need for additional military forces to keep things from spiralling out of control. A UN spokesman has already said that about 2,000 additional peacekeepers had been moved to Abidjan and would guard Ouattara’s hotel headquarters, for as long as he needed them.

Photo: Former South African President Thabo Mbeki (L) shakes hands with Ivory Coast’s presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara during their meeting in Abidjan December 5, 2010. Ouattara said on Sunday that incumbent Laurent Gbagbo must step down after a disputed poll in Ivory Coast, and he named a rival government as African mediators, including Mbeki, tried to resolve the stalemate. Photo taken December 5, 2010. REUTERS/ Thierry Gouegnon

That said, if Gbagbo doesn’t give way, it is not entirely clear what else the international community can actually do. He apparently still controls government offices, has the support of the local military and holds the presidential palace where he staged his own swearing-in ceremonies of his new cabinet. 

As Michael McGovern, a West Africa specialist at Yale University, told the media, “Gbagbo is giving all the signals that he’s not going to back down by any other means [but force]. This could be the nightmare scenario that would set the conditions for a real all-out war to take place. The fact is, Gbagbo is pushing so far, he really risks tipping the whole situation into renewed violence. It’s double or nothing.” And that may be the rosy scenario.

Even though the UN has clearly declared for Ouattara, Gbagbo’s camp has refused to accept the UN’s authority over the vote. His camp had previously signed an accord giving the UN the right to certify a winner, but it forgot to mention that it will stick to it only if their man was elected. The UN Security Council has seen Russia pitted against the other members, with the Russians questioning whether the body should be wading into the business of certifying elections. That is a fair question, perhaps, but if circumstances such as this develop, and the UN cannot take charge, who, exactly, will do so instead?

US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice asserted, “This is an important moment for the Security Council. The results are known. The facts are clear. And they need to be acknowledged and respected. That’s the position of the US.” And French President Nicolas Sarkozy has similarly counselled Gbagbo to go, “I said the following: It’s up to him to choose the role that he wants to play in history. He must now leave power to the president who was elected.”

Locally, US embassy spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau added: “Based on the independent electoral commission and the UN’s special representative of the secretary general’s certification of the vote, the US believes Alassane Ouattara is the choice of the people for president of Cote d’Ivoire. President Obama formally congratulated president Ouattara in a public statement on 3 December. Any individuals who endeavour to thwart the democratic process in Cote d’Ivoire will be held accountable.”

As Naipaul had once lauded it, this country used to be one of Africa’s rare success stories, but its economy has been reduced to tatters since the 2002 civil war – and the political system is clearly in no better shape. Since the agreement to hold a national election was finally signed in 2007, an election was set at least six times, but Gbagbo has continued to complain about the qualifications for voting (many northern residents have their family lineage in other parts of West Africa) as well as the makeup of the electoral commission. Although Gbagbo and Ouattara eventually shook hands on national TV and agreed to go along with the results as certified by the electoral commission, somebody clearly had their fingers crossed.

Not surprisingly, in the end Gbagbo has now sent a pretty blunt message he didn’t really give much of a fig for the UN’s remit. By choosing Alcide Djedje as his foreign minister, he picked a man who has already threatened Choi on national television, saying if Choi continues to call Ouattara the winner of the election, he will just have to be asked to leave the country – as a “bloody agent” perhaps? Meanwhile, his new minister of youth is one Charles Ble Goude, a man already under UN sanction for his role in firing up the “Young Patriots”, a rowdy, pro-Gbagbo gaggle that previously carried out violent attacks against foreigners – including French citizens – in the country. Goude then struck a particularly insouciant tone by comparing Gbagbo’s win to George W Bush’s victory over Al Gore in 2000. Ouch – that hurts.

Or as Goude said, “[When the supreme court] declared Bush the winner, I don’t think the United Nations made a declaration against Bush. We need to learn to respect other countries. I launch an appeal to the entire world in saying we are a small country and we are simply asking for others to respect our sovereignty.”

The US’ response, besides Rice’s comments, came from the State Department spokesman who encouraged Gbagbo to do the right thing and step down to prevent the country being sent to international Coventry. Underscoring US concern, the State Department has a new travel advisory out that clearly discourages tourists – or pretty much anybody else – from taking a trip to the Cote d’Ivoire any time soon for pretty much any reason.

And so where did it all go wrong? It is easy to point to the 2002 civil war or the downturn in commodity prices – the country has been dependent on major crops of cocoa and coffee and similar agricultural products for many years as a protected exporter to France and other European nations. However, Cote d’Ivoire’s colonial history also points to deeper issues. While this nation suffered rather less from the slave trade than did neighbouring regions like the areas that became Angola, the Congo, Nigeria or Ghana, the 1884-85 Berlin Conference set the stage for French domination over much of West Africa. The French eventually had protectorates and colonies made up of the territories of some very disparate groups, religions, and regions that  cut across other long-established societies.

Historically, Cote d’Ivoire’s cultures have produced magnificent dance and mask traditions that are often the highlights of museum galleries focusing on Africa art. Unfortunately, since independence, too little has melded together the country’s different societies. When the economic times were good, perhaps it may have mattered less, but these same “good times” in the past 50 years also gathered economic migrants from surrounding nations. This combination of factors thereby set the scene for regional, religious and inter-ethnic conflict when times became tougher.  Now clearly these circumstances are not unique to Cote d’Ivoire.

But this country’s current torments can also be seen as a warning of the bad times that can befall more nations as tough economic conditions continue – as they must cope with likely meteorological challenges and climate changes on the way – predicted early on by the “roughing it” journalist Robert D Kaplan, first in a prescient “Atlantic” magazine article (then as a book), “The Coming Anarchy,” way back in the mid-1990s. The future of Cote d’Ivoire, or whatever comes out of it, may be very bleak indeed. DM

A chronology of key events:

1842 – France imposes protectorate over coastal zone.
1893 – Ivory Coast made into a colony.
1904 – Ivory Coast becomes part of the French Federation of West Africa.
1944 – Felix Houphouet-Boigny, later to become Ivory Coast’s first president, founds a union of African farmers, which develops into the inter-territorial African Democratic Rally and its Ivorian section, the Ivory Coast Democratic Party.
1958 – Ivory Coast becomes a republic within the French Community.
1960 – France grants independence under President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. He holds power until he dies in 1993.
1990 – Opposition parties legalised; Houphouet-Boigny wins Ivory Coast’s first multiparty presidential election, beating Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivorian Popular Front.
1993 – Henri Konan Bedie becomes president following the death of Houphouet-Boigny.
1995 October – Bedie re-elected in a ballot that is boycotted by opposition parties in protest at restrictions imposed on their candidates.
1999 – July – Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim, leaves job at International Monetary Fund and returns to run for president in 2000; his plan to challenge Bedie splits country along ethnic and religious lines. Opponents say he is national of Burkina Faso, not Ivory Coast.
1999 – Bedie overthrown in military coup led by Robert Guei. Bedie flees to France.
2000 October – Guei proclaims himself president after announcing he has won presidential elections, but is forced to flee in the wake of a popular uprising against his perceived rigging of the poll.
1999: Ouattara says coup is “a revolution”
2000 October – Laurent Gbagbo, believed to be the real winner in the presidential election, is proclaimed president. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, excluded from running in the poll, calls for a fresh election.
2000 October – Fighting erupts between Gbagbo’s mainly southern Christian supporters and followers of Ouattara, who are mostly Muslims from the north.
2000 December – President Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front emerges as the biggest single party in parliamentary elections.
2001 January – Attempted coup fails.
2001 March – President Gbagbo and opposition leader Ouattara meet for the first time since violence erupted between their supporters in October 2000 and agree to work towards reconciliation.
2001 – Reports of child slave ship off Africa’s west coast spark allegations of child slavery in cocoa plantations, straining international relations. Government moves to tackle the issue.
2001 March – Calls for fresh presidential and legislative elections after Alassane Ouattara’s party gains majority at local polls.
2002: Violent end for Ivory Coast’s Guei
2001 June – Amnesty International criticises government’s human rights record over alleged extra-judicial killings of 57 northerners during presidential election campaign in October 2000. Eight gendarmes accused of the killings are cleared in August.
2001 October – President Gbagbo sets up National Reconciliation Forum. General Guei refuses to attend in protest against the arrest of his close aide Captain Fabien Coulibaly.
2001 November – Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara returns, ending year-long exile in France and Gabon.
2002 August – Ouattara’s RDR opposition party given four ministerial posts in new government.
2002 19 September – Mutiny in Abidjan by soldiers unhappy at being demobilised grows into full-scale rebellion, with Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement rebels seizing control of the north.
2002 October-December – Short-lived ceasefire in October gives way to further clashes and battle for key cocoa-industry town of Daloa. Previously unknown rebel groups seize towns in west.
2003 January – President Gbagbo accepts peace deal at talks in Paris. Deal proposes power-sharing government.
2003 March – Political parties, rebels agree on new government to include nine members from rebel ranks. “Consensus” prime minister, Seydou Diarra, is tasked with forming cabinet.
2003 May – Armed forces sign ceasefire with rebel groups.
2003 July – At a ceremony in the presidential palace, military chiefs and rebels declare that the war is over.
2003 August – Group of suspected mercenaries and their backers detained in France; said to have planned to assassinate President Gbagbo.
2003 December – 19 killed in armed attack on state TV building in Abidjan.
2004 March – Deadly clashes during crackdown on opposition rally against President Gbagbo in Abidjan.
2004 May – UN report says March’s opposition rally was used as pretext for planned operation by security forces. Report says more than 120 people were killed and alleges summary executions, torture.
2004 November – Ivorian air force attacks rebels; French forces enter the fray after nine of their soldiers are killed in an air strike. Violent anti-French protests ensue. UN imposes arms embargo.
2004 December – Parliament passes reforms envisaged under the 2003 peace accord, including abolishing the need for a president to have Ivorian parents.
2005 April – After talks in South Africa the government and rebels declare an “immediate and final end” to hostilities.
2005 June – Massacres in western town of Duekoue: President Gbagbo says more than 100 people were killed, but contradicts widely-held view that ethnic rifts lay behind violence.
2005 October – Planned elections are shelved as President Gbagbo invokes a law which he says allows him to stay in power. The UN extends his mandate for a further year.
2005 December – Economist Charles Konan Banny is nominated as prime minister by mediators. He is expected to disarm militias and rebels and to organise elections due in October 2006.
2006 January – Violent street demonstrations by supporters of President Gbagbo over what they see as UN interference in internal affairs.
2006 February – Main political rivals meet on Ivorian soil for the first time since the 2002 rebellion. They agree to meet again to iron out differences.
2006 June – Militias loyal to President Gbagbo miss disarmament deadlines.
2006 September – Political, rebel leaders say they’ve failed to make any breakthrough on the main issues standing in the way of elections – principally voter registration and disarmament. Government resigns over a scandal involving the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan. Fumes from the waste kill three people and make many more ill.
2006 November – UN Security Council resolution extends the transitional government’s mandate for another year.
2007 March – Government and New Forces rebels sign a power-sharing peace deal, mediated by Burkina Faso. Under the deal, New Forces leader Guillaume Soro is named as prime minister. Ivorian President Gbagbo, Burkina Faso’s President Compaore and rebel chief Guillaume Soro
March 2007: Leaders agree to peace at Burkina Faso talks
2007: Peace plan for Ivory Coast agreed
2007: Rebel leader ‘is new Ivorian PM’
2007 April – President Gbagbo declares “the war is over” between his government and northern rebels, as the two sides move to dismantle the military buffer zone. Within days aid workers report an increase in violence.
2007 May – Militia begin to disarm.
2007 June – Prime Minister Soro survives a rocket attack on his plane.
2007 October – UN Security Council votes to maintain sanctions for another year.
2007 December – Rebel, government soldiers pull back from front-line positions as part of process to reunite country.
2008 January – UN renews mandate of 8,000 peacekeepers for six months to ensure polls are held by mid-year.
2008 January – Ten people are arrested and charged for plotting a coup in December 2007. Their alleged ring-leader, Sergeant Ibrahim Coulibaly, denies the charges.
2008 April – President Gbagbo cancels custom duties after a second day of violent protests against rising food costs.
Date of long-awaited presidential elections put back from June to the end of November.
2008 May – Former rebels who still control the northern half of the country begin disarming.
2008 July – Ivory Coast complains that a 2004 UN arms embargo is crippling efforts to cut illegal fishing. The government increases diesel prices by 44% and petrol by 29% in response to rising world oil prices.
2008 August – The government halves ministerial salaries and those of state company managers to pay for a 10% fuel-price cut.
2008 October – The UN extends its arms embargo and sanctions on Cote d’Ivoire’s diamond trade for another year, promising to review the embargo once the country holds a presidential election.
2008 November – President Gbagbo and Prime Minister Soro agree to postpone presidential elections yet again, citing delays in voter registration and security concerns.
2009 April – IMF agrees to write off $3bn (£2bn) of Ivory Coast’s $12.8bn national debt.
2009 May – Former rebels hand over 10 northern zones to civilian administrators, as part of the process of returning the northern part of the country to state control.
2009 October – UN extends ban on Ivory Coast’s diamond trade for another year.
2010 February – Voter registration is suspended indefinitely after days of violent protests at government handling of process. President Gbagbo dissolves government and electoral commission, triggering further unrest.
Guillaume Soro forms new coalition government including both main opposition parties.
2010 October/November/December – Long-delayed presidential elections. Tension as constitutional court declares Gbagbo winner and his rival Alassane Ouattara claims victory.

For more, read the AP, AP, Reuters, the New York Times, the New York Times, the New York Times, BBC, BBC, the US State Department, Time, News24.

Main photo:Supporters of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara, former prime minister and candidate of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, protest in front of the U.N. headquarters at the rebels’ stronghold of Bouake, in central Ivory Coast December 5, 2010. Former South African leader Thabo Mbeki sought on Sunday to mediate an end to a dispute over Ivory Coast’s presidential election that has threatened to trigger unrest in the divided West African nation. The Nov. 28 poll, designed to reunite a country split after a 2002-2003 civil war, has raised tensions as both incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and his challenger Ouattara have claimed victory and taken presidential oaths. REUTER/Luc Gnago


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