|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Ivorian labyrinthBy Gamal Nkrumah
Long before the first Europeans set foot in Africa, Chinese traders of the Ming Dynasty were doing brisk business in eastern Africa. Common interests have a tendency to bring countries together. The shared concern du jour is the challenge posed by globalisation, and it is driving the Chinese to revive the African connection. But the onus is now being placed on modern political ties, first cultivated by Mao Zedong and his premier Chou En-Lai, stressing Beijing's Third World credentials. If ever an African leader offered himself up as a hostage to his country's fast declining fortunes, it is veteran socialist firebrand Laurent Gbagbo, who was sworn in as president of the west African nation of Ivory Coast last Thursday. Gbagbo, leader of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), was catapulted into the limelight from relative obscurity when he went from exiled opposition leader to presidential front-runner in Ivory Coast's first presidential election since a bloodless military coup brought General Robert Guei into power last December. More politically powerful candidates were disqualified from running in the presidential race, so when a humbled Gen. Guei made his abrupt exit from the Ivorian political scene, eyes fell on Gbagbo to pick up the gauntlet.
Despite posturing that he would abide by the results of last week's presidential election, Gen. Guei declared himself winner last Tuesday and promptly dismissed the Ivory Coast's National Electoral Commission (NEC). Troops were ordered to use tear gas and fire into crowds of angry Ivorians who took to the streets in protest. But the former military strongman had underestimated the power of his people -- and the sympathy of his armed forces. On Wednesday, Guei's presidential body-guard commander Lieutenant Boka Yapi called his troops off and ordered them back to the barracks. Ousted by a popular uprising, Guei fled the country in disgrace and his whereabouts are unknown.
Guei's faux pas was that he was not politically astute enough to recognise his serious oversight -- the fact that the days of military takeovers in Africa are over. But any talk of history in the making might easily turn out to be in vain. Few countries turned the corner of the millennium in such a pessimistic frame of mind as the Ivory Coast. A power-hungry retired military general usurped power following a Christmas Day coup and immediately announced his intention of standing as a presidential candidate in the elections set for 22 October of the next year. But Guei's next move confounded even his most ardent supporters. He simply disqualified his main rivals from the presidential race.
Imagine presidential elections in the United States in which both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been disqualified? Good riddance, some would say as far as the US is concerned. Not so in the case of the Ivory Coast. The US presidential candidates hardly differ on key questions of international policy, and on domestic matters it could be argued that the differences are not that significant either. In the US the onus is on personalities, but in Africa charisma comes a poor second to being good at the horrendously difficult job of overcoming the plethora of economic and social ills and development concerns. The US is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic state, but US presidential elections are child's play with all their hype and razzmatazz. In much of Africa, and in spite of the return of a democracy of sorts in vast swathes of the continent, presidential races are still quite literally a matter of life and death -- for the candidates and for the electorate alike.
Ethnic, linguistic, regional and religious differences come into sharp focus during presidential elections in Africa. Such issues go to the heart of last week's Ivorian electoral ordeal, when simmering tensions between the predominantly Muslim north of the country and the largely Christian south reached boiling point. Both the former democratically-elected Ivorian President Henri Konan Bédié, now in exile, and Gen. Guei, who toppled Bédié's government, played on people's passions and added fuel to the fire of ethno-linguistic, regional and religious tensions. To Ivorian voters, candidates invariably represented the southeast, southwest or Muslim north.
One sign of the polarisation of Ivorian opinion is Gbagbo's curt dismissal of South African President Thabo Mbeki's call for an electoral re-run. Mbeki's request is supported by other influential African states and the Western powers. Gbagbo balked at Mbeki's suggestion, explaining that Mbeki "is not Ivorian." Gbagbo's snub reflects a broader trend among southerners in Ivory Coast who feel that their country is swamped by foreigners. The country appears to be teetering on the brink of ethnic and religious riots. The political landscape has been drawn and there is an ominous hardening of attitudes.
Sometimes the plumbing is more important than the ornate façade. And so it was with the Ivory Coast. With the third largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, the country was the continent's star economic performer for much of the 1960s, '70s and early '80s, when the prices of the agricultural commodities it exported, most notably cocoa, coffee and palm oil, as well as timber and petroleum, fetched high prices on the international market. Labour from neighbouring impoverished countries north of Ivory Coast poured into the country in search of work. These immigrants, mostly Muslims from the predominantly Muslim states north of Ivory Coast, quickly formed political alliances with their co-religionists in Ivory Coast and altered the country's delicate ethnic and religious mix. Muslims gained the numerical advantage in a country that was traditionally run by Christian southerners. Immigrants today constitute 35 per cent of the Ivorian population and are there to stay.
Trapped in the backyard of global capitalism, the Ivorian economy has suffered terribly from collapsing commodity prices. The fundamental weakness of the Ivorian economy and its utter dependence on cash crops was for long hidden beneath the thin veneer of relative wealth that marked the country's largest city and economic capital Abidjan, distinguishing it from other less prosperous African cities. When the Ivorian economic mirage vanished, however, Ivorians were left with the bitter realities of social divisions, widespread poverty and general underdevelopment.
Porous borders compounded the problem. The curious notion of "Ivorianess", or being "Ivorite", took hold in the disgruntled south, where cocoa and coffee plantations, timber and offshore oil are located. Northerners and foreigners, both popularly perceived as Muslim non-Ivorians and therefore unwelcome newcomers, were targeted for retribution and churches and mosques were burnt down and desecrated.
The political cohesion that had held the melting pot of Ivory Coast together under the towering figure of its late first president Felix Houphouet-Boigney began to give way fast. Houphouet-Boigney was authoritarian and ruled the country with an iron fist -- and generous French and Western backing. After three decades in power, the nonagenarian died at the precise moment of economic collapse. His successors belatedly attempted to correct the country's democratic deficit, but they were destined to fail.
Sporadic gunfire was heard in the city even as Gbagbo was sworn in as president. He quickly formed a government of national unity and gave ministerial positions to two mainly southern-based parties, the exiled Konan Bédié's former ruling Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI) and the Ivorian Workers Party (PIT). Gbagbo met with PDCI Secretary-General Laurent Dona Fologo and PIT leader François Wodié, but a similar meeting with the northern-based Rally of Republicans (RDR) and its leader Alassane Dramane Ouattara failed to patch up their political differences.
Ouattara, a former prime minister who had previously held several senior cabinet positions, was disqualified by the country's Supreme Court on the grounds that he was "non-Ivorian". The RDR has pointedly refused to be part of the new government and Ouattara's supporters want the elections annulled. "Gbabgo Installed in Bloodshed" read the front-page headline of last Friday's Abidjan-based daily Le Patriote, associated with Ouattara's RDR.
Violent clashes between RDR supporters and Gbagbo backers quickly ensued. Over 50 obviously horribly tortured bodies were soon discovered in Yopongon, a suburb of Abidjan, where Muslims and immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and other mainly Muslim neighbouring West African countries predominate. To the Ivorian electorate the PDCI represented the southeast; Gen Guei, and now, Gbagbo the southwest; and Ouattara the north. Ivorians must awaken from this nightmare of labyrinthine tribalism. Only when the political temperature has returned to tolerable levels can democracy proceed in Ivory Coast.
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