Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ivoirian imbroglio

In the wake of last week’s army mutiny, is Ivory Coast in danger of becoming another African quagmire, asks Gamal Nkrumah

Ivoirian imbroglio
Ivoirian imbroglio

“First peace, then prosperity” — this is the only guarantee that the West African nation of Ivory Coast does not become another African house of cards.

Numerous African nations have been shattered by civil wars and have failed to recover even after the fighting was over. Ivory Coast must overcome various hurdles in order to avoid the same fate as that of other less-fortunate African nations.

Ivory Coast’s quandary is as convoluted as it is perplexing. It is the wealthiest country per capita in Francophone West Africa, and there is a great deal that can be done by making better use of the country’s resources.

Two factors upset matters. The first is foreign: France. And the other regional: The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), a regional grouping. Plummeting oil prices could be considered a third problem for this oil-producing nation, and world commodity prices have also plunged.

But none of the current peace efforts will succeed if the country’s leaders, those in power and those in opposition, do not want national unity to prevail.

Ivoirian President Alassane Dramane Ouattara took office in May 2011, and he is known to his supporters as “Ado” because his initials were used in the “Avec Ado, Réussir Ensemble” campaign slogan, meaning “With Ado, We Succeed Together”.

More recently, Ouattara’s main rival used the slogan of “Le Changement Maintenant,” or “Change Now,” the same slogan used by France’s President François Hollande in his last campaign. France, the former colonial power, cannot afford to abandon its wealthiest former colony in West Africa and simply cut and run.

The present army mutiny in Ivory Coast is a sign that augurs change in Ivorian society. This stand-off between the powers that be and the Ivorian military is politically profitable not just for the key neo-colonialist players, but also for Paris.

What the national Ivorian army stands for is unclear. Last Friday, a mutiny erupted causing havoc after Ivory Coast’s catastrophic 10-year civil war, which only ended in 2011. Military insurgencies have paralysed many African countries, and Ouattara has been charged by his detractors of fomenting discord because of his lack of focus on reconciliation since the Civil War.

Ivorian Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi was dispatched to the central city of Bouake, the hotbed of the rebellion, to negotiate with the rebels. However, he was trapped inside the Bouake barracks by the mutineers and was unable to head back to the commercial capital of Abidjan.

Ominously more protests have been reported in the cities of Man in the western part of Ivory Coast and in Daloa, Daoukro, Odienne and Korhogo in the far north of the country. Heavy gunfire erupted early on Saturday near the main military camp in Bouake.

The mutineers are demanding $8,000 and a house each, and the longer the deadlock lasts the harder Ouattara may find it to persuade them to soften their stance. He needs to come up with a formula to defuse the tensions, this from a septuagenarian famed for his political acumen. 

Ouattara has conceded that the mutineers have reasons to be aggrieved and that he will take into account their demands over pay and conditions.

Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, and this and coffee are the backbones of the Ivoirian economy. Ivory Coast also produces bananas, rubber and palm oil, as well as natural gas and petroleum.  

With its abundant wealth, sooner or later Ouattara is bound to outmanoeuvre the mutineers and offer them some kind of deal, his supporters hope.

Earlier rebels swept into Abidjan from Bouake in 2011, assisting Ouattara take power after his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo, now on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, refused to accept defeat in elections the previous year.

The army’s disgruntlement is discomforting for many moneyed Ivoirians, but it is the neo-colonial set-up that appears to be the source of most uncomfortable social changes in the country.

If Ivory Coast is going to go further in intertwining commercial, cultural and political imperatives, then the country’s music may be something that should be taken into account. Music in Ivory Coast, one of Africa’s most prolific reggae songs producers, has been used for political purposes. Singer Tiken Jah Fakoly, for example, is pro-Ouattara, but his rival Alpha Blondy openly backed Gbagbo.

Prior to its colonisation by France, Ivory Coast was home to several states, including the ethnic Akan state of Gyaaman, in existence from around 1450 to 1895, which straddled a huge swathe of territory between Ivory Coast and neighbouring Ghana.

Other notable kingdoms were the Kong Empire (1710-1898), a mighty Muslim state also named the Ouattara Empire, the name of the country’s current president. The Kong Empire rose to prominence in the 1800s as a commercial stronghold of ethnic Dyula merchants and a bastion of Islamic studies in West Africa.

The third notable state to have once occupied the area was that of the Akan Baoule. Ivory Coast’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was an ethnic Baule.

Tribalism, religious and ethnic rivalries are not contentious issues in the current crisis, however. The country’s ethnic mix is diverse, and it is roughly divided along a north-south Muslim-Christian axis.

There are numerous ethnic groups, the largest being the ethnic Akan Baoule people who constitute 23 per cent of the population and are centred in the heart of the country around Bouake, the city where the current mutiny started.

The Kru of western Ivory Coast are collectively and derisively called “Les Betes” and account for 18 per cent of the Ivoirian population. The Muslim Senoufu, formerly animists, constitute 15 per cent of the population, and the related predominantly Muslim Malinke, in the past overlords of the Senoufo, another 11 per cent.

Successive Ivoirian governments have attempted to address the country’s religious problems, but to no avail.

It could be pressure from the Ivorian military that has fuelled resentment against immigrants from the mainly Muslim nations to the north of Ivory Coast who have flocked into the country and have intermingled with the indigenous Ivoirians for decades, but who are now sometimes perceived as intruders, fostering a sense of injustice.

Indeed, the Ivoirian president himself is regarded by a considerable section of the population as a “foreigner”. He came into office with a pledge to bridge the country’s religious divide, and many of his ministers, including Donwahi, are Christians.

Ouattara was unable to attend the celebrations in neighbouring Ghana for the swearing in of Nana Akufo-Addo as the country’s new president last Saturday. Ghana has been a multi-party democracy since the end of military rule in 1992, and Akufo-Addo’s inauguration is widely viewed as reinforcing Ghana’s reputation for the peaceful transfer of power and as a bastion of western-style democracy in West Africa.

The contrast between the political stability in Ghana, in spite of the recent International Monetary Fund bailout, and the irascible Ivorian military and its meddling in politics is flagrant. 

“Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, said at the end of 1957, the year of our independence, that ‘we shall measure our progress by the happiness which our people take in being able to manage their own affairs’,” Akufo-Addo said in his inaugural address, paying tribute to Ghana’s founding father.

“Since 1957, we all say as a matter of routine that we are Ghanaians. It is time to define what being a Ghanaian ought to mean,” he continued. “Being a Ghanaian must stand for something more than being the holder of a birth certificate or a passport. We will build a confident Ghana which is united, at peace with itself, and takes pride in its diversity.”

“We will rekindle the spirit that made Ghana the leading light of the African continent, and make our conditions deserving of that accolade.”

It seems the same cannot be said of Ivory Coast, Ghana’s immediate neighbour.

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