Jean-Baptiste Gomont Diagou wants to set the record straight about the conflict besetting Côte d’Ivoire, his home country.

The Western media has portrayed the strife as religion-based, pitting the predominantly Muslim north against the south’s Christian and traditional religions.

“Look,” Diagou said, “I’m the mayor of Cocody, a city of about 400,000 people located in the south. There are 49 members of the city council and 22 of them are from the north. We have all religions represented on the council and we get along fine.”

Something else is at work, he said. “The French are using the strategy of divide and conquer to maintain their hold on us.”

Diagou and three other elected officials — two of them women — from Côte d’Ivoire (formerly known as the Ivory Coast) spoke to the PWW during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Jan. 29.

Making headlines

Côte d’Ivoire was thrust into the spotlight last November, when huge demonstrations erupted in the nation’s administrative center, Abidjan, in the wake of France’s destruction of the country’s fledgling air force. That air strike was in retaliation, French officials said, for an Ivorian bombing of a northern rebel stronghold a few days before in which nine French soldiers, ostensibly “peacekeepers,” were killed.

The Ivorian government said the loss of life was unintended, that its real target was a stockpile of rebel armaments. Rebel forces in the north have been fighting the government for more than two years, resulting in many Ivorian deaths and large economic losses. Many in Côte d’Ivoire see the French as backing the rebels.

As anti-France demonstrations in Abidjan grew in intensity and scope, the headlines in the Western media were sensational, conjuring up the worst imagery of rampaging Africans. French politicians raged against the rebellious Ivorians. The anti-African racism was thick.

In a critical confrontation, French troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least 60 Ivorians and injuring over 1,000 others. Commentators spoke of a “Franco-Ivorian war.” Amidst the escalating tensions, 8,000 expatriates, most of them French nationals, left the country.

While the intensity of the north-south conflict has since abated somewhat, the crisis remains unresolved. South African President Thabo Mbeki has been asked to mediate the dispute on behalf of the African Union. A meeting between the Ivorian government, the rebels and other forces is slated for April 3 in Pretoria, South Africa.

“Mediation by the French is definitely broken,” said Diagou. The French have lost their credibility in light of the November events, he said.

A legacy of colonialism

The Republic of Côte d’Ivoire is located on the western coast of Africa between Liberia and Ghana. To the north it borders Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso. Slightly larger than the state of New Mexico, it has a population of about 17 million people, concentrated in the south, near the Gulf of Guinea.

The country suffered under the colonial domination of France for more than 100 years. As early as 1842 its coastal area was a French protectorate. By 1893 it was a full-fledged French colony. That influence is still strongly felt today.

The French colonialists exploited the country’s rich agricultural areas for the production and export of cocoa, coffee and tropical woods. Côte d’Ivoire also has valuable mineral resources, among them oil, diamonds, manganese, iron ore and cobalt.

The French reaped huge profits from these, too. Cheap African labor — obtained in part through forced labor and semi-slavery — was also a major attraction to France’s captains of industry.

Today oil looms even larger in strategic importance for the French and other imperialist powers. Recent discoveries of oilfields that are said to rival those of Kuwait — and that could make Côte d’Ivoire the second largest oil-producing nation in Africa after Nigeria — have only heightened the interest of these powers in controlling the country’s resources.

During the Second World War, the pro-Nazi Vichy government in France cruelly repressed the growing nationalist movements in West Africa, including in the area that is today Côte d’Ivoire.

Upon the war’s end, the anti-colonial movement continued to gain momentum worldwide. When Côte d’Ivoire attained full independence in 1960, Felix Houphouet-Boigny became the country’s first president.

Turbulent times

Houphouet-Boigny led the country for 33 years, a time that many associate with relative stability and economic prosperity. Côte d’Ivoire, in fact, was until recently regarded as one of Africa’s most prosperous nations.

When Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993, his successor, Henri Konan Bedie, carried out similar policies. But by the end of the decade things began to fall apart. Gen. Robert Guei overthrew Bedie in 1999.

Guei’s bid to rig the elections in 2000, however, resulted in mass uprising, forcing him to flee. Laurent Gbagbo, a leader of the Popular Front of Côte d’Ivoire, became president.

Reforms under Gbagbo

“In 2000, Gbagbo immediately introduced a socioeconomic program to benefit the people,” Diagou said. Chief among these was an ambitious educational program.

“About 50 percent of our people don’t speak French,” he said. This is a big problem in a country where about 60 African languages and dialects are spoken and economic development requires a common language.

“Now all children go to school, and the schools are free. This is very important.” In addition to free elementary, middle and secondary schools, technical schools and universities are also free to students who qualify through examinations, he said.

Big strides have been made in agriculture, as well. Diagou said wealthy French families, who have traditionally controlled the country’s agriculture, wanted to keep full control over cocoa and coffee production.

“But Gbagbo’s government gave Ivorian farmers the right of ownership of many of the big tracts of land by letting them form cooperatives. These cooperatives aim to sell and directly export their products,” Diagou said. “The French families don’t like this.”

Still, large sections of the economy remain under French control. The country’s water system, energy production, airports and telephone network are all in French hands.

Such foreign, neocolonial control is particularly exasperating for officials like Diagou, who often find their hands tied when they want to improve public services. A number of such officials have banded together in a national organization of socialist mayors, of which Diagou is president.

September 2002 crisis

On Sept. 19, 2002, Ivorian troops mutinied in the north in concert with a second coup attempt by Guei. The government foiled the putsch, but the events precipitated a civil war, with France backing the anti-Gbagbo, “New Forces” movement in the more sparsely populated north. The fighting was intense.

In January 2003 — as a result of negotiations at Linas-Marcoussis, France, involving the direct parties to the conflict along with emissaries from the United Nations, the African Union and ECOWAS, a West African regional group — a peace agreement was reached. It provided for a government of national reconciliation, based on the principle of power sharing.

But shortly after the ink dried, Diagou said, the agreement began to break down. Fighting resumed, particularly rebel attacks from the north. The African Union, however, has noted that there have been violations of the agreement by both sides.

By 2004, France had sent in 4,000 troops, ostensibly to help restore order. They were joined by 6,000 UN peacekeeping troops. However, these forces have been anything but impartial, Diagou said.

“The agreement mandated that the rebels disarm,” Diagou said, “but they didn’t disarm.”

As a matter of fact, the rebels have gotten more weapons, including from across the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso, “and still the UN does nothing to stop it,” he said.

“France is giving money to the rebels. They are allowing arms and fighters to come in from Burkina Faso and Mali.”

The rebel forces have withdrawn from the government of national reconciliation and have spurned appeals by Gbagbo and others to rejoin it.

Some of the rebels are pushing the presidential candidacy of Alassane Ouattara, a former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund who lives in Paris. In 2000, opponents questioned Ouattara’s eligibility for office based on his foreign, Burkinabe, nationality.

The Gbagbo government has urged that the existing constitutional provision requiring that the president be of Ivorian nationality be put to a referendum, but the rebels and opposition parties oppose the idea of popular vote on the issue.

Skirmishes between rebels along the western border, near Liberia, and pro-government forces have also flared up in recent weeks.

“As for the United States, we appealed to them after the peace agreement was reached to help us carry it out,” Diagou said. “We asked them to help us contain this terrorism. To date we have received no response.”

Looking ahead

“There are many things we need to do to build up our country,” he said. “We have a big cocoa processing plant that we want to modernize. We want to be able to do our own cocoa processing and sell to a diversified market — to the U.S., to China, to Japan. But France won’t allow it. They control who processes it and where it is sold, and they keep the revenue.”

Diagou said Côte d’Ivoire has gold reserves on deposit in two French banks. “The money is tied up there, when we could use it for development.” At the same time, he said, the government pays very high interest on its foreign debt, currently estimated at $12 billion.

Meanwhile, the conflict persists and has taken a heavy toll in loss of life and damage to the economy. In the course of the war, several hundred people have been killed and more than 1 million displaced.

The once prosperous Côte d’Ivoire now ranks 163 out of 177 in the UN Human Development Index. The average life expectancy is 42.

The UN Security Council mandate authorizing the French troops in Côte d’Ivoire expires April 4. French President Jacques Chirac has said he’ll pull out the troops if he’s asked to.

It remains to be seen if Gbagbo’s government will demand that he do so, especially in view of Gbagbo’s own longstanding ties to French political figures, notably Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.

However, Williams Ateby, an Ivorian lawmaker and Gbagbo ally, told Reuters, “It’s better that they leave and are replaced by a more neutral party with a clear mandate to proceed with disarming the rebels.”

Whatever happens, France, the IMF, and the World Bank still hold many of the cards.

Against colonialism, old and new

The fate of Côte d’Ivoire is of larger significance. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the bloc of Eastern European states — states that gave significant economic, military and diplomatic support to semi-colonial countries fighting foreign domination — the old colonial powers are seeking to carve up the African continent again.

The U.S. is certainly an active participant in this “recolonization” of the developing world, as its occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq so clearly demonstrate, and the Bush administration pursues a more aggressive Africa policy.

Quietly, U.S. companies have been muscling in to the Ivorian market. Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill have increased their market share of Côte d’Ivoire cocoa exports, rivaling, if not surpassing, the share controlled by French firms.

To the extent that Côte d’Ivoire succeeds in rebuffing this new bid to carve up the region, its struggle for economic progress and independence will serve the interests of all humankind.

Mark Almberg ( is managing editor of the People’s Weekly World. Debbie Bell assisted him in the interview with Mayor Diagou.