Tensions linger in Ivory Coast

The capture and detention of former President Laurent Gbagbo on Sunday, April 10, ends last week’s military standoff in Côte d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, but innumerable challenges remain as the new president, Alassane Ouattara, tries to establish authority over the divided West African nation.

Ouattara declared “the dawn of a new hope” in a national address broadcast on his own television station Monday and called for militias loyal to Gbabgo to lay down their arms. The following day, several generals from Gbagbo’s army pledged allegiance to Ouattara in an official ceremony.

But continued fighting, alleged reprisal killings, accusations of foreign influence and profound ethnic and religious divisions in the country threaten Ouattara’s newfound power.           

Armed clashes were reported yesterday in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city and economic capital. Gbagbo maintained his hold on Abidjan partly through youth militias who purportedly terrorized districts dominated by Muslims and northerners, groups who largely backed Ouattara. Today, French forces in Côte d’Ivoire claim they discovered caches of arms hidden by Gbagbo supporters in the city.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council appointed a committee to investigate human rights abuses by both sides in the Ivoirian conflict. The UN maintains Ouattara’s forces were responsible for targeted civilian deaths last week in western Côte d’Ivoire, where at least 500 bodies have been discovered. In a statement issued yesterday, Amnesty International alleges Gbagbo loyalists were being threatened by men in military uniforms throughout Abidjan.

Events over the past week are the culmination of four months of uncertainty, as both Gbagbo and Ouattara claimed the presidency. Gbagbo, the ten-year incumbent, resided in the presidential palace and was backed by the country’s military, while Ouattara was based in a hotel protected by UN peacekeepers and supported by the New Forces, a rebel group that controls the north. Initial results in November’s elections declared Ouattara the winner but were reversed as Gbagbo’s government alleged widespread fraud in the north.

Most nations and international bodies, including the African Union, recognized Ouattara as the legitimate president, yet nearly half of Ivoirians voted for Gbagbo in the presidential polls. In addition, the former labor activist and history professor was backed by several African powers, such as South Africa and Angola, who viewed foreign, particularly French, involvement in the Ivoirian crisis as neocolonial interference.

While Gbagbo clung to office for months, refusing to hand over power to Ouattara, his downfall over the past week was more sudden than anticipated. After a rapid conquest of territory from their northern capital in Bouaké to Abidjan in the south, including the national capital Yamoussoukro, the rebels, renamed the Republican Forces by Ouattara, were assisted on Sunday by French helicopters and tanks in their final assault on Gbagbo’s presidential residence, where he was holed up in a bunker with about 50 family members plus staff. Gbagbo and his wife appeared apprehensive as they were paraded in front of cameras, surrounded by various soldiers, including UN peacekeepers, in footage broadcast on the new president’s station.

Ouattara pledged Gbagbo and his family will be “treated with dignity” while in custody, but vowed Gbabgo and his associates would be investigated and tried by Ivoirian and international authorities. Ouattara also announced that a truth and reconciliation commission would be established to examine crimes, saying he has been advised by Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, which set a precedent for such bodies following the end of apartheid in 1994.

French participation in Gbagbo’s defeat is a particularly explosive issue since it reinforces the notion among his supporters of a plot by the former colonial ruler. The French maintain a significant military presence in Côte d’Ivoire, including about 1,700 troops, and a sizable French community resides in the country. Although French officials deny any direct involvement in Gbagbo’s seizure, there is no doubt their attack on Gbagbo’s bunker greatly facilitated his defeat. Alain Toussaint, a Gbagbo spokesman in Paris, told reporters “It was a coup d’etat which had no other aim but to gain control of the resources of Côte d’Ivoire.” Indeed, the renewed military assertiveness of France, from leading the bombing of Libya to directly engaging the Ivorian army, has been noted by observers across Africa.

Once the most prosperous nation in West Africa, hailed as a capitalist success story on the continent, the economy of Côte d’Ivoire is a mess: banks have been closed for months and cocoa exports, the country’s main source of revenue, were halted by western sanctions against Gbagbo’s regime. The conflict also led to the dispersal of hundreds of thousands of refugees throughout Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring countries, principally Liberia, which itself is slowly recovering from decades of instability. The UN World Food Program announced it would begin airlifting food to Ivorian refugees this week.

There clearly is no “good” side in the Ivoirian conflict. Despite his socialist background and his legitimate stance against neo-colonialism, Gbagbo embraced the divisive politics of his predecessor, former President Henri Konan Bédié, by stoking anti-Muslim sentiment in southern Côte d’Ivoire. It is telling that Gbagbo’s most vocal supporters in the United States are right-wing Christian zealots like Pat Robertson and Glenn Beck. Moreover, his indiscriminate killing of civilians, including the bombardment of an Abidjan market, may result in charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

On the other hand, although Ouattara most likely won last year’s disputed presidential elections, the former International Monetary Fund official is the favorite of capitalist powers who expect him to reorient the country to neoliberal economic policies. In fact, within days of Ouattara’s victory, the World Bank pledged to resume financing to Côte d’Ivoire, the French offered over $500 million in emergency aid and the European Union agreed to lift sanctions on the country’s ports. And, regardless of his “democratic” credentials, Ouattara ultimately came to power through a violent campaign in which the military of Côte d’Ivoire’s former colonial ruler, France, played a decisive role.

Ouattara plans to move from his hotel headquarters to the presidential palace and arrange an official swearing-in ceremony. His new administration will be watched closely to ascertain if he sticks to his promises to treat his opponents with dignity and investigate abuses by his own supporters.

Photo: Refugess flee conflict. Oxfam International // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Dennis Laumann
Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is Professor of African History at The University of Memphis. His scholarly publications include "Colonial Africa, 1884-1994," Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a member of United Campus Workers-Communication Workers of America.