Cote d’Ivoire: France, Gbagbo and the Rebels at War


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 8, 2004

As any observer could have predicted, patience ran out in Cote d’Ivoire and guns that had been silent for two years became active over the past weekend, with the government of Laurent Gbagbo launching an all-out air attack on rebel positions, and in the process “mistakenly” killing 9 French soldiers. In retaliation, President Jacques Chirac of France ordered his troops in Cote d’Ivoire to neutralize Ivorian air power. The French military destroyed Ivorian military planes, took control of the airport in Abidjan and closed it to civilian flights after a long battle with Ivorian military. President Gbagbo called on Ivorians to get out and “liberate” the airport. Hundreds of thousands swarmed through the city, ransacking French businesses, homes and schools, burning and breaking everything on their way to the airport. They encircled the French Military base and the French soldiers responded by shooting from two helicopters that hovered over the burning city of Abidjan for two days. Things calmed down on Sunday evening after President Gbagbo called off the demonstrations. The United Nations Security Council on Saturday condemned Cote d’Ivoire and supported the actions of the French government

Since a group of soldiers from a garrison in the central city of Bouaké failed to seize power when they attempted to overthrow the government of Laurent Gbagbo on September 19, 2002, Cote d’Ivoire, the once stable and prosperous country of Houphouet Boigny has been in a dangerous state of no-peace no-war. After failing to take control of the economic capital Abidjan, the rebels retreated to their base and French troops, stationed in the country created a buffer zone between government troops and the dissidents. Thus, began a long “peace process” that primarily tried to appease the dissidents, who were first called “mutineers,” than “rebels,” and are now referred to as “new forces.” The semantic gymnastics never disguise the fact that the rebellion divided the country in two parts, with the government of Laurent Gbagbo controlling the south and the rebel camping in the second largest city in the north.

Numerous peace talks took place, first in Africa – Dakar, Lomé and Accra – and finally in Paris where the two sides signed a peace document that became known as The Marcoussis Accords. The agreement called for a government of “national unity” with a neutral “prime minister.” Seydou Diarra was acceptable to both sides. Muslim, originally from the North, he is well known in Abidjan. Although he had the authority to form the government, he had really no power. The government of Gbagbo was dismantled. Every political party in the country was given a seat in the new government and the rebels got 8 ministries, including Justice and Information. President Gbagbo gave little, if any power at all to the Prime Minister. His excuse, backed by the constitution was that “Cote d’Ivoire was not a parliamentarian system where the party with most seats in the Assembly nominates the Prime Minister and runs the country…” The peace accord also called for disarmament of “both sides” and the restructuring of the national army and the passing of new laws and constitutional amendments to address rebels’ demands. From the start, government troops made it known that they would never submit to disarmament. The rebels took their seat in the government in Abidjan and kept a tight grip on territories under their control, which represented almost half of the country.

The national assembly passed a first bill that accorded total amnesty to the rebels for all acts of violence committed during the war. As time went by, demands of the rebellion multiplied. They wanted a constitutional review of land tenure, abrogating a new law passed in the 2000 constitution that barred most foreigners and mostly citizens from Burkina Faso who have lived in Cote d’Ivoire for decades for holding on to lands they owned. They also demanded a review of Article 35 of the constitution that stipulates that only people born of Ivorian parentage and who had never pledged allegiance to any other nation could run for the presidency. This article barred Allasane Ouatara, an opposition leader from seeking the presidency. He is said to have carried a Burkina Faso passport when he was young and later worked as President of the West African Bank as a Burkina national. Ouattara later became Prime minister under Houphouet Boigny in the early 1990s. He was also a close friend of military leader Robert Guei, who overthrew Konan Bedie, the successor to Houphouet Boigny and passed the new constitution.

In July 2004, after many months of stalling, the government and the rebels met in Accra and reaffirmed their commitment to the Marcoussis Accords. Political reforms and the return of rebel ministers in the government were to begin immediately while disarmament was set for a few weeks later. The rebels returned to government and the national assembly started to debate some of the articles. The sticking point was that Article 35, as any portion of the constitution could only be amended through a referendum. President Gbagbo said he could not impose an amendment contrary to the constitution. The rebels decided that they would not disarm. The peace process was back to where it stood 2 years ago.

Gbagbo came to the realization that the rebels would not disarm peacefully and that negotiations would lead nowhere. He bought arms and ammunitions from Angola, including helicopters and two Russian military jets. Last week, government troops blocked the two main roads linking rebel territory to the capital. On Wednesday afternoon, Gbagbo had a long telephone conversation with French president Jacques Chirac while rebel leaders were in Lome, Togo to meet with President Eyadema.

Thursday, the Ivorian military jets start their attack on the various rebel positions with ground troops ready to follow suit. The jets bombarded ammunition depots in Bouake, Man and neutralized the bridge between Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. On Friday, they hit Bouake again. That is when things went wrong. France claims that 9 of its troops who were in rebel territory were killed in the bombing. French President Chirac gave orders to his forces in Abidjan to neutralize Ivorian air power. The French military destroyed two jet-bombers and three helicopters. The news spread quickly. Ivorians get in the street and attack French interests. Homes are looted and set on fire. Many French nationals – there are officially 16,000 French nationals living in the country – seek refuge in the French military base. Meanwhile, France brought in reinforcements from Gabon and others expected from Senegal, countries where the former colonial power holds military bases. On Saturday, Gbagbo met with the ambassador of France. At the end of the meeting, the Ivorian president calls on Ivorians to stop demonstrations and return home. The chief of military operations against the rebels called his troops back to base.

As of Sunday evening, calm returned to Abidjan. The African Union asked President Tabo Mbeki of South Africa to take charge of negotiations and he is due in Abidjan on Tuesday, November 9. President Obasanjo worked the phone throughout the weekend to calm tensions in the sub-region. Now, the question is who would be negotiating with Gbagbo? The French who stopped him from taking control of the national territory or the rebels?

Gbagbo and the Chirac regime are not the best of friends. From the beginning of the crisis, France has played an ambiguous, if not at times confusing, role in the peace process. The rebels used Burkina Faso as a backdoor. Burkina Faso president is a protégé of France, somehow stepping into the shoes of Houphouet-Boigny as the man of Paris in West Africa. Notwithstanding his open implications in the destructive wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone and backing the rebels in Cote d’Ivoire, his name was never mentioned for sanctions at the UN nor at the African Union. France could have forced rebels to disarm from the start or could have asked Blaise to put pressure on them but never did. Compaore openly backed the rebels, many of whom lived and worked in Ouagadougou, and made no secret in his personal interest in land issues in Cote d’Ivoire.

Gbagbo has been a pain in the neck of France since the late 1960s when he led university students and teachers against the pro-French policies of Houphouet Boigny. The opposition is crowded with people like Konan Bedie, the natural heir to Houphouet, overthrown in 1999 by the military coup of Guei. But mostly, it’s the fate of Allasane Ouatara that has become a national issue in Ivorian politics. A Muslim from the North with parents originally from Burkina Faso, he is married to Dominique, a powerful French woman with strong political ties in Paris and who once managed the real estate interests of Houphouet Boigny on three continents. Both Konan Bedie and Guei barred him from running for the presidency and he became the emblematic figure of the disenfranchisement of Muslim northerners in Ivorian politics.

Ouatara, at the head of the largest political party in 2000, could have blocked the passing of the constitution that later was used to bar him from contesting the presidency. Rather, he went along, knowing fully well that the text could be used to stop him. At the time, he was very close to Guei and never expected that the head of the military leader would run for president.

Gbagbo took a big gamble when he launched the attack on the rebel territory. Had he known about the story behind the Iraqi 1990 invasion of Kuwait, he might have thought twice. Had he managed to stay clear of the 9 French nationals, he might today be at the head of a re-united Cote d’Ivoire and emerge as a national hero. But, rather, he is weakened, blamed by the international community and somehow forced to accept a new French dictate. The rebels are also weakened. Gbagbo destroyed most of their ammunitions and their exit road to Burkina Faso. They are at the mercy of France, just as Gbagbo is. Can France now come up with a quick plan before the dust settles?

The stakes are high for France at this later stage of the conflict. Having failed to impose a peaceful solution, Chirac now has to deal with an almost dead rebellion and a politically stronger Gbagbo. By urging Ivorians to take back their airport from French troops and succeeding in putting hundreds of thousands of people in the streets for two days just as he did in 2000 to oust Guei from power, Gbagbo has proven that he has a power base. Although weakened militarily, he has ignited nationalistic sentiments on both sides of the divide. Villagers throughout the country built roadblocks to stop French troops movements towards Abidjan and created human shields around government properties from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro to protect them from being bombed by French jets on Friday and Saturday.

For Ouattara, things have gone worst. With the growing anti-French sentiments, he takes the blames for everything that went wrong. He was said to be a close-ally of General Guei and served as advisor to the military until they fell off when Guei decided to run for president. The greatest majority of the people in the north have become wary of the rebels and those in the south mostly never consider him as a leader. Whatever chance he had in winning elections in Cote d’Ivoire may have just evaporated with France’s intervening directly in the conflict. The fact that Guillaume Soro, his protégé and partisan is the head of the rebel movement, and just a few years ago a disciple of Laurent Gbagbo, makes Ouatara looks like he is party to the destabilization in Cote d’Ivoire for his personal ambitions.

Allasane Ouatara was the first to introduce xenophobic laws into Cote d’Ivoire when, in 1990, as a prime minister he decreed that all foreigners in Cote d’Ivoire must pay for and carry a “carte de séjour.” It was the first time, in Ivorian history that people from Nigeria, Burkina Faso and other places were forced to identify themselves as “non-Ivorian.” This was the beginning of “ivoirité” that Bedié would later turn into a political tool.

France now has no other solution but to disarm the rebels and ensure that Cote d’Ivoire goes to elections, peacefully. Unless an unfortunate accident happens to Gbagbo, he is more than ever assured of his political future as the only Ivorian that stood up to the French and survived.

Cote d’Ivoire may just be beginning its struggle for independence, where French interests would no longer be the sole indicators of national politics. Whatever the outcome may be, relationships between Cote d’Ivoire and France will never be the same, no matter who takes over from Gbagbo.

A disintegration of the peace process in Cote d’Ivoire could have dire consequences on the fragile situation in Liberia where two of the former rebel groups, MODEL and the NPFL have strong ties with the Gbagbo government and the MPCI of Guillaume Soro respectively. During disarmament exercises in Liberia, none of the factions turned in their heavy weaponry and this could be interpreted that they either sold or returned them to Cote d’Ivoire or may be hiding them in Liberia. With the hundreds of thousands of former fighters and millions of unemployed youth, the sub-region is a social volcano that could burst anytime. The political conflict and instability are symptoms of deeper economic and social ills that need to be addressed for real peace to take hold. Forty years after independence, Africans seem to have lesser control of their destiny than they had in the 1960s. And Cote d’Ivoire epitomizes that situation very well.