Ivory Coast's Dark Alley and
Its Regional Ends
By Tom Kamara
October 4, 2000
Fears of La Cote d'Ivoire's inevitable political explosion, since the Army seized power amidst euphoria for change, are finally coming to pass. What was dubbed a "popular revolution" by a credulous Opposition now under siege, is transforming itself into fascist bandwagon with all its Machiavellian underpinnings. All pieces for national disintegration in a country held together for decades by a shrewd and benevolent dictator, the late Houphouet Boigny, are now in place, waiting to explode with far disastrous implications for a region in turmoil.
The pattern of bad blood and eliminations amongst the junta's Conseil National de Salut Publique (CNSP) members follows the typical paradigm built in many African coups. The lofty ideals of equality for all regardless of origin, of getting rid of corrupt civilian politicians and building democracy for prosperity are soon replaced by a brutal scramble for power, greed, and ethnicity. Soon, the ancient politicians make a dramatic comeback under the protection of a "strongman" who leads them and the nation to doom. It was so in Liberia, Togo, Ghana, etc., and the signals of Cote d'Ivoire's entering this alley of darkness are just too clear to ignore.
In less than a year, the junta's which came to power with a mountain of promises for better days ahead, has fallen apart, with its numbers one and two, Lassana Palenfo and Abdoulaye Coulibaly in hiding for being linked an to alleged attempt on General Guei's life. Student organizations, once united in the quest for justice, have split along ethnic lines, with reports of some students at the University of Abidjan killed by rival groups. The alleged attackers, all northerners, have allegedly been tortured and executed. The promised departure from xenophobia, for which Konan Bedie was dethroned as Ivorians celebrated, has been a total farce magnified by junta-sponsored demonstrations calling for Burkina Faso destabilizing President "Campaori [to come for] his Mossi" (Mossi being main ethnic group in Burkina Faso), in reference to opposition leader Alasane Quatatara. "Foreigners must go from Abidjan," declared another poster. It all looks like anti-Jewish pogroms of Hitler's Third Reich as foreigners are accused for economic problems and unemployment despite revelations of Ivorian plantations benefiting from child and slave labor from its neighbors.
Europeans, Lebanese and other non-Africans, numbering some 300,000, may have to find another easy-to-live place under the African sun because, according to news reports, contingency plans for evacuation are springing up. Soon, unemployment, now blamed on foreigners, will skyrocket, forcing Guei and his hoodlums to look for new scapegoats as they plunge the country into further chaos.
Since the December coup, the country has been on crisis footing, with frequent rumors of coups and countercoups, mutinies and payoffs of greedy soldiers for their contribution to the country - staging a coup. Yesterday's heroes in the junta that ousted the hated, thieving civilians have become today's public enemies number one. The purge has left the Army free of northern officers. Threats of mutinies have become a permanent feature on a fluid and precarious political terrain. Onslaughts and crackdowns on the media, including the shutting down of a radio station a la Liberia, have forced Ivorian journalists into the streets with placards begging for protection from a Government they dreamed held the keys to democracy. If journalists in this former French colony, a bastardized example of democracy for decades blessed with the presence of French troops as a disgraceful but necessary safety valve, ever thought they were terrorized under the inept Konan Bedie, they have yet to experience fascism under an African army. They only had to look across their border into Liberia to know the dimensions of brutality against the free media. Their country helped to send Liberia and later Sierra Leone into horrors - while backing such destabilizers as Jonas Savimbi, Mobutu Sese Seko, Jean Bedell Bokassa - as it insolated itself from the woes in these sad states and reaping the economic benefits. Now, they are living witnesses of a country ruled by "the wretched of the earth," in Fanon's words.
The greater danger that lies ahead in a country with 45% to 50% of its population regarded as foreign is Gen. Guei's tampering with ethnic co-existence in Ivorian politics, something that saved it from entering the dark alleys of crawling neighbors like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Guei, a Yakuba with ethnic linkage in Liberia where the Yakubas (known as Gios) are playing a decisive role in sustaining Charles Taylor's Americo-Liberian (descendent of freed American slaves) directed regime, could find himself in the cold as he wages war against northerners since his is a minority tribe with no strong political base. Whether or not he likes it, relying on the ethnic card will make him the convenient but suspicious stooge of the dominant Baoles, Bedie's and Houphouet's tribe in power since independence in 1960.
The purge unleashed against northerners is undoubtedly a timed bomb with all the reminders of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Banyamulenges, originally from Rwanda, who settled in Zaire and became prosperous farmers, found themselves backing a rebellion against the late Mobutu to protect their economic interests. Millions of northerners born in La Cote d'Ivoire, knowing no other homeland, are not likely to accept their isolation and expulsion without a fight as we have seen in the DRC. It was Bedie's hoisting of the antenna of xenophobia by crudely defining who was or was not an Ivorian, buried in the concept known as "iviorite," that sparked the coup. The alleged attempted assassination has justified the purging the Army of northerners to the satisfaction of many who believe the North belongs to Burkina Faso, with key opposition leader Quattarra, faced with an uphill battle in proving his nationality when most Ivorians have made up their minds that he is from Burkina Faso. Now in a feeble political position, he has charged the man he once praised from saving the country with implementing a policy of divisiveness, isolation and exclusion. In July, opposition figures Amadou Coullibaly, Aly Coullibaly, northern members of Quattara's Rally for Republicans, were arrested.
But many questions are being raised on the armed attack on Gen. Guei's residence from which he miraculously escaped. According to sources in Abidjan, the attackers, in civilian clothing, were English-speaking, presumably Liberians. Whether Gen. Guei masterminded an attack on his house as an alibi to envelop northern Army officers for an all-out purge, is left to conjecture. But the existing strong ties between Taylor and Bedie, solidified by alleged business links and the late Houphouet's backing of the Taylor's rebellion, place question marks on why Taylor, known for such operations, should be backing Gen. Guei, a man who uprooted his backers from power. Nevertheless, shifting political alliances, based on immediate interests, are familiar features among corrupt African politicians. Immediately upon seizing power, Guei flew to Monrovia to "consult" Taylor, a man he later referred to a "great warrior." Liberia's own political history is replete with staged coups to trap and implicate the opposition for elimination.
Tied to this confusion is the prevailing wisdom in Abidjan that electing a civilian is a recipe for a coup because the Army has vowed to seize power if its candidate (Gen. Guei) is not elected to ensure their benefits as totters of weapons and disciples of chaos. But this wisdom of soldiers being guarantors of stability is defied by plots, countercoups and mutinies that have marred Gen. Guei's less than one-year rule. If, however, military rule is the panacea for peace, then why labor with the luxury of an election and the masquerade of a democracy? This identical "logic" led to the installation of an unscrupulous, destabilizing regime in Liberia now fanning the flames of more destruction within the sub-region.
What we see emerging within the sub-region is a club of like-minded Libyan-friendly or backed dictators firmly placed to transform weak states into a Libyan sphere of influence. Upon seizing power, Gen. Guei flew to Tripoli where he heaped praises on Col. Gaddafi for his economic assistance to Cote d'Ivoire. With Liberia and Burkina Faso firmly in the Libyan orbit, an addition of Cote d'Ivoire is a significant gain, particularly with a Libyan-sympathetic Rawlings' Ghana next-door and Islamic fundamentalism gaining momentum in Nigeria. Sierra Leone's beleaguered President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a Moslem, has no fundamental disagreement with Tripoli. He was satisfied with Gaddafi's assurance that Tripoli backing of the RUF rebels has stopped.
The oddity in all this is the rising strained ties between Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso as Guei singles out northerners, tied to Ouagadougou by ancestry, as political foes in his bid for the presidency. Although Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire sparked the flames of Liberia's anarchy now spreading to their doors, their marriage of convenience may end as the ethnic rivalry intensifies. Already, armed battles between Burkinabe immigrants, once needed to work the plantations but now unwanted, and Ivorian locals, have led to death and destruction. The Burkinabes have vowed never to return to their land of origin leaving their land and plantations. The politically and economically motivated xenophobia, whipped up by opportunistic politicians, is likely to spread with resistance. Added to this is the specter that Cote d'Ivoire, a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees and millions of immigrant workers, could become a refugee-producing country if the brewing conflict and its ethnic dimensions are not arrested. Ghana's Rawlings, aware of the mass numbers of his countrymen and women working in Cote d'Ivoire to remit funds back home, has expressed concerns over the political and economic unease in the country. An exodus of Ghanaians, Burkinabes, Malians, Senegalese, Liberians, etc., from Cote d'Ivoire is a nightmare with multiple implications.
Furthermore, with increasing focus on slave labor in countries like Cote d'Ivoire, the veil of the inhumane factors that made the country an economic giant is being removed, signaling an end to cheap labor that made Cote d'Ivoire an regional economic powerhouse. Times have changed, and the focus of such heartless means of propping an economy can no longer be regarded as advantageous.
West Africa's woes, which began in December 1989 when Cote d'Ivoire opened its corridors for the transport of arms, mercenaries into pathetic Liberia, are reverberating. The unfortunate victims in this web of intrigue for power and wealth by the few are the poor with nowhere to run. The repercussions are just too ghastly to imagine.