Laurent Gbagbo: Awaiting the Dagger
By Tom Kamara
December 20, 2000

The rising current of iviorite, a destructive and self-serving doctrine which determines who is or is NOT Ivorian, may be the dagger plunged into Laurent Gbagbo's heart as northerners threaten to secede, since they are regarded as foreigners and therefore disenfranchised. And with the new Ivorian President's claims that ousted Gen. Robert Guei is well at home in that West Africa's Mecca for mercenaries and anarchy--- Liberia--- allegedly recruiting his canon folder for the creation of a primitive state, Cote D'Ivoire may well be on its way to join its pathetic Frankenstein child---Taylor's Liberia. As usual, the Liberians have hoisted their familiar flag of denials. As Guinea is experiencing, only time will expose the truth and burry denials.

Where Felix Houphouet Boigny used the country's ethnic diversity to supplement his political fortunes with accompanying national economic benefits, his successors are determined to let ethnicity be the dagger in their hearts, and signs that will succeed in this strangely zealous act of self-destruction. Hundreds of northerners, Muslims, are reported in Abidjan jails, with reports of rapes and other atrocities. The Red Cross reported this week visiting 814 people in detention. Ten raped women were released. Journalists quoted one victim from Mali as saying: "They put hot pepper in my eyes," said Sangari Kali, a house painter from Mali who had weals and open wounds across his back body. "They beat us with electric wire, chains, batons, bamboo -- everything you can think of." Amnesty International reminded Gbagbo that he was their prisoner of conscience when he campaigned for multiparty democracy in Cote D'Ivoire. But now, multiparytism ends at the presidency - African style.

The challenge facing many African states is simply replacing men now difficult to replace---rare and endangered species on the African political landscape. Houphouet may have had several faults. But his ability to maintain national cohesion, realizing the importance of northerners (and other foreigners) even if they had Burkinabe links, made different from his pathetic xenophobes. His first Commander of Army was from Benin. A Guinean served in his Cabinet. Whether now opposition leader Alassane Quattara was a Burkinabe and served in the government of what then was Upper Volta now Burkina Faso, he saw his qualities and made him Prime Minister. Thus from recollection and nostalgia, Houphouet was a rare Pan Africanist without necessarily sermonizing as men like Libya's Gaddafi do while they turn blind eyes to well organized pogroms against Africans in their countries as was recently the case in Libya when millions of black Africans were chased in this Alice in Wonderland of "United States of Africa".

The tribal jingoes sounding in Abidjan against "foreigners" are hard to understand in terms of their socioeconomic and even political relevance, although the minority of Ivorians see the dangers ahead. "We should have done it (expulsion of foreigners) from the beginning. You can't do it after they have been here for years, many of them born here," says one Ivorian.

When the now disgraced Gen. Guei seized power, he beat the drums of ethnic unity, deceiving Ivorians there would be no ethnic squabbles. "Whatever the duration of our mission, we will do our best to ensure that Ivorians who want to engage in politics in the interest of the whole country can do so", he lied in reference to the barring of Quattara by Bedie from politics. Eying the throne, he immediately resorted to what many African con men politicians resort to--bare faced opportunism. Northerners who helped him steal power became his enemies. Eventually he left in disgrace after failing to learn the lessons that politically buried Bedie. Notes a Western observer:

"The spark that precipitated the coup d'etat was a dispute over military pay. But the pent-up anger felt by military and civilians alike was directed at a corrupt government that had spent its way into bankruptcy. The government had ambushed its power. As it grew more and insecure, it did what insecure governments do: blame the foreigners and opposition political figures for the problems it created, and clamped down on dissent."

Enter Laurence Gbagbo, the veteran opposition leader, the only man in Cote D'Ivoire bold enough to test Houphouet's strength in the country's first truly multiparty elections in 1990, and that he could not win then is now very clear. A socialist by pronouncement, one would have thought that Gbagbo, who then vowed war because he claimed the elections were unfair, would depart from the senility of defining who is Ivorian and who is not, concentrating instead on putting together the broken pieces that threaten to dissolve this once regional economic powerhouse into a pathetic poorhouse like its neighbors it helped to destroy by backing Charles Taylor, now driving the final nail in West Africa's coffin of horrors and destabilization. But unfortunately, Gbagbo has chosen the path of Konan Bedie, and Robert Guei and may soon find himself in their disgraceful company, sharing a common fate.

Beating the drums against "foreigners" now is not only callous, but politically inept. For purely economic reasons, and reasonably so, Ivory Coast saw the need for large numbers of foreign workers to boost its agriculture-based economy, setting the stage for future confrontation between migrants and Ivorians when bread became scarce. Huge numbers of workers from neighbouring countries flocked in, in search of jobs, and they were readily absorbed. Even as its economy declined, (Growth rate dropped from 5.6% in 1998 to 1.4% in 1999.) Cote d'Ivoire continued to attract foreigners, and in February, a report by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) revealed a syndicate engaged in transporting children from Mali to Cote d'Ivoire to work in captivity without remuneration, lulled by promises of the good life.

The simple truth is that those who see "ethnicity" as the testing ground in today's African politics must, in this case, learn from the Ghanaians. Jerry Rawlings, soon to be out of the presidency, is said to be partly Scottish. His father is said to be from Scotland, and JJ has even ensured that his children learn about their paternal heritage by sending them to school in Scotland (and Switzerland) according to a Dutch daily. ("Don't ask where the money is coming from", the paper said, in reference to the double standards of preaching against corruption while endorsing it.) Yet, Ghanaians did not go to war to bar him from politics. He led the country for about 19 years with impressive results but also problems. Elsewhere, Peru's Fujimori is back home in Japan after serving as president.

No African has the right to determine the nationality of another, for that was done for us when Europeans balkanized the continent regardless of tribes and cultures. The British, for their own interests, dumped Southern Sudanese with intolerant Arabs bent on forcing everyone to obey their Allah even if they chose to obey Jesus. Decency would have demanded that Southern Sudan, now waging Africa's longest war, would have been better off with Uganda or another Bantu African state. Although the Southern Sudanese want to secede and practice their religion in peace, Arab Sudanese are determined to keep Southerners under the clutches of Allah even if that means dropping bombs on them.

In Liberia, Africans freed slaves returned to the West African shores and appointed themselves overlords from 1822 to now. Their rule was briefly interrupted in 1980 after a military coup, but thanks to the Ivory Coast for backing their claim to eternal power. With the help of other tribes (an indication of Liberian "liberalism) they massacred 250,000 in revenge of 13 of their kinsmen killed in 1980 and made this clear by releasing video recordings of the 1980 coup. Not satisfied, in what was now a clear overkill, they targeted tribesmen of former President Samuel Doe and killed 600 of them to drive through the message that 250,000 lives were insufficient to compensate for the 13 executed. If the Ivorian yardstick was adopted, it would be difficult for many of these "Americo-Liberians (the reference they still cherish) to qualify as coming from that part of Africa, let alone what is now Liberia. But to the contrary, it is they who are questioning the nationality of tribes like the Mandingos and others. Liberians accept them as leaders, in fact in the eyes of many, the only ones capable to lead.

Quattara has urged Gbagbo to opt for negotiation in the current political impasse. The elections that brought him to power were anything but free and fair because large numbers of northerners boycotted the polls. The parliamentary elections were even worst, boycotted by the UN and the OAU and others, driving the once shinning example slowly towards a pariah status like its neighbour, Liberia, it created. Disenfranchised northerners are now threatening to secede if they are not recognized as legitimate citizens of the Ivory Coast. If they do, Gbagbo would have to go to war to force them back into the Ivorian orbit and he must remember that Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore, a net exporter of wars in the region (along with Liberia's Taylor) is just next-door waiting for business. With about half of the population regarded as "foreign", recruitment for "Generals" and "Commandos" is an easy task.

Telling a man who served as your Prime Minister that he is a foreigner is a brave act of political chicanery but the consequences are grave. Ivorians must remember that the scores of northerners dying in protests as Quattara's supporters are in fact protesting for their own future. They see Quattara as their symbol and a measurement of what will happen to them. Excluding them from the political process under the umbrella of iviorite is a dagger that Gbagbo may want to pull from his heart.

Indeed, Houphouet must be bitter and turning in his grave now that all his ingenuity and achievements which made Cote D'Ivoire the envy of Africa are blown up in stupidity and self interest that may lead to collective ruin.

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