Special Report

Ivory Coast’s Tragedy

An African country falls prey to the tribal wars it had formerly been spared.

By 4.5.11

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Forces loyal to Alassane Ouatarra, the Côte d'Ivoire opposition leader who claimed victory in last November's presidential election, said the mass graves they uncovered in Duékoué, a large town in the Côte d'Ivoire's west near Liberia, are filled with the bodies of civilians massacred by soldiers or militias loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president who says he won in November. They said there were about 800 victims.

However, a Catholic humanitarian organization, Caritas, which had observers in Duékoué, noted that the Ouatarra forces controlled the town when the killings occurred. After some denials, the spokesman for the Ouatarra forces, Guillaume Soro, said there would be an investigation. By then the count was over 1,000 and rising.

Similar discoveries have been reported elsewhere in the country.

Monitors and observers working for the United Nations and human rights watchdogs have backed up several of the mass graves reports, usually with the caveat that they could not establish court-room type proof of the perpetrators. Some of the atrocities have been reported by the Ouatarra forces, some by the Gbagbo ones. The latter claim the graves in the western part of the country must be blamed on their enemies, because, as an informant said on the phone from Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire's largest city and economic capital, "the Forces Nouvelles [Ouatarra's militia, lately renamed Forces républicaines de Côte d'Ivoire] are the ones advancing and taking control of cities and towns."

They broke out of their northern bases about a week ago and are presently in Abidjan. Abidjan is a small city, built on an island. The Forces Nouvelles fighters, backed up by French air power, were reported in the neighborhood of Cotonou yesterday, where the President, or ex-President, depending on your view, Laurent Gbagbo lives. He lives in the presidential palace, which is blocks away from the French embassy.

There was a time when African presidents dashed out of their palaces to the French embassy to seek refuge. In the era of humanitarian intervention, this may no longer be correct etiquette.

GUILLAUME SORO'S Force Nouvelles have controlled most of northern Côte d'Ivoire since 2003, above a line at about the eighth parallel, with their main base at Bouake, which is right in the middle of the country. The "north" goes roughly from Touba in the west near Liberia through Seguela and Katiola, a few kilometers north of Bouake, and ends at Bondoukou near Ghana in the east. Their strongest base was in the Malinke and Senoufo regions.

The northerners' champion is Alassane Ouatarra, last prime minister of the Old Man, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who guided the country since independence from France in 1960 until his death in 1993. They thought he deserved the presidency, and the past 10 years in this country have been, from their point of view, a long campaign to reach the presidential palace, evict the usurper, and install Ouatarra. Such a bitter saga, with its columns of refugees trying to escape the fighting (unconfirmed reports suggest the victims of the Duékoué massacres were not locals but people fleeing from elsewhere), was not supposed to happen here.

The Ivory Coast under Houphouët was widely considered a success story. A medical doctor and a prince of the Akoue tribe, a sub-group of the Baoule, he fought for justice in a very practical way, for example by helping organize plantation workers and developing legislation (he served in the French parliament in the 1950s) against forced labor. He promoted a gradual and smooth transition to independence, disapproved of the somewhat dreamy programs of some of his anti-colonial comrades, such as Sékou Touré in nearby Guinea (Guinée). For all France's faults in the colonial era, he thought, there was no point burning bridges that could be used.

The question asked by Laurent Ggabgo, a history professor a few years younger than Alassane Ouatarra (they are both in their 60s), was this: who is using these bridges, us or the French? Houphouët, while promoting free enterprise and inviting mass immigration from across West Africa in order to turn Côte d'Ivoire into the region's economic locomotive, was also one of the architects of what soon came to be called neo-colonialism. The old "metropolis" controlled the currency, staffed the government administrations (in the form of advisors behind every ministry and bureau), got its big companies all the major infrastructure and service contracts, dominated or had major parts of retail in the cities, tourism, transportation. There were far more French cadres in Côte d'Ivoire -- without even counting the military and security advisors -- after 1960 than before. There are about 12,000 today, down from a peak of close to 100,000 in the early 1990s, and President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered airborne troops to secure the Abidjan airport in case they have to make a quick run for it.

He did not speak of restoring order or protecting French interests, just getting people out -- averting a humanitarian catastrophe. He did not ask for U.S. support. However, the U.S. Africa Command, established in 2008, lists among its missions humanitarian intervention in the face of political or natural disasters.

LAURENT GBAGBO WAS JAILED by the Old Man in the 1980s for demanding democratic reforms. The Ivoirian miracle was increasingly turning into a mirage, as the French whispered then. They did not say it out loud because it was so pleasant and profitable for them, whether they were benefitting from overseas salary adjustments and a broad menu of cost-of-living subsidies and tax abatements or, if they were politicians, receiving money from slush funds skimmed off the lucrative government-regulated-and-subsidized vertical French-Ivoirian economy.

There was more trade between France and Côte d'Ivoire than between Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, which is next door. If you wanted to fly there, you had just as well go to London or Paris from Abidjan and then back to Accra, on French-piloted Air Afrique planes. Otherwise you took your chances with a Russian pilot stoned out of his mind on vodka and flying an old Ilyushin that was as likely as not to crash in the jungle and never be seen again. Gbagbo himself ended up in French exile for several years, making friends with members of the Socialist Party (center-left, in power in the '80s) and organizing from afar his own Socialist Party (Front Populaire Ivoirien) as well as university affiliates. The idea was to be ready for the inevitable succession battle.

Because the Old Man did not prepare his succession; the idea was anathema to him. Despite his career, he was a superstitious old tribal chief who ruled like a dictator and killed his opponents when he could not buy them off or get them out of the way, in prison or exile. Côte d'Ivoire was economically dynamic, as West African countries went, and one of the reasons was that Houphouët had understood that letting people do what they wanted, including farming, was much wiser than trying to become a modern industrial country quickly, if ever. Cocoa and coffee were grown on private farms and plantations, with the export system controlled by the state, which also fixed prices. It worked for a while, and not too many people cared whether Houphouët thought of the "Caisse" -- the cocoa revenues -- as his purse or the state's.

Then it no longer worked.

The French were having their own economic problems, and in the mid-1990s they withdrew their support for the Ivoirian currency, which was also the currency of the other ex-French colonies in the region. Suddenly everybody's money was devalued. By then Houphouët had died and his successor, Konan Bédié, interim president as leader of the National Assembly, was floundering. Gbagbo, who had bravely stood against Houphouët in the last "election" the Old Man had held in 1990, was widely thought of as the leader of the democratic opposition. But the economy was flat now, and even the French expatriates were leaving more than they were arriving.

Konan Bédié organized a presidential election in 1995, with a new law stating that only children of two Ivoirian parents could be candidates, not necessarily an inherently bad principle, but in context a slap at the millions of immigrants (from four million in 1960, Côte d'Ivoire by then had a population of about 20 million) whom the Old Man had deliberately encouraged to settle here. Politically speaking, however, the law was passed to prevent Alassane Ouatarra, by then the head of a new party, the Republican Union (Rassemblement des Républicains), from running. As the Old Man's last prime minister and a powerful official of the IMF, Ouatarra was one of the best known public figures in the country, certainly outside it. He was a northerner, and the southerners distrusted him. They feared his IMF way of thinking and did not like his open lust for power and they thought he would do away with the cronyism and distribution of spoils that flourished under Houphouët, even though it was not working anymore under Konan Bédié.

Gbagbo, a southerner of the Bete tribe, did not like Ouatarra (as prime minister he had done nothing when, in the early 1990s, the Old Man again had thrown Gbagbo in jail for a short duration), but he protested against the brazen demagogy of the new electoral law, and urged his followers to boycott the election. Konan Bédié was elected unopposed and, basically, the country went down the tubes.

IT IS AGAINST THIS BACKGROUND that the situation today must be viewed. As the economy deteriorated, Konan Bédié increasingly played the tribal and "ethnic" cards, with an undertone of religious war thrown in for good measure. Many if not most northerners come from Malinke tribal groups that are Muslim (like Ouatarra, whose parents supposedly are from Upper Volta, now known as Burkina Faso, also a largely Muslim country), while the southerners are Roman Catholic, in more recent years evangelical Protestants.

The truth is that most Ivoirians could not care less about the "Ivoireté" nonsense that the gang in power was spouting. Whatever else his faults, Houphouët had not played this particular game, and the country had been spared the kinds of tribal wars that devastated so many African countries, for example Nigeria. The greatest Ivoirian writer of his generation, indeed one of the greatest French-language writers of his generation, Ahmadou Kourouma, who was a great friend of Gbagbo, was himself a Malinke and he wrote his last two books before he died to warn against tribal conflict, Allah Doesn't Owe You and When You Disagree, You Say No. They came too late.

With Konan Bédié totally helpless and inept, the unthinkable happened: in 1999 a coup d'état, ostensibly provoked by the inability of the government to meet soldiers' payrolls, led to a seizure of power by a military adventurer, General Robert Guei. The country that was supposed to be the miraculous exception to West African misrule was struck by the "khaki disease."

Guei promised elections and actually staged them the following year, but only after excluding everybody on various technicalities, including the notorious racial laws, since that is what they really were, except himself and Laurent Gbagbo. Why Gbagbo went along with this remains a mystery. Maybe he thought he could win, usher in a democratic regime, and be what he wanted to be, when he was a young socialist reformer.

But there is no sense speculating. Gbagbo, by all accounts, surprised Guei, who obviously had fallen in love with his reflection in the mirror, by winning what was supposed to be the general's shoo-in. Guei refused to surrender power and Gbagbo's supporters went into the street. In the ensuing turmoil, lasting several weeks in late 1999, Guei was forced to concede the presidency to Gbagbo.

Two years later, Gen. Guei was killed in the midst of a failed military coup. In the north, militias proclaiming their loyalty to Ouatarra (who was in France) launched a campaign to overthrow the government. They were led by a charismatic ex-student leader, organizer of the Forces Nouvelles, Guillaume Soro, a northern Catholic. In the south, Gbagbo's partisans countered by organizing the "young patriots" under a no less charismatic ex-student leader, Charles Blé Goudé. Both Soro and Goudé soon found themselves accused of running death squads and extortion rackets. Laurent Gbagbo, for his part, became convinced the northern rebellion was a French conspiracy and that Ouatarra was its agent.

Gbagbo claimed that the Ouatarra forces, under the cover of the liberal, market-oriented program officially supported by the Republican Union party, in truth were intent on maintaining the neo-colonial regime. He urged non-French firms to invest in Côte d'Ivoire to break the French grip on the economy. As the country was spiraling into civil war and was soon divided, de facto, between north and south (with French and UN troops eventually serving as buffers), it was not exactly an investor's heaven and, in real life, economic activity, once vibrant, became anemic.

Negotiations between the two sides repeatedly came up with new election timetables and reconciliation schemes. In 2007, Gbagbo even made Soro his prime minister, but he found excuses to put off scheduled elections. (Soro himself was nearly murdered, allegedly -- though who knows? -- by hard liners in his own camp.) The French -- the expat community, the administrators, the military personnel (there remained an important French contingent), the diplomatic personnel -- were easy targets for the demagogic ravings of the pro-government militias, and on several occasions ugly rioting provoked evacuations.

To many observers, it seemed that there was something to the claim by the Ouatarra camp that Laurent Gbagbo gradually lost all sense of proportion. Like some kind of African Macbeth, egged on by a powerful and ambitious wife, the maintenance of himself in power, according to these observers, became his only purpose. However, the Gbagbo side's assertions that the northerners are foreign agents, terrorizing villages in the west with the help of bands of lost tribal soldiers left over from the catastrophic ravages in Sierra Leone and Liberia a few years ago, cannot be dismissed out of hand, particularly in light of the way last week's march on Abidjan seems to have taken place, leaving mass graves and charred villages in its wake. Gbagbo's accusation that the UM blue helmets and election monitors have not been impartial must be taken seriously -- the UN has botched too many assignments to get a pass.

Last November, an election finally took place and both sides, Alassane Ouatarra -- finally allowed to stand -- and the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, claimed to have won. The international community, followed by the French and U.S. governments, gave the nod to Ouatarra. One need not be a cynic to think that if there is a consensus in the "international community" one can just as easily assume the vote in fact went for Gbagbo. Given the state of things in Côte d'Ivoire, it would be reasonable to suppose that ballot stuffing and fraud took place on both sides. If the election was free and fair, chances are we will never know.

THE DANGER AT PRESENT is all-out tribal war in Côte d'Ivoire, which could draw in all kinds of scavengers and bandits from across the region and spread across all of West Africa. It is possible the northern forces will quickly gain control of Abidjan and enforce a cease-fire. The UN forces (whose main contingent is the French Licorne, Unicorn, command), concentrated in Abidjan and reinforced over the weekend to about two thousand, are insufficient to patrol the whole country to prevent inter-tribal and inter-communal fighting, let alone to disarm both sides and impose a breathe-deeply period. An intervention by ECOWAS (the West African regional cooperation bloc) or the African Union, which means in practice Nigerian troops, is possible, though no one is talking about it. The Nigerians have parliamentary and presidential elections coming up in just a few weeks, fraught with north-south tensions.

The tragedy of Laurent Gbagbo is that of a man who saw things clearly but could not control them. Once he attained power, the democratic transition that he championed as a young opposition leader always seemed to carry the danger of opening the door to his enemies, whom he identified with the enemies of his country and his people. The persistence with which these enemies insisted on elections leading to the reunification of the Côte d'Ivoire under a single government and president perhaps has not received the attention it deserves, compared to the stubbornness that has characterized him in the past decade and especially since the disputed election of last November. But it may turn out that the de facto division of the country that he objectively defended, without explicitly claiming it as his aim, was the more prudent course.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.