by Michael Schreiber
Weeks after Alassane Ouattara replaced Laurent Gbagbo as president, the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivroire) remains in chaos. The capital city, Abidjan, has been wracked by looting and gun battles by rival armies professing loyalty to Ouattara. The discord came to a head on April 27, when Ibrahim Coulibaly, commander of the so-called Invisible Commandos, was killed in a firefight with other pro-Ouattara troops.
The UN had declared Outtara the winner in disputed elections last November, but Gbagbo refused to give up power—claiming vote fraud in the north of the country. Outtara was able to enlist for his cause the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI) and other militia mainly from the north. In the conflict, civilians died at the hands of soldiers from both sides. Millions fled their homes.
Outtara’s armies were able to win territory from Gbagbo’s defenders in rapid fashion—until they got to Abidjan, where Outtara was aided by some 10,000 French and UN “peace-keeping” troops.
The capture of Gbagbo on April 11 was made possible through the direct action of France—whose military forces are the best equipped in the country. French and UN helicopter gunships fired on loyalist troops and arms depots close to Gbagbo’s compound in Abidjan; French ground forces then occupied the area. Only after they had set the stage to their liking did the French allow the FRCI the honor of flushing Gbagbo from his bunker while photographers filmed the event.
Gbagbo’s arrest and the inauguration of the Outtara regime were applauded in the U.S. and European media as a gain for democracy against tyranny. Even the compliant African media hailed the event. Kenya’s The Star, for example, stated: “Ouattara is the rightful president of Ivory Coast, and Gbagbo was a usurper. The French government was right to support his removal, even if they are accused of neo-colonialism.”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Le Potentiel declared: “The international community’s intervention in the Ivoirian crisis saved African democracy—a response to those who believe that democracy in Africa is just an illusion.”
Unfortunately, Outtara is hardly a democrat, having served as prime minister in the repressive regime of Houphouet-Boigny in the early 1990s. His standing in the West comes from the fact that, after two terms as a top official in the International Monetary Fund, he has shown himself to be constantly attentive to corporate and imperialist interests. On April 17, Outtara spoke by phone to President Obama, who pledged support. The leaders reportedly discussed “the importance of re-establishing normal trade and assistance relationships to jump-start the Ivoirian private sector.”
Gbagbo’s early political orientation was quite different than that of his rival. Gbagbo was leader of the 1982 teachers’ strike, a former political prisoner (Outtara jailed him for the second time in 1992), and a professed social democrat. But like Outtara, Gbagbo embraced the “structuralization” policies of recent years that handed over formerly nationalized industries and utilities to Western corporations. Despite Gbagbo’s image as a leader who stood up to French governmental interference in the country, he was ready enough to purchase weapons from France and to welcome many French corporations seeking acquisition of Ivory Coast resources. He committed a “crime” in French eyes, however, by enabling U.S. and British interests to obtain oil industry concessions.
Since granting “independence” to the Ivory Coast in 1960, France continued to dominate the country economically and politically. Abidjan is a major regional hub for French banks and commodities brokers. French corporations own most of the utilities in the country, and French officials played a constant role through the years as advisors in Ivoirian government and economic sectors.
The Ivory Coast is a major prize of neo-colonialism—the largest economy in the region. It produces more than one-third of the world’s yearly supply of cocoa, and other lucrative crops, such as coffee. In recent years, oil has risen to become the country’s second major export.
The cocoa crop, in particular, brings huge profits to the corporate merchandisers in the United States and Europe, though the wages of the African farm laborers are paltry. Yet farm jobs have attracted immigrants to Ivory Coast from other West African countries that are even more impoverished. Most of the newcomers are settled in the (heavily Muslim) north of the country, where the majority of the cocoa plantations are located.
When in office, Gbagbo tried to latch onto the scapegoating campaign initiated by earlier administrations against “foreigners” in the north who were “stealing jobs” from native Ivoirians. Ouattara too, when he was prime minister in the 1990s, endorsed issuing identity cards for “foreigners,” a measure that was put forward as a means of raising state income. But then, Ouattara himself was (temporarily) excluded from running for office since his parents had emigrated from Burkina Faso.
It is important to understand that the regional, ethnic, and religious conflicts taking place throughout Africa result primarily from the underdevelopment, inequality, and demoralization that the imperialist countries have forced upon the region. And the imperialists have often attempted to deepen such cleavages in order to thwart a united opposition to their policies.
In Ivory Coast, for example, troops from the north were on the verge of taking over the entire country in 2002. But French and UN “peacekeepers” pushed them back, and established a borderline that divided the country into two distinct sectors. Rather than healing the disputes between the warring sides, however, the imperialist-imposed territorial division merely hardened the differences.
Now Ivory Coast has been militarily unified once again; Outtara has pledged to U.S. officials that he will be the president “of all Ivoirians.” However, the death of Commander Ibrahim Coulibaly in April underscores the danger that the country could still break up into warring fiefdoms and armies, as politicians jockey for power and privileges.
Though Outtara might still rely on French or even U.S. troops to keep him in office, he would have to pay the price (which he seems willing to do) of allowing foreign capitalists to extend their control over the country’s resources. And thus the cycle of poverty and desperation would continue.
Repairing the despoliation caused by the recent war, and healing the social divisions, are the main tasks of the moment for Ivory Coast. But at the same time, the working people and poor farmers need to make sure that proceeds from the country’s bountiful resources are used to solve the needs of the masses—rather than squirreled away in French, American, or Swiss bank accounts. Fulfilling that task will take the construction of a nationwide working-class party with a revolutionary program.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.