UN/French-Enforced Regime Change in Ivory Coast was an Avoidable Disaster

Nairobi — The United Nations had a plan for Ivory Coast: to oversee elections and install a “winner-takes-all” state president.

Having failed to secure a political solution, the UN joined with French forces and one side in the civil war in Ivory Coast to forcibly overthrow the government that had lost the election but refused to quit.

The discovery of mass graves of civilian victims of gruesome violence suggests that the UN may have reignited the North-South civil war instead of healing it.

The alternative to a “winner-takes-all’ strategy would have been a transitional power-sharing arrangement that would have embraced both sides in the civil war as a way of finding a way beyond the civil war.

But the UN wanted a national election, which it enforced in October 2010.

I first read about the debate in an article by an independent Ghanaian analyst who had earlier helped broker peace settlements between fighting groups in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

He wrote before about the UN decision to break the post-election political deadlock with a military intervention:

“The three protagonists, Henri Konan Bedie, Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo could have been prevented from contesting for state power through a transitional arrangement that embraced all three egos but with a caveat preventing each one of them from participating in future elections as they laid down the foundations to reorder the Ivorian society… The combined experience of the three is a national asset that must not be left polarised to the disadvantage of the country. This is what the UN has denied the people of Cote d’Ivoire. ”

Determined that the military intervention be both surgical and successful, the UN joined hands with France. The resulting French invasion of Ivory Coast has compounded the UN failure.

The north-south difference

The oversized egos of protagonists is at the heart of the power struggle in the Ivory Coast — former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, the Speaker of the Assembly Henry Konan Bedie and President Laurent Gbagbo — cannot fully explain the origins of the north-south civil war. That civil war was fuelled by a debate on citizenship.

The citizenship debate has plagued the Ivory Coast since the rise of a successful movement against the dictator, Houphouet-Boigny, who had ruled the country for a good four decades since Independence in 1960.

The citizenship question, known as Ivoirite (Ivorianness), is about political rights: Who is an Ivorian with a right to participate in the political sphere?

The origins of Ivoirite speaks to the shortcomings of the democratic movement against Houphouet-Boigny.

What would today be called a “pro-democracy” movement began in the south of the country.

The democratic movement faced one big challenge as it sought to become a national movement.

In essence, it was the joining of two different regions, each with a different history and a different social makeup, into a single political movement.

The historical origins of the north-south split lie in the political economy of colonial Ivory Coast.

France treated its West African possessions as a single administrative entity.

In French Occidental Africa, a single economic policy was implemented: as a rule, plantations were situated near communication lines at the coast and labour to work the plantations was extracted from inland territories.

Hundreds of thousands of plantations workers were brought in from inland Sahelian countries like Burkina Faso and Mali to work cocoa, coffee and banana plantations in the north of Ivory Coast.

In the heyday of colonial rule, two trains a day made the run to fetch migrant labour from Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast.

The north-south division reflected deeper social differences by the end of the colonial period: in contrast to the increasingly Muslim and immigrant north, the predominantly Christian south increasingly came to define itself as the indigenous group.

Politicising the north-south division

The north-south issue turned political when the pro-democracy movement wrested a concession from President Houphouet-Boigny, the holding of national elections in 1990.

The candidate of the pro-democracy movement in that election was Laurent Gbagbo.

The big question in the 1990 election was: who is qualified to vote?

Taking a short-term view of the question, the pro-democracy movement pressed for an answer that would turn voting into an effective monopoly of its organised base in the south.

The movement said only “indigenous” Ivorians should be able to vote.

Ironically, Houphouet-Boigny, a former trade unionist who had successfully organised plantation workers in the north during the colonial period, championed the political right of migrants and their descendents to vote.

The political blind spot of Ivorian pro-democracy recalls a similar decision by the Congolese Sovereign National Conference, when it met in Kisangani in 1991-92 to demand democratic reforms from the Mobutu regime.

It too, decided to limit political rights only to “indigenous” Congolese, thereby disenfranchising long-term migrants from Rwanda.

Like Mobutu in Congo, Houphouet-Boigny in the Ivory Coast also championed citizenship rights for migrants.

The historical responsibility of pro-democracy movements in Ivory Coast and in Congo is that each politicised a regional difference for short term gain, and in the process laid the ground for a future civil war.

Ivoirite turned out to be a poisoned chalice. Northerners were blocked from voting in 1995, and were increasingly subject to attacks, particularly in the south.

Part of this story is the repeated blocking of former prime minister Alassane Ouattara from running for president because his parents were said to have been born in Burkina Faso.

Disenfranchised, the North resorted to armed rebellion, initiated in 2002 by a group called the New Forces.

The short civil war led to a peace plan negotiated under the chairmanship of former President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa in 2005.

Part of the peace plan was that Ouattara could run for the highest office in the state.

That election, demanded by the UN, was held on October 31, 2010.

Gbagbo (roughly 35 per cent) won the first round, against Outarra (32 per cent) and Bedie (25 per cent), but failed to muster a majority of the vote.

The runoff in November pitted Gbagbo against Ouattara.

Gbagbo told voters that there was only one “real” Ivorian in the race, warning that they should never trust the leadership of their country to a foreigner.

Not surprisingly, both the casting and count of votes reflected the division of Ivory Coast between contending armed groups in the two regions – the official army and New Forces.

The Electoral Commission said Ouattara had won with 54.1 per cent of votes against 45.9 per cent for Gbagbo.

The Constitutional Court vetted the result on account of voting irregularities, particularly in the North; its count reversed the verdict: 51.45 per cent for Gbagbo and 48.55 per cent for Ouattara.

Ouattara’s response was to call for a national strike of workers on 26 December 2010, to continue until Gbagbo hands over power.

But most workers in the capital, Abidjan, and the main ports, Abidjan and San Pedro, all in the south, ignored the call.

Only some shopkeepers in Bouake, the capital of the rebel-held north, heeded it.

Political order in divided societies

Ivory Coast is a divided society. The outsized egos of its presidential candidates were fed by a real social crisis that divided the country into a regional civil war.

No one familiar with the country’s unfolding crisis should have been surprised by the ruling party’s refusal to accept the verdict in a “winner-takes-all” election.

Africa had already witnessed similar refusals in other countries, notable Sudan and Kenya.

The notable thing is the refusal by those who pressed the solution in the Ivorian case to heed the lessons of a similar crisis in Africa.

In the Ivory Coast, however, the UN insisted on an election, and a regime change in line with its results.

When the election led to a political stalemate, the UN, a body set up to strengthen peace-keeping along with the French army, came in with guns blazing to force a military implementation of its preferred solution thereby .

The Situation in the Ivory Coast was set in motion during the colonial period, and the French have been  there every step of the way to fan the flames of hatred and division its colonial rule sat in motions decades ago.

With over 50% of the countries export earnings going to France, the French have always tried to manipulate Ivory Coast’s politics for their own ends. leaving in their trail an impoverished and divided society   

In the words of Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, the Ghanian analyst I quoted earlier, Cote d’Ivoire was “an avoidable disaster.”

The price of that disaster will surely be paid by the people of Ivory Coast in the years to come.