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Blood and tragedy on the Ivory Coast

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As French helicopters fire on forces still loyal to Laurent Gbagbo and militia supporting his rival Alassane Ouattara take over the countries largest city, Joana Ramiro explores the political history and contemporary challenges of a country ruled by war and terror since the 19th century.

The Ivory Coast, situated in the West of Africa, has a history drenched in blood and oppression. From dictatorship to genocide and civil war, Ivorians have lived in a state fear of over a century. Now two men, Gbagbo and Ouattara are battling it out for control of the country, but neither one of them really offers a solution to the problems facing Ivorians today.

The Ivory Coast as an artificial colonial construct
As a former French colony, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) became a vital port of trade for coffee, cocoa, bananas and other agricultural commodities, which French plantation owners produced with the help of a forced labour system. As was the case in the colonial empires, the country was ruled under a system of racial and ethnic discrimination, political inequality and a doctrine of forced assimilation. From taxes to a different law system, indigenous Ivorians were divided not just from colonisers, but amongst themselves in a complex class-system concocted by the French. Geographical borders were set with Liberia and then British Ghana (The Gold Coast) at the end of the 19th century, but the northern frontier remained ambiguous until the late 1940s as France unsuccessfully tried to annex territories from today’s Mali and Burkina Faso.

This perimeter encompassed several kingdoms and tribes of different languages, cultures and religious creeds and disregarded local politics in favour of European and particularly French interests. The principal religions are Islam (38.6 per cent), Christianity (32.8 per cent), (mainly Roman Catholic) and various indigenous religions (11.6 per cent). These differences ran almost unnoticed under oppressive regimes, but came quickly to surface as soon as sovereignty and national identity were put into question. They have been, amongst other, key factors in the long term conflicts in the region and enablers of the hierarchical society implemented in the Ivory Coast.

Independence rooted in political compromise and dependence on the West
In 1960 Ivory Coast gained its political independence from France. It first president,. With the profits of local African farmers constantly undermined by a powerful settlers’ lobby and political favouritism, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a member of the local nobilityset up the first agricultural trade union and pushed for legal reforms. His political success and strong relationship with the French administration (being a French Member of Parliament for the region of West Africa before independence) put him in the lead position to become President of the independent Republic of Côte d'Ivoire in 1960. His previous political alliances, often supporting or aligning with communist groups within parliament, were quickly discarded.

The Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI) became the countries only legal party and under Houphouët-Boigny a merciless political machine. His undemocratic ruling comprised the adoption of liberal economic systems and a watertight relationship with Western powers. His Françafrique policies turned the Ivory Coast into France’s number one ally and a Western watchdog in Africa. He became known for his anticommunist foreign-policy and was involved in the coups against left-wing African leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in 1966, Benin’s Mathieu Kérékou in 1977 and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso in 1987.

But the Ivory Coast suffered from the same problems as most countries in Africa after the nightmare of colonialism. Their economies were too weak to really develop independently and much of the population was consigned to live in serious poverty for generations. With the decline in the prices of coffee and cocoa, a serious draught and an economic recession in the 1980s, the country entered a financial crisis. In 1990 civil servants and students launched strikes across the country and the government found itself forced to implement political reforms. Multi-party elections were held as a token gesture in the face of blatant political corruption and a clientelist system. Houphouët-Boigny’s PDCI was the winner with over 80% of the votes. However, after the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 his protégé, Henri Konan Bédié, could not continue with the old policies. Bédié responded to growing dissent with the arrest of opposition leaders and supporters. He implemented an extreme nationalist ideology that ostracised all foreign-descendent Ivorians. These policies of “Ivority” alienated almost a third of the country’s population, particularly in the northern, largely Muslim region, where plantation workers are frequently immigrants from neighbouring countries. From there onwards ethnic discord has been a prevalent feature in the countries politics, an Achilles heel to developing stronger fighting militancy from the poor against the rich. In this sense it is clear that the current Ivory Coast bourgeoisie learnt their policy of ethnic division from the French before 1960.

Strikes, coups and civil war
But, as Bédié excluded large chunks of the population from civil society, he also estranged members of the military elite, leading to a coup in 1999 which put General Guéï in power. In the eyes of many Laurent Gbagbo, leader of the social democratic Ivorian Popular Front (IPF), was the only political alternative to military rule and he won widespread support not only in his own country but across much of the African left.

The following year popular uprisings prior to elections placed Ggabgo in charge. In order to undermine his most dangerous rival, Alassane Ouattara, he too resorted to Ivorian xenophobia as a political strategy.

Ggabgo’s presidency has been challenged from the beginning, but violence peaked as Northern military mutineers launched attacks on several cities taking control of the largest city, Abidjan, for some hours and eventually setting base in Bouake, further to the north. As France and the United States deployed forces to control the conflict a large number of rebel movements emerged to dispute control of the country. A intermittent civil war continued until 2007.

2010 Elections and new conflict
Laurent Ggabgo’s government delayed the elections six times until finally agreeing to hold them in October 2010. Despite being considered free and fair by foreign observers, the electoral campaign was accompanied by violent clashes between supporters of all factions. And whilst the Independent Electoral Commission considered Alassane Ouattara the winner, the Constitutional Council considered many votes invalid and declared Ggabgo the new President. Both bodies are criticized for their clear bias (the Commission being predominantly formed my members of the opposition, the Constitutional Council’s President being one of Ggabgo’s allies), but the international community recognises Ouattara as the new elected head of state of the Ivory Coast.

Armed conflict broke out again in February 2011 as the Forces Nouvelles de Côte d'Ivoire militia (a political coalition of three rebellion movements with a strong nationalist doctrine lead by Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, an opponent of Laurent Ggabgo) tried to close off the border with Liberia under the suspicion of several thousand mercenaries being ordered by Ggabgo from that country. Ggabgo, however, maintained control of most southern cities with the strong support of the military and large youth groups like the Young Patriots.

Ouattara himself has been protected by UN forces within Ivorian soil. The UN is currently backing someone whose forces have been accused of carrying out a massacre in the town of Duekoue where 800 people have been found dead after Ouattara's men 'liberated it'. UN secretary Ban Ki Moon said he was “concerned and alarmed” at the claims of a massacre, though of course Ouattara denied it.

On the 31st March 2011 troops loyal to Ouattara took control of the formal capital, though the real centre of power lies in Abidjan. By early April street fighting had broken out in Abidjan as Ouattara's fighters attempted to surround the presidential palace and seize Gbabgo.

Exploitation or workers' power
The great tragedy of the Ivorian conflict is that of utter destruction of its civil society and the diversion from the real problems: poverty, political and financial corruption, authoritarianism and xenophobia. These could and should be the objectives of a class struggle against both the Ivorian ruling elite and the French and other imperialist exploiters of the country. Ivorians fight each other under the banner of national unity and even democracy, but they do it for benefit of those who undermine the success of these desires. There can be no democracy while Ivorian politicians strategy is based on racism and Islamophobia.

And if French colonial rule is to blame for the ethnic and religious contradictions that form the political body of Côte d’Ivoire, the Ivorian despotic autocrats are certainly prolonging the system and bear the culpability for a society where class consciousness is constantly displaced by tribal and religious identification, coupled with the prevalent violence that is lodged in the logic of the countries existence.

The military wants the rule of a southerner, a Christian, a representative of the middle classes. The international community is, however, not defending Ouattara for being a Muslim, from the poverty-stricken north, the son of immigrant workers. They dismiss Ggabgo because he positions himself as a socialist, anti-imperialist and thus anti Western interference. They support Ouattara because he is willing to negotiate with the West, in the tradition of Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

To support either is impossible. The political fronts and coalitions these men head have no principled basis other than power play politics. They are effectively militias ruled by rival war lords, whose conflicts - so disastrous for ordinary Ivorians - are arbitrated by foreign imperialist meddling.

What the Ivory Coast and Ivorians need is a united, secular, inter-ethnical movement based on class, not creed or culture, based on understanding between the oppressed in their struggle against the oppressor. In the case of the Côte d’Ivoire it is necessary, it is vital, that a radical turn takes place from war amongst people to war between working class and political and military élites.

To end despotism and corruption the people in the streets of Abidjan, Yamoussoukro, San Pédro, Bouaké, Man and Daloa must unite. Workers need to establish their own militia and defence committees to defend their communities from the violence of the warring presidents. We must clearly stand for the immediate withdrawal of all imperialist troops from Ivory Coast, after all they are only there to install a pro-western leader, despite their usual claims to be here to protect civilians.