French and United Nations (UN) helicopters bombed the compound of Ivory Coast’s sitting president Laurent Gbagbo on Monday.
With these attacks in the main commercial city, Abidjan, they are now actively involved in the battle for control of the West African country.
However, the UN’s Ban Ki-moon says that, “The mission has taken this action in self-defence and to protect civilians.”
His excuse echoes a new trend—most obviously in Libya—for Western powers to obscure military attacks with the claim that their only interest is in the protection of civilians.
The current fighting broke out after the disputed presidential election last November.
Troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara, who is internationally accepted as having won the vote, now control most of the country.
They hold the capital, Yamassoukro, and fought to gain control of Abidjan on Monday.
But Outtara’s forces are not always welcomed as liberators. They were implicated in the recent massacre of up to 800 civilians in the western town of Duekoue.
Meanwhile, Gbagbo retains the support of his 2,500-strong presidential guard—and his Patriotic Youth movement, which now acts as a street militia.
The African left has tended to support Gbagbo, contrasting his anti‑imperialist rhetoric to Ouattara’s links with the Western rich and particularly the French ruling class.
Gbagbo was a trade union organiser who came to power in 2000 after mass protests against military rule. But once he became president he implemented harsh pro-market policies.
A civil war began in 2002, dividing the country between the largely Muslim north and the mostly Christian south.
Since a ceasefire in 2004, the country has been effectively partitioned. More than 9,000 UN soldiers have been stationed along a buffer zone.
Since Ivory Coast became independent from France in 1960 the former colonial power has also constantly stationed troops in the country.
The boundaries between the roles of France and the UN remain blurred.
As the current crisis developed France flew in 300 more troops and took control of Abidjan’s international airport. A further 150 arrived on Monday.
Media reports tend to characterise the country as inherently barbaric and riven by religious and ethnic conflict.
But Ivory Coast’s problems emerge from a long history of Western intervention.
The French used divide and rule to keep control. Today sections of the governing elite use the legacy of division to try to cement their power with the invented concept of Ivoirité, or “Ivorianness”.
Various members of the elite have implied that Muslims somehow fail this nationalist test. Those pushing ethnic division often suggest that no Muslims are Ivorian, and that all are immigrants.
There is a real danger of collapse into ethnic fighting, but the alternative is not for Western forces to invade.
The real choice is shown by the mass protests in Swaziland, Gabon, Cameroon, Djibouti and Burkina Faso in recent weeks.
They show that there is nothing fanciful about making comparisons between Egypt and Tunisia and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.