Leo Zeilig speaks to Pascal Bianchini, a writer and researcher on Africa in France, about the background to the fighting in the West African country
Thousands have been killed in recent months. Who is behind the killings?
There has been murder and rape committed on a large scale in the last few months as troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara—now established as president—advanced.
In the city of Duékoué hundreds of civilians were killed. Tens of thousands have fled to Liberia.
On the other side was Laurent Gbagbo—the former president—whose militias have attacked northerners suspected of being pro-Ouattara in some neighbourhoods in Abidjan.
So the violence does not just target each side’s supporters, but also “enemy” communities.
What caused the crisis in Ivory Coast?
The country’s so-called economic miracle went into crisis at the end of the 1980s when the prices of its core exports—cocoa and coffee—collapsed.
At the time Ouattara was overseeing the implementation of a structural adjustment programme.
The combination of these two factors led to widening poverty and a rapid increase in unemployment among graduates.
The Student Federation of the Ivory Coast (FSECI) emerged to voice both social and political demands.
The country’s president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, had been in power since independence from France in 1960. His death in 1993 created a political crisis.
Members of the elite had been fighting among themselves for years over who should replace him.
By the early 1990s the competition was between Ouattara, who had become prime minister, and Konan Bédié, the president of the National Assembly.
Two factors marked the leadership fight. First, Bédié used xenophobia in an attempt to disqualify Ouattara.
He used the new slogan of “Ivoirité”—a concept designed to define “authentic” citizens. Bédié tried to show that the northerner Ouattara wasn’t an authentic Ivorian. This tactic won the 1995 elections.
The second development was the military coup in 1999 led by General Robert Guei which overthrew Bédié.
Guei tried to hold onto power by standing in an election in October 2000, but he lost to Gbagbo.
At the same time supporters of Ouattara demanding new elections were violently repressed.
Gbagbo continued the policy of Ivoirité, and soon a section of the army in the north launched an uprising—believing it faced discrimination. The country was cut in two from September 2002.
But to understand the present crisis we also have to look at the international scene. The Ivorian situation illustrates in a very sharp way the crisis of French imperialism in Africa.
Ivory Coast had been regarded as an economic miracle and a model of political stability in the 1960s and 1970s. But by the time of the civil war this had completely imploded.
Can you describe the major elements of French involvement?
Ivory Coast is one of the pillars of France’s presence in Africa. In 2000, just before Gbagbo came to power, France was still the principle investor in the vital energy, telecommunications and agriculture sectors.
And Ivory Coast will occupy an increasingly important position in the oil sector, even though it is not yet in a position to compete with other West African states like Gabon in terms of quality, or Nigeria in terms of scale.
The country also supports some of France’s principle military bases in Africa, and its importance has grown since French bases closed in the Central African Republic and Senegal.
The French “peace-keeping” force in Ivory Coast officially numbers 1,600. Their reason for being there seems to have disappeared, but will they go? Watch this space.
The country still hosts a relatively large number of French expats.
Gbagbo took a big risk in 2004. His “young patriots” threatened to attack expats after an attempt to overthrow the regime backed by the French president Jacques Chirac.
Through Gbagbo’s reign France alternated between hostility and accommodation. But in the end hostility predominated. A decision was made to get rid of him at a certain moment and this was the recent electoral crisis.
Without repeated intervention from French forces it is not certain how the current crisis would have turned out. The French deny involvement but they are contradicted by journalists on the ground.
How have Gbagbo’s politics developed since he opposed the regime in the 1980s?
Gbagbo got involved with politics through the student movement in the early 1970s. Several years later he was active in the teaching unions while he was a history professor at university. He was obliged to flee to France in 1983 and remained there until 1989.
He returned to the country at a particularly favourable historical moment: several months before the wave of democratisation which swept across Africa at the start of the 1990s.
He participated in the country’s first competitive elections, in 1990, at the head of the “social democratic” Ivorian Popular Front. He became leader of the opposition. He was imprisoned in 1992 while Ouattara was prime minister.
However, under the Bédié regime he allied himself to Ouattara’s party. Gbagbo contributed in his own way to the problems of Ivoirité.
Once he was in power he played to any set of interests and used any political, ideological or military support that he could obtain.
He used the title of nationalist to give him a certain credibility and sympathy beyond Ivory Coast but this remained limited.
Who are Ouattara’s backers?
Ouattara has support from sections of the population, particularly among northerners and Muslims. But he’s also the choice of a large number of those caught up by the civil war and the division of the country over recent years.
He owes his military victory to the rebels known as the Forces Nouvelles, led by Guillaume Soro, another former leader from the student movement in the 1990s.
From the start, Blaise Compaore’s regime in neighbouring Burkina Faso has been behind these rebels.
Ouattara has also been favoured by the Western powers since the 1990s when he was deputy director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He certainly won’t give them any cause for concern when it comes to representing their economic interests.
But the question remains whether he is in a position to control those forces that permitted him to gain power.
Pascal Bianchini is an activist in the radical teaching union Sud Education