Cote d’Ivoire, or How Quickly a Non-Democratic African Success Story Can Become a Nightmare

THE STORY SO FAR IN COTE D'IVOIRE: The southern territory in lavender is controlled by the government of Laurent Gbagbo, and consists largely of relatively-commercialized, majority-Christian areas. The blue territory in the north of the country is controlled by the rebel faction led by Alassane Ouattara, the base constituencies of which are the country's Muslims and large population of immigrant laborers. The beige strip in the middle is the armistice line policed by the UNOCI. This has been the situation since 2004.

This story has been developing since mid-December, so far without mention in the Liberal Ironist.  But the situation looks very bad in The Republic of Cote d’Ivoire (the official name of Ivory Coast), a West African former French colony of about 21 million.  Cote d’Ivoire, much like neighboring Ghana, was once considered one of Africa’s post-colonial success stories before succumbing to serious internal problems.  Cote d’Ivoire’s collapse, however, came much later, and more-suddenly and catastrophically than was typical of such stories.

What follows is a brief account of the sequence of events leading up to the Ivoirian Civil War, the account’s essentials being given as understood by GlobalSecurity.org: Having enjoyed relative calm and commercial viability since 1960, Cote d’Ivoire’s strongman, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, proposed elections and free party competition in 1990.  He won 1 election, then died in office in 1993.  In retrospect, his country’s stability died with him.

THE IRONY OF THE BENEVOLENT DICTATOR: As their country's peace and prosperity depends on their own discretion and not on any institutions that would bind all wills--even their own--to a rule of law, the worst thing that a true benevolent dictator could do to his country is die. But everyone dies, so a benevolent dictator by definition probably leaves unaddressed resentments and lieutenants who lack his perspective in his wake.

It is already accepted in policy talk that elections and party competition are no guarantee of peace and sustained economic development; it is remarkable, however, to find them a seeming independent cause of a deteriorating political system, let-alone civil war.  This appears to be the situation in Cote d’Ivoire, however.  The country also suffered exogenous shocks in the form of declining World coffee and cocoa prices.  (Underdeveloped states can be extremely vulnerable to changes in the prices of cash crops, minerals or fuels that dominate their exports; this is the dark side of the “Capitalist peace,” the tendency of reduced trade barriers to foster permanent peaceful relations between countries through the exchange of goods.  Sharp declines in World coffee and tin prices in preceding years interacted with the 1989 invasion by the RPF to send Rwanda into a spiral of unrest, long-term state decline and regime paranoia that created the political opportunity for a massive genocide and politicide in spring 1994.)

With the passage of its old ruler in the context of a democratic transition, it is unsurprising that a serious political challenger would emerge in the form of Alassane Ouattara. This isn't some simple case of an oppressive government and its crusading democratic opposition, however; Mr. Ouattara's opposition helped to precipitate a crisis that has split the country in 2, and which poses the prospect of further violence.

Though he doesn’t bear the brunt of responsibility, the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire cannot be discussed without reference to the emergence of Alassane Ouattara as representative of the country’s northern ethnic factions.  Ouattara, a Muslim, represented the interests of that country’s largest religious minority group, an identity that fit loosely over the country’s northern ethnic groups, generally outsiders to the country’s post-colonial power structure.  Without Houphouet-Boigny’s sure but dictatorial hand, and in the face of declining export profits and foreign aid and rising corruption, both the prospects of power and the risks involved in continuing without it loomed larger for the country’s Muslims and ethnic northerners.  Of course, the military coup that prevented the country’s 3rd scheduled election didn’t really help defuse the political tension.

The military government only lasted about a year before the country’s main political parties, principally Alassane Ouattara’s Rassemblement des Republicaines and Laurent Gbagbo‘s Front Populaire Ivoirien, deposed it with the assistance of discontented elements of the military and police.  Soon after the fall of the military government these 2 factions were fighting each other in the streets, as Gbagbo claimed the presidency on the basis of an election permitted by the military government, while Ouattara called the election illegitimate because of the exclusion of his party.  In January 2001, Gbagbo and Ouattara entered negotiations, and following aid from the European Union and government restructuring advisement by the IMF, both parties established a coalition government in August 2002.

All’s well that ends well?  That’s only so if, to invoke the wisdom of Dr. Manhattan, anything ever ends: All this merely set the stage for the Ivoirian Civil War.  Alassane Ouattara was told he did not qualify to run for president because 1 of his parents wasn’t a native-born Ivoirian.  This declaration (in keeping with a 2000 law passed to placate rising anti-immigrant sentiment among the politically-dominant Ivoirian ethnic groups) led to a mutiny by northern Ivoirian military units.  The mutineers assassinated Robert Guei, the leader of the previous military coup.  This resulted in a failed attempt on Alassane Ouattara’s life; he found protection at the French Embassy.  The mutiny quickly led to outright civil war as the mutineers were only able to secure control in the north.  They established a provisional capital at Bouake and secured control of about 60% of the country’s territory, though they were unable to approach the capital or Abidjan, the economic hub of the country.  The west, a region already racked by economic competition between tribes as well as between natives and Burkinese and Malian immigrants, drifted from both the government’s and the rebels’ attentions and essentially descended into anarchy.

The following year France under the leadership of President Jacques Chirac deployed 2,500 troops, which they requested the UN deputize as Blue Helmets as part of a larger UN operation.  The UN did so later that year, and by 2004 the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) grew to 4,600, and fighting between government and rebels fizzled-out.  Though there have been expressions of optimism about succeeding initiatives, the situation there hasn’t really improved since that time.

Now the UN’s mission there alleges that troops loyal to Gbagbo are responsible for the deaths of as many as 200 Ivoirians over the the past month.  The past month’s “disappearances” of about 200 supporters of Mr. Ouattara are thought to be part of a low-level politicide and intimidation campaign by Mr. Gbagbo, who has refused to step down after losing last fall’s election.  That election had been delayed 6 times.

Laurent Gbagbo, who took power after the military government was deposed, has sought to portray himself as a victim of voting irregularities in the north after his loss of Ivoirian national elections this fall. It isn't very convincing, what with his government's alleged killings of Ouattara supporters and his government's thinly-veiled threats towards the country's large immigrant population and all.

The Liberal Ironist generally tries to avoid making historical analogies (as they can undermine fresh analysis by encouraging over-aggregation of key agents in a volatile situation of political contention), but Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s Cote d’Ivoire–and its fate–reminds me of Joseph Broz Tito‘s Yugoslavia.  During the Cold War period both countries were seen as models for non-aligned, non-democratic countries, and each owed their relative peace to the assemblage of interests prudently maintained by 1 man.  Neither of these men was able to create non-democratic governments that could maintain balance among interests upon their departure, however, and the democratic elections following their deaths actually catalyzed the delivery of the country over to civil war as those very democratic institutions pitted the self-determination of different ethnic groups at odds with each other.  (Here we see how crucial the difference can be between making the World a better place and leaving the World better than you found it.)

ANOTHER BENEVOLENT DICTATOR? Much as with Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Josip Broz Tito effectively maintained a stable and peaceful non-democratic state for his country, successfully charting an ideological middle course through the Cold War. However, also as with Houphouët-Boigny, Tito's polity and even the society it had spawned unraveled completely in just over a decade following his death. Having maintained relative freedom and quiet in Yugoslavia during his life, this part of his legacy was completely undone because the 1974 Yugoslavian Constitution embodied nationalism rather than the multinational state he had fought for.

The southern (Christian)–northern (Muslim) divide isn’t the only fault line in the country; in addition to the geographic-religious fracture there is also a general social and nationalization divide between Cote d’Ivoire’s native-born and the roughly 26% of the population whom are immigrants.  While this division is unlikely to be able to sustain a civil war, it is the one that poses the risk of the worst humanitarian disaster in Cote d’Ivoire’s history.  But that will have to wait until my upcoming post.

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2 thoughts on “Cote d’Ivoire, or How Quickly a Non-Democratic African Success Story Can Become a Nightmare

  1. Pingback: Cote d’Ivoire: Politicide Warning, Genocide Watch | The Liberal Ironist

  2. Pingback: Laurent Gbagbo | Trends Pics

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