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SLUG: Ivory Coast Breakdown




TITLE= Ivory Coast Breakdown

BYLINE=Mousse Ayele


EDITOR=Ed Warner



INTRO: The Ivory Coast, once considered a rock of stability in war-torn Africa, has succumbed to violence of its own. What started as a rebellion by a handful of soldiers has expanded into full-fledged civil war, setting Muslim north against largely Christian south and adding to ethnic tensions. With French assistance, a peace has been patched together, but as Mousse Ayele reports for Focus, the future of the world's largest cocoa producer remains in question.

TEXT: No sooner had a peace accord been signed in Paris than violence erupted again in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast. Thousands of protesters took to the streets and hurled stones at the French embassy. They claimed the pact signed by President Laurent Gbagbo gave too much to the northern rebels, in particular key cabinet posts.

Using tear gas and stun grenades, French troops drove off the demonstrators who vowed not to give up the fight. They did not agree with their president, who said if you do not win a war militarily, you have to negotiate a compromise. The Ivory Coast army has also rejected elements of the peace pact.

Ivory Coast held together for 33 years under the skilled leadership of Felix Houphet-Boigny, the first president of the country after it won independence from the French in 1960. For most of his years in office, he managed to juggle and appease the nation's diverse groups, letting the northerners control trade, while the southerners dominated politics. Ivory Coast did not experiment with Marxism during the Cold War and remained friendly to the West. President Houphet-Boigny helped mediate regional disputes.

In the end, he tried to shut out his rivals, says Joe Sala, a former U-S foreign service officer. "He ruled by playing one group against another, spreading out political favors and making sure the military did not miss a payment." His successors, Mr. Sala told the Washington Times newspaper, did not have his stature.

The system he contrived broke down after his death in 1993, hastened in part by a large influx of immigrants from troubled neighboring countries who now make up about 20 per cent of Ivory Coast's population. They mostly settled in the north, thus upsetting the precarious regional balance.

In 1999, President Henri Conan Bedie was ousted in a military coup, which was directly motivated by soldiers disgruntled with their pay and conditions. But in the background was rising resentment of the newcomers to the Ivory Coast and their political influence.

That has led to a turning inward, a preoccupation with who is or is not a genuine Ivorian, says Leonardo Villalon, director of the center of African studies at the University of Florida.


I think it was Bedie's efforts to stay in power that were really the background to the contemporary crisis. That was specifically to define this notion of Ivorite, of Ivorianess. That excluded anyone who was not Ivorian in Bedie's terms; that is, who was not born of parents in the Cote D'Ivoire. It becomes, eventually, a notion of who is Ivorian and who isn't. It becomes a way of excluding people, largely from the North, primarily Muslim.


Like it or not, France remains deeply involved in the nation that is considered a colonial success. Though Paris surrendered political control at independence, an estimated 20 thousand French nationals continue to live in the Ivory Coast and control about 60 percent of all its private investments.

After initially hesitating, France sent some 2500 troops to the Ivory Coast to keep the contending factions apart and maintain a shaky cease-fire. France concedes the risk of a quagmire but wants to prevent another failed state in Africa.

Justin Vaisse, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the Washington Post newspaper that both France and the international community cannot afford to let Ivory Coast, which was one of the pillars of stability in West Africa, fall apart.

Other peace-keeping forces cannot be expected. Alone among West African states, Senegal has sent 175 soldiers to Ivory Coast. The United States, busy elsewhere, is keeping its hands off and resists a U-N plan to commit peace-keepers on the grounds that Africans should resolve African conflicts. But the United States maintains an active cultural exchange with Ivory Coast and a modest training program for its military officers.

French pressure was crucial in bringing the rebel leaders to Paris to negotiate with President Gbagbo, who the French say they are supporting not very enthusiastically because there is no present alternative. They are criticized for giving the rebels equal standing with the government. There are fears this could lead to dividing an already polarized country.

Things should not go that far, says Lansine Kabba, professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago.


This polarization in a negative sense implies some type of federalism. I really hope that the different factions now involved in the war in the Ivory Coast would come to an understanding about the urgency of a unitary state in Ivory Coast no longer based on the wrong notion of Ivorite. That was a bad law. But on the basis of multiple, acceptable participation, full participation of everybody in the national system.


Ivory Coast is considered a prize worth preserving, whatever the cost. Unlike other African nations, it is not reliant on oil or minerals for prosperity. It is the world's largest producer of cocoa, which accounts for 40 percent of the global market and earns some 18 billion dollars a year. Until the fighting intensified, Ivory Coast enjoyed strong economic growth.

In contrast to other developing countries, Ivory Coast has an impressive infrastructure a network of 8000 miles of paved roads, good telecommunication services, and two active ports. The one in Abidjan is the most modern in West Africa. With regular air service in the region and to Europe, Ivory Coast is the gateway to West Africa.

Professor Villalon says a disaster in Ivory Coast would be equally disastrous for the region.


It is a powerhouse economically. It is a country that has an enormous population from neighboring countries, many of whom are fleeing or have fled back to their own countries without any employment or any economic prospects there. We have already seen how in Liberia the conflict has spread to Sierra Leone, and that in turn has destabilized Guinea. Those are small countries compared to Cote d'Ivoire, politically, economically and demographically.


Mamadou Diouff, professor of African history at Michigan State University, say there is hope for the country and for the region if certain approaches are followed.


The only way to remedy the situation is to go back to the Houphet-Booigny constitution, which allowed any Ivorian to elect and to be elected. Second: get rid of all the ethnic limitations. And third: organize new elections.


President Gbagbo says he is willing to have a referendum on the peace agreement. If it is approved, then elections can be held at a time that is agreeable to all parties.

For Focus, this is Victor Morales.

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