The Ivorian quagmire

Print edition : February 28, 2003

A rally at Place de la Republique in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on February 1 demanding that the country sever its ties with France and disregard the peace accord. - SAURABH DAS/AP

Ivory Coast plunges into civil war again as its President reneges on the peace accord brokered by France, the country's former coloniser.

Hopes about a durable peace emerging after months of bloody strife in Ivory Coast, have proved illusory. In the last week of January, the leaders of the warring factions had met near Paris at the invitation of French President Jacques Chirac. After wide-ranging talks, the rebels and the government had agreed to form a government of national reconciliation to facilitate the return of peace and security to a country ravaged by civil war for the past five months. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo had admitted before departing for France that government troops had failed to subdue the rebels.

In Paris, Gbagbo and the rebel leaders, appeared to be in a conciliatory mood. They agreed to set a date expeditiously for the holding of free and transparent elections. The country's present day troubles can be traced to the flawed elections that gave Gbagbo the presidency. All the rebel factions present at the talks agreed that Gbagbo would continue to be the head of state until fresh elections were held. However, Gbagbo had to agree to the formation of an interim government of "national unity" led by an independent Prime Minister.

Importantly, the interim Cabinet was to include nine Ministers, with equal representation to be given to the rebels. The Prime Minister-designate was a non-party man. Under the terms of the accord, Gbagbo was to cede some of his powers to the Prime Ministry. He had also agreed to revoke the controversial law that banned Ivorian citizens having a non-Ivorian parent from contesting elections. In the presidential elections held two years ago, 14 of the 19 candidates, were barred from running for office under this law. One of the most popular Ivorian Opposition leaders, Alassane Outtara, was not allowed to run against Gbagbo on the basis of this specious law. Outtara is from the north and, like most of the rebels, is a Muslim.

Under the terms of the accord signed in January, the rebels were to start disarming. At the same time, the government pledged that it would repatriate the French troops it had recruited to fight the rebel forces. The plan envisaged the setting up of an international monitoring committee to ensure that all the signatories respected the accord.

The ink had barely dried on the accord papers when pro-government mobs went on the rampage in Abidjan, with institutions and property owned by the French as their prime targets. Demonstrators asked the French troops to leave and demanded that they be replaced by American peace-keepers. Many supporters of Gbagbo felt let down. There were rumours in Abidjan that the President was arm-twisted by the French into signing the peace accord. Gbagbo did not help matters by refusing to address his nation on the subject for more than a week. He then changed tack and said that the agreement he had signed in Paris was only a "proposal". The French government was livid at what it considered a volte-face by the Ivorian leader.

French and other foreign nationals started evacuating from the beleaguered nation. French citizens were manhandled at the airport as pro-government demonstrators were allowed to occupy the tarmac for a short period. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that Gbagbo was responsible "for the security of French and other foreign nationals in the country." The French Foreign Ministry has advised French nationals whose presence was "not indispensable" to leave the country "given the current troubles and the criminality that goes with it".

FRANCE has a considerable stake in Ivory Coast and is reluctant to give up its military presence and political leverage at this juncture. Ever since the country gained independence, successive French governments have taken a special interest in the affairs of their former colony. In many respects it was a neo-colonial relationship.

It was only in the mid-1990s, that the French policy in Africa underwent a change. France no longer dispatched troops to bolster authoritarian and corrupt regimes at short notice on the African continent, as it had done previously. However, it did retain a permanent military presence in Ivory Coast. More than 30,000 French citizens were living in the country - a number much larger than the one during the colonial days. Until the mid-1990s, the Ivorian economy, bolstered by cocoa exports, was in relatively good shape. Ivory Coast is the world's biggest cocoa producer.

French President Jacques Chirac (left), with Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo (right) and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the opening of the conference of West African leaders in Paris on January 25.-FRANCOIS MORI/AP

After the recent escalation in internecine fighting, France has increased its troop strength to 2,500. Before the violence erupted in September last year, there were only 700 French soldiers. The French military operations in Ivory Coast is its largest on the African continent since the involvement in Rwanda in 1994. There are no fond memories of that episode. The French presence in Rwanda had become controversial as it did little to stop the Hutu leadership from waging a genocidal war against the Tutsis. After the recent developments in Ivory Coast, the French may feel slightly unwelcome. Besides, whole swathes of territory in the north and the west of the country are in the hands of the rebels.

When the fighting began last year, there was only one rebel group - the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI). Today, there are two other groups operating in different parts of the country - the Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) and the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West (MPIGO). There are also striking similarities with the civil wars that wracked neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

The two new groups had announced their emergence with the dramatic capture of two important cities. The MPIGO captured Danane, a city about 20 km from the Liberian border and the MJP took Man. The MPIGO says that it entered the fray to avenge the killing of General Robert Guei, the former President, last September. It derives its support from areas in the south, from where Guei hailed.

The rebels have threatened to go all the way to Abidjan if Gbabgo reneges on the Paris accord. There are allegations that Liberian President Charles Taylor helped the rebels. The United Nations (U.N.) has imposed sanctions on Liberia for the help it gave to the rebels in Sierra Leone during the civil war there. Taylor himself is facing a serious challenge from homegrown guerillas. There are reports that former guerillas from Sierra Leone are also involved in the Ivorian civil war.

Unlike the MPCI, the two new rebel groups in Ivory Coast have been accused of perpetrating atrocities, similar to those witnessed in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Fingers are also being pointed at the government of Burkina Faso. Rioters in Abidjan targeted that country's embassy during the recent riots. The President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campraore, is no political innocent. He is known to have been involved in most of the civil wars in the region. Campraore was a close friend of the late Jonas Savimbi, leader of Angola's rebel movement Unita. According to U.N. investigators, Campraore had profited immensely from the illegal sale of diamonds from Angola and Sierra Leone.

The Burkina Faso government also has a legitimate grievance. Tens of thousands of Burkinabe citizens, who had been working for decades in Ivory Coast, have been forced out of the government-held areas in the purge that followed the September uprising. Most of the labour employed in the cocoa farms were of Burkinabe origin. Many of them have become refugees. During the economic boom that lasted until the early 1980s, the country was dependent on a migrant labour force that came from all over West Africa.

Many French commentators have said that the conflict in Ivory Coast threatens to end as a quagmire for France. However, indications are that France has quietly reversed the hands-off Africa policy announced during the last days of Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. There has been no criticism of French involvement by the Socialist Party, the main Opposition party. At the moment, the major French preoccupation is to avert a costly mass evacuation of its citizens and stop the major cities of Abidjan and San Pedro from falling into the hands of the rebels. The French are also nostalgic about their special relationship with Ivory Coast. They are loathe to see a country, which till recently was one of Africa's few economic success stories, reduced to a basket case.

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