Cote d’Ivoire: History, Interests and Parallels

Sent out on the Legacy of Colonialism e-mail list on Apr 6, 2011:

Cote d’Ivoire: History, Interests and Parallels
by Explo Nani-Kofi, published in Pambazuka News
13 January 2011

The stand-off in Côte d’Ivoire continues, Explo Nani-Kofi discusses the country’s broader political history, the involvement of external interests and the wider parallels to be drawn with the experiences of other African states.

One thing interesting about Côte d’Ivoire is that two of their heads of states, the first head of state and the present one, have a trade union background but their leadership of the country has not helped strengthen trade unions or the labour movement’s influence. Houphouet-Boigny was involved in organising the African Agricultural Union in 1944 and the union was active in the founding of his party, Parti Democratique de Côte d’Ivoire. Boigny was also a leading member of the predecessor Rassemblement Democratique Africaine (RDA) which was in an alliance with the French Communist Party during the colonial period.

The present head, Laurent Gbagbo, was detained during the Houphouet-Boigny regime for his activities in National Trade Union of Research and Higher Education. In between the two the only elected leader was Houphouet-Boigny’s chosen successor, Henri Konan Bedie, so he could be looked at as an extension of Houphouet-Boigny’s politics. It was during his period of trade union activities that he formed the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). His party was seen to be friendly with the social democrats of the Socialist Party of France. The play of the politics of Côte d’Ivoire since independence and the crisis which is going on now is so distant from any weight being given the labour movement in decision-making and participation or the direction of affairs. The dominant force in the politics of the country has been France – the colonial power. The French first came to present day Côte d’Ivoire in 1637 and formalised their control around 1842.

Despite this, as early as 1959, Houphouet-Boigny expelled his deputy, Jean-Baptiste Mockey for leading a group of people within Boigny’s own party and government to openly oppose the government’s Francophile policies. He was accused of plotting to kill Boigny through the use of voodoo. In 1963, there were more than 100 secret trials in which Mockey and others like Ernest Boka, head of the Supreme Court, were implicated. Houphouet-Boigny had a poor relationship with governments in West Africa who were not the favourites of the West. Houphouet is alleged to have supported rebels and plotters against the regimes of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Sekou Toure in Guinea and Patrice Lumumba in the present-day DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).

He is also associated with the coup against the pro-Soviet Matthieu Kerekou in Benin in January 1977. He supported Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA when the ruling government in Angola was pro-Soviet and UNITA was the favourite of the USA in Angola. It is believed that he worked closely with Blaise Compaore in the overthrow of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso. He influenced French backing for Charles Taylor’s rebel forces in Liberia. Laurent Gbagbo also said in July 2008 that he received support from Blaise Compaore, present president of Burkina Faso, during the period that he organised against Houphouet-Boigny. Blaise Compaore is widely seen as the person who intervened on behalf of the French and other Western interests to bring to an end the radical anti-imperialist politics led by Thomas Sankara as the head of state of Burkina Faso. This means that no matter the labels the politics of Côte d’Ivoire was heavily influenced by pro-French interests and forces close to them.

It was only in 1990, when the anti-incumbent[1] movement pressures in Africa after the collapse of the Berlin Wall took off that there was the first ever election in Côte d’Ivoire where somebody contested against Felix Houphouet-Boigny since independence in August 1960, and this was Laurent Gbagbo. Whilst friends of the West fraudulently present Ghana under Nkrumah as a tyranny, the presidential election in Ghana on 27 April 1960 had two candidates, who were Kwame Nkrumah and J.B. Danquah – Côte d’Ivoire, which was praised, had nobody contesting Houphouet-Boigny. In 1969, the Students and Pupils Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (MEECI) was founded and its founding congress was held in the PDCI, the ruling party’s offices from 3-5 April 1969.

This provoked riots from the Ivorian student body in opposition to this body, which was seen as a puppet organisation of the one-party state, to stifle student representation and voices. Boigny interpreted these student riots as an action masterminded by foreign pro-communist forces and a group of students were arrested by the government. The World Confederation of Labour (WCL) continued to make complaints about the harassment of trade unionists and the obstruction of the free operation and functioning of trade unions in Côte d’Ivoire under the regime of Houphouet-Boigny. There are two umbrella trade union bodies which are Dignite and the General Union of Workers of Côte d’Ivoire (UGTCI), with the latter seen as being favoured by the regime.

From 1978, unfavourable cocoa prices contributed to a worsening economic situation. Student demonstrations took place in 1982 for which some lecturers, including Laurent Gbagbo, were seen as the instigators. The end of the Cold War in 1989 opened up the space for less support of the West for its puppet regimes so anti-incumbent movement renewed trade union militancy as well as student militancy. Even the army mutinied in 1990 and 1992. Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993.

With the suppression of democratic functioning bodies representing social groups and classes as well as a virtual monopoly of pro-France politics, there was no culture of mass organisation and mass intervention based on ideological differences, and in this situation what you have are anti-incumbent movements or ethnic group supported or driven differences. The first visible struggle was the one for the succession to Boigny’s throne. The struggle emerged between Alassane Ouattara, the prime minister, and Henri Konan Bedie, the president of the National Assembly. Bedie’s regime introduced the policy of differentiating between full Ivorians and non-Ivorians. In 1995, the word Ivoirité emerged to refer to ‘full’ Ivorians. Although this started to refer to those who had both parents from Côte d’Ivoire it degenerated to be seen as the population from the south and east of the country.

Ouattara, whose parents come from the north, was now alleged to be a Burkinabe (a national of Burkina Faso). People from the north were affected in this xenophobic policy as a large number of migrants from Mali and Burkina Faso had come to live in the north as workers on the cash-crop farms. For those of us in places like Britain where we campaign against immigrants being declared to be illegal we will be shocked that Africans in an African country will face this type of discrimination when it comes to citizenship, which is an idea totally hostile to the principles of Pan-Africanism. In October 1995, there was an election which Ouattara was excluded from contesting on the grounds a review of the electoral code which is seen by some as targeted at him.

The anti-incumbent movement was also poorly organised and Bedie won the elections with 96 per cent of the vote. Apart from Ivoirité discriminating on ethno-regional, it is also class discriminatory that the rural agricultural working class – which has contributed to the cocoa farms which have brought hard currency – are disregarded and not considered as citizens. The government also banned the student organisation called the Student Federation of Côte d’Ivoire (FESCI) which was formed in 1990. With allegations of corruption and repression, the Bedie regime was overthrown through a coup d’état on 24 December 1999, which brought General Robert Guei to power as the military ruler of Côte d’Ivoire. Henri Konan Bedie fled into exile after the coup d’état.

The military regime of Robert Guei continued with the Ivoirité climate and also exclusion of those who were seen as corrupt politicians of the past. The Guei junta organised elections in 2000 which were surrounded by violence in which about 200 were killed. A Supreme Court decision excluded 14 of the 19 people who wanted to contest the presidential elections. The disqualified included Ouattara and Bedie. Guei attempted to declare himself the winner of the elections but popular street protests and the lack of the support of the military forced him out of power, with Gabgbo who was shown to be leading in the votes being installed as president. Ouattara’s supporters continued to demand for a new and inclusive election.

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