HONG KONG – Looking at the scenes of bloodshed and looting, and the terrified flight of thousands of people, as Alessane Outtara took over as president, it is hard to imagine that only 25 years ago the Ivory Coast was the sparkling jewel of sub-Saharan Africa.
The messy way that the leadership changed has damaging relevance well beyond the newly impoverished country of 21 million people. It offers challenges to Africa and its leaders, to the United Nations, to the colonial powers, and to colonialism old and new.
Former colonial master, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s France, was the key player in finally forcing former President Laurent Gbagbo to surrender his presidential bunker, four bloody months after he had lost the contested election. Putting the Ivory Coast on its feet involves far more than lifting embargoes on the country’s cocoa crop.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Ivory Coast – or Cote d’Ivoire as French speakers insist that it is officially called – was a delight. It is going too far to claim that Abidjan was “the Paris of Africa,” but there was more than a touch of French ambience: You could get fresh French croissants and coffee, good steaks and fine wines as well as the best beer in Africa and the best Vietnamese food outside Vietnam.
The country indeed was almost a French transplant, encouraged by Felix Houphouet-Boigny, its first president from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993 aged at least 88 and possibly 95. He wanted neither independence nor break with France. He had been a French member of Parliament and Cabinet minister. Even in the 1990s, there were French advisers in every ministry and French companies owned more than a third of the economy. French was the language and culture of the country, at least in the elite circles of politics and business.
Once outside Abidjan, however, the French gloss faded and humdrum poverty took over. Houphouet-Boigny became increasingly eccentric, and rich, in his old age, transferring the capital to his hometown of Yamoussoukro in the middle of the country, where he spent $300 million building the largest church in the world with a dome that aped St. Peter’s in Rome but was bigger. It cost a tiny slice of his personal fortune, assessed at $7 billion to $11 billion when he died.
The old president encouraged widespread immigration and opening up of the country to cocoa planting, a crop for which the Ivory Coast accounts for 40 percent of world production. People flooded in from neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, forming at least a third of Ivory Coast’s population, and helped exacerbate the fault lines between the elite and the underprivileged, between north and south, between Christians and Muslims, between native Ivoirians and newcomers, plus ethnic and tribal distinctions.
Lesson one for dictators, autocrats and other assorted strongmen: If you don’t plan for proper succession, preferably with a measure of democratic expression, you sow the seeds of the destruction for all you accomplished.
Immediately after Houphuet-Boigny’s death unscrupulous politicians got to work. Ivory Coast, previously a model of peace, stability and economic success, degenerated into chaos, wars and coups. The principal players have been around for a long time. Ouattara, prime minister when the old president died, was a ready target because his father came from Burkina Faso, and he was twice rejected as a presidential candidate as “a foreigner.”
Gbagbo, with his stronghold in Abidjan, played race and religious cards, which made divisions deeper and angrier and encouraged armed militia and violence. He was himself the beneficiary of a disputed election in 2000 when his supporters forced military dictator Robert Guei out.
Lesson two for African politicians: Violence breeds more violence. From 2002 Ivory Coast was in a semi-continuous state of civil war, with Ouattara’s forces seeking to avenge the deaths of northerners killed by Gbagbo’s militias. Last year’s elections were supposed to end the bloodshed, but they exposed a deep abiding split. According to the international figures for the result, Ouattara won 54 percent against Gbagbo’s 46 percent, still a sizable chunk of popularity and potential continuing mayhem.
Lesson three, for Africa especially: An election does not solve problems without rules of the game and acceptance of victory or defeat, with the hope that there will be another chance in four or five years’ time. Gbagbo could not be allowed to steal the election without setting a dreadful precedent; but unless he is given – and accepts – face as honorable loser, violence will potentially continue.
His trial for war crimes must be seen to be scrupulously fair, and an independent prosecutor must also look into the conduct of Ouattara’s forces.
Lesson four is for the United Nations and Security Council: If you have a mandate, you must act on it or everyone suffers. Why were you slower to act in Ivory Coast than in Libya, even though the U.N. has been in the country since 2004 under an Article 7 mandate to protect civilians and human rights? By standing idle, the U.N. encouraged violence.
Lesson five is for France, still suspected of supporting Ouattara to protect its colonial interests: Sarkozy needs to come up quickly with a practical aid program to help put the country on its feet again.
Lesson six is for the new colonialists, principally agribusiness groups like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Barry Callebaut, which buy Ivory Coast’s cocoa crops. Now, with much of the cocoa 30 years old and needing replanting, would be a good time for the multinationals to promote plans for replanting and ensuring that the poor Ivoirian farmers get more than 40 percent of the world market price for their beans.
Lesson seven is for Ouattara: Can he show generosity and imagination, hitherto both lacking, and tap his old colleagues at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for funds and develop an economic and political plan to give a stake in the country to all Ivoirians?
Kevin Rafferty was editor of daily newspapers during the annual meetings of the African Development Bank, then headquartered in Abidjan, 1989-1996.