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Ivory Coast

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The West African Curse: Nigeria Too?

15 April 2011

The West African Curse: Nigeria Too?

By Gwynne Dyer

The war in Ivory Coast is over, or so we are told. Former president Laurent Gbagbo, who clung to the presidency even though he only won 46 percent of the vote in last year’s election, has been dragged from his bunker after two weeks of battle that devastated the capital, Abidjan. President Alassane Ouattara, who got 54 percent of the votes, is in charge, and Gbagbo is under arrest, and all’s well that ends well.

Except that it didn’t end very well, did it? Indeed, it probably hasn’t ended at all. Ouattara owes a lot to the troops (the New Forces) that fought for him, and they will expect to be paid, mainly in military, police and government jobs. This will further alienate Gbagbo’s supporters (mostly Christian southerners), who already feel they have been occupied by a northern, Muslim army.

It’s not even clear that Ouattara ordered the offensive that was carried out in his name: the New Forces have about ten semi-independent commanders. It’s even odds that the victors will simply overthrow Ouattara and take power themselves in the next year or two.

The militias that fought for Ggagbo are not finished, either. It was French firepower that finally breached Gbagbo’s defences, even if New Forces soldiers made the actual arrest. And although the French were operating under the United Nations flag, everybody in Ivory Coast knows that Ouattara has been the preferred candidate of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy for many years.

The French forces have put Ouattara in power, but now they have to withdraw rapidly. It looks bad for the former colonial power to boost an African regime into power, and the longer they stay the worse it will look. But once they are gone, Ouattara may face resurgent southern militias that are still loyal to Gbagbo.

It is the West African Curse: rampant corruption plus chronic poverty plus ethnic rivalry produce civil wars and insurgencies that last for decades and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. It happened in Sierra Leone, it happened in Liberia, and it started to happen in Guinea last year (although that country may have stopped on the brink of the pit).

For a long time people thought Ivory Coast was immune because of its far greater wealth: it was the world’s biggest cocoa producer and the economic centre of French-speaking West Africa. But the wealth never trickled down very far, and the ethnic rivalries were the same. Indeed, they were actually worse, because the country is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.

East along the coast, the Curse hasn’t struck yet. Ghana, on Ivory Coast’s eastern border, has seen a few coups, but no massacres, and it is now a flourishing democracy with a respectable growth rate. Togo and Dahomey are not so lucky, but they have had no huge massacres either. And giant Nigeria has done surprisingly well, given that it has all the ingredients of a classic West African-style disaster.

Nigeria has oil, but most of the money has been stolen by a small elite class while the majority of Nigerians remain poor. It is even more deeply divided than Ivory Coast in ethnic and religious terms. Yet Nigeria never slid over the edge.

It has had many coups, and even when “democracy” was restored the elections were shamelessly rigged. The Muslim-Christian split dominates national politics, and sometimes leads to local massacres. It is a chaotic, abrasive, almost lawless society – but also a highly successful one, with 7 percent growth and a functioning if deeply corrupt democracy. It is, in a weird way, a very stable country.

The one major threat to its stability is the fact that its elections are getting more honest. When the outcome was decided in advance, the basic north-south deal was safe: a two-term Muslim president from the north would be followed by a two-term Christian president from the south, and then back again. That way, everybody who mattered in Nigeria could count on getting their turn at the trough.

This time, however, the Muslim president died halfway through his first term, and his Christian vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, took his place. Jonathan likes the job so much that he is running for re-election as president, which enrages the northern, Muslim elite who think it should still be their turn.

The war in Ivory Coast is over, or so we are told. Former president Laurent Gbagbo, who clung to the presidency even though he only won 46 percent of the vote in last year’s election, has been dragged from his bunker after two weeks of battle that devastated the capital, Abidjan. President Alassane Ouattara, who got 54 percent of the votes, is in charge, and Gbagbo is under arrest, and all’s well that ends well.

Ivory Coast has been going down for some time, and it may not have touched bottom yet. Nigeria’s 140 million people are on the way up, but they must still go through a tricky transition, and nobody knows if they are exempt from the Curse.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 7. “The militias…Gbagbo”; and “For a…south”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

End-Game in Ivory Coast

29 March 2011

End-Game in Ivory Coast

By Gwynne Dyer

“The general offensive has begun,”said Seydou Ouattara, the military spokesman of the man who claims to be Ivory Coast’s legitimate president, Alassane Ouattara, on Monday. “We’ve realised that this is the only way to remove [the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo].” On the same day Ouattara’s troops seized two cities in the west of the country, Daloa and Giglio.

While ragtag little armies surge back and forth along the North African coast like a high-speed replay in miniature of the Western Desert campaign in the Second World War, a much bigger war is getting underway 1500 km (1000 mi) to the south. And although there are 9,000 United Nations troops on the ground in Ivory Coast, quite unlike the air-strikes-only intervention in Libya, the UN troops in Ivory Coast will not intervene to stop the war there.

The UN soldiers, all from African countries, were sent there to police a truce between the Muslim north of the country, which has been in the hands of the rebel New Forces since 2002, and the government of President Laurent Gbagbo, which controlled the largely Christian south. They were also there to supervise the election last November that was supposed to end the division of the country.

Unfortunately, the election didn’t work. Ouattara claimed victory and 3,000 international election observers backed him up, but an ally of Gbagbo’s on the Constitutional Court declared half a million of Ouattara’s votes invalid and said Gbagbo had won. Back to Square One.

Ouattara declared himself president, appointed the commander of the New Forces, Guillaume Soro, as his prime minister, and holed up in a hotel in Abidjan, the commercial capital, with three UN tanks parked out front to deter an attack by Gbagbo’s forces. Gbagbo insisted that he was still president, and threatened to use the army against Ouattara.

The UN troops will not intervene decisively because they were not sent to Ivory Coast to take sides in a large civil war, which is how this could end up. It isn’t just a quarrel between two stubborn men. It is about a probably irreversible transfer of power from the Christian south to the Muslim north in West Africa’s richest country, and there are those in the south who will fight to prevent that.

Christians used to be the majority in Ivory Coast, and they would probably still be if not for the estimated four million illegal immigrants who have poured into the country in the past two decades. Almost all of them came from the countries to the north, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, which are entirely Muslim. Around a million of them are in Abidjan, but most stayed in northern Ivory Coast – Ouattara’s territory.

Gbagbo’s real complaint about the recent election is not that the vote was rigged but that the VOTER REGISTRATION was rigged: that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were registered as voters by sympathetic Muslim officials across the north. It may not be true, but it certainly could be. And Muslims certainly did vote overwhelmingly for Ouattara.

There was no hostility in the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Ivory Coast fifty years ago: this is entirely a product of politics. Just as every evolutionary niche is always filled, so is every political niche, including the one inhabited by politicians whose method is to build support in one ethnic or religious community by stirring up fear or jealousy of another.

Ouattara and Gbagbo both belong to that political species, although they would deny it with their last breath. They have succeeded so well that Ivory Coast now stands on the brink of a Muslim-Christian civil war (although the news agency reports hardly ever mention this key feature of today’s Ivorian politics). The normal result would be a hardening of the current partition of the country, but first there will be one last roll of the dice.

Gbagbo is in deep trouble. The West African central bank has denied him access to Ivory Coast’s accounts, the country’s main cash crop, cocoa, is being boycotted by the international community, and last month he had trouble paying salaries and pensions to civil servants – including the military. Some got part of what was due them, some none at all.

Gbagbo must pay them again this week, and he probably doesn’t have the money. His army has lost every clash with Ouattara’s New Forces since the November election, and he has lost control of the mainly Muslim quarters of Abidjan to the “Invisible Commandos”, essentially an urban branch of New Forces.

So Ouattara is going for broke. Last week he rejected the peace envoy appointed by the African Union, and at the weekend the New Forces launched their final offensive. Or at least they hope it will be the final offensive.

So far they are doing well, and they may just roll over Gbagbo’s disintegrating army and reunite Ivory Coast by force. Even that would leave great bitterness in the south – but it is also possible that Ouattara’s big push will stall after a few days. African armies tend to be weak in logistics, and they usually run out of supplies when they advance too fast. Then it turns into a long, mostly static civil war.

Either way, the old Ivory Coast is finished. What replaces it may be very ugly.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Christians…Ouattara”)

Gwynne Dyer’s recent book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

African Union: The Limits of the Possible

1 January 2011

 African Union: The Limits of the Possible

 By Gwynne Dyer

  “It’s not a bluff,” said an adviser to Alassane Ouattara, the real winner in November’s presidential election in Ivory Coast, who is now besieged in a hotel in Abidjan, the capital, under United Nations protection. “The (African Union) soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks.” But it IS a bluff, and the AU is just undermining its own credibility by threatening to use force.

  The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, who stole the Ivory Coast election by getting the Constitutional Council (headed by a crony) to invalidate many of Ouattara’s votes, still controls the capital and the army. His actions have been condemned by the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States and the European Union, but getting him out will not be easy.

  Gbagbo, once a history professor and a pro-democracy campaigner, has latterly turned himself into the self-appointed defender of the Christian peoples in the southern half of Ivory Coast. Now he says: “I do not believe at all in a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue as they have, they will push towards war, confrontation.”

  He knows about civil war, because one broke out two years after he was elected president in 2000. Military mutineers, mostly Muslim troops from the north who didn’t want to be demobilised and lose their jobs, attempted to seize power in Abidjan.

  They were quickly defeated in the capital, but other Muslim troops took control all across the north. French troops blocked them from moving south, and after a couple of months the divided country settled into the sullen cease-fire that has lasted for the past eight years. The civil war that Gbagbo is warning about would be the second round, not the first.

  Then why doesn’t he just accept his electoral defeat and quit? Partly because he just wants to stay in power, of course, but it’s not as simple as that. He has real support among the Christians of the south, because many of them see Alassane Ouattara as the democratic facade of a Muslim takeover bid that began with the military mutiny in 2002.

  The north-south division in Ivory Coast is real. The country has shifted from a narrow Christian majority twenty-five years ago to a Muslim majority today – and it has done so largely through illegal immigration from the much poorer, entirely Muslim countries to the north: Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

  About four million of the 21 million people now living in Ivory Coast are illegal immigrants, and almost all of those immigrants are Muslims. It has changed the electoral balance, because many of them register to vote, especially in the north of the country where they speak the same languages as the local citizens. Southerners are afraid that they will lose control, and so they back Gbagbo.

  It’s really a rich-poor problem, not a Christian-Muslim problem. The country’s agricultural resources, particularly the cocoa plantations that make Ivory Coast the wealthiest country in West Africa, are mainly in the south. Southerners think that a northern-led government would divert a lot of that income to the north, and they are probably right.

  That would only be fair, but southerners also believe that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were allowed to register in the north, and that they all voted for Ouattara. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they believe it. So the November election didn’t solve the Ivorian problem; it exacerbated it.

  The African Union is determined to force Gbagbo to accept the election outcome because it wants to break with the past and make democratic elections the norm in Africa. It has had some recent successes in thwarting military coups, but the situation in Ivory Coast is a lot murkier, and direct intervention by the AU would be a lot harder.

  Armchair generals in the AU and ECOWAS talk boldly of military intervention to drive Gbagbo from power, referencing the successful operations to end civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in recent years. But Ivory Coast is five times bigger and richer than either of those countries, and its army can actually fight.

  Besides, where would the AU and ECOWAS find enough African troops to intervene effectively? Only Nigeria is big enough, but it is most unlikely to commit a lot of troops this year to what might be a real war in Ivory Coast. This is an election year in Nigeria, and body bags coming home as the voters go to the polls are rarely a vote-winner.

  The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Gbagbo’s government, and the Central Bank of West African States has blocked his access to Ivory Coast’s account. These are measures that will work slowly, if at all, but there is no alternative. Starting a war is rarely a good idea. Starting an unwinnable one never is.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Then…Guinea”)

Ivory Coast: A Tale of Two Countries

12 December 2010

Ivory Coast: A Tale of Two Countries

By Gwynne Dyer

All the foreigners and about half the Ivorians agree that Alassane Ouattara won last month’s presidential election in Ivory Coast – but not the southerners, who say that it was their man, Laurent Gbagbo. So the Election Commission declared Ouattara the winner, and the Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner.

It’s been eight years now since Ivory Coast, once the richest country in West Africa, was divided. This election was supposed to end the division, but it has just perpetuated it. Maybe it’s time to accept that Ivory Coast is two countries, not one.

Once the notion of dividing an African country in two was unthinkable. The basic rule of the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was that the former colonial borders must remain inviolable, since if they could be changed there might be a generation of civil wars.

But there was a generation of civil wars anyway – in Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Congo and Sudan, to mention a few. There are far more ethnic groups in Africa than there are countries: some vie for dominance within the existing borders, while others simply want to secede and form their own countries.

There is also a religious split between mainly Muslim and predominantly Christian regions that extends right across the continent, but the dividing line runs THROUGH a number of countries, not between them. From Ivory Coast in West Africa to Sudan on the Red Sea, the north of every country is Muslim, and the south is Christian.

The ban on division was breaking down even before the OAU was replaced by the African Union in 2002. Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1993 was accepted by the OAU, although the subsequent secession of Somaliland and Puntland from Somalia has not received official blessing. And next month southern Sudan will almost certainly secede from the rest of the country in a referendum overseen by the African Union.

It’s becoming almost commonplace – and maybe Ivory Coast is a suitable case for treatment. It enjoyed three decades of peace and prosperity under the rule of its first post-independence president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, but since his death in 1993 there has been almost continuous political upheaval. Finally, in 2002, rebel “New Forces” in the army seized control of the Muslim north and split the country.

It has remained split ever since, and there are some 8,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the country. But neither negotiations nor outside pressure have ended the division – and neither have elections.

Reunification was supposed to be achieved by the recent election, which was closely scrutinised by all manner of foreign observers from Africa and beyond. Almost everybody voted on the basis of ethnic and religious loyalties, and the winner was a Muslim northerner, Alassanne Ouattara. He got 54.1 percent of the votes, to 45.9 percent for the incumbent, President Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo is a Christian southerner, and he lost because there are a few hundred thousand more people in the Muslim north of the country. But he did control the Constitutional Court, which promptly declared that hundreds of thousands of northern votes were invalid, either because the voters in question were actually foreigners, or because they simply didn’t exist.

So Ouattara was inaugurated as president at a luxury hotel in Abidjan guarded by United Nations troops, with the blessing of the UN, the African Union, the European Union and the United States. But at the presidential palace, guarded by the Ivorian army, Gbagbo was also sworn in for a new term as president. “We didn’t ask anyone to come and run our country,” said Gbagbo defiantly. “Our sovereignty is something I am going to defend.”

The African Union is trying very hard these days to ensure that electoral results are respected in Africa, so it has suspended Ivory Coast’s membership until Ouattara is actually in power. Since Gbagbo still has the support of the army and controls the state television channel, however, it will be very hard to get him out. Besides, the rights and wrongs of the situation are not as clear-cut as they seem.

Because Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa, was the richest country in West Africa, for decades it received a large flow of immigrants from the poorer countries to the north, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. The immigrants were all Muslims, and their languages were closely related to Dioula, the dominant language of northern Ivory Coast. They were all illegal, of course, but some of them voted anyway.

Ivorian elections have therefore long been troubled by accusations that many voters in the north are not citizens. Even Ouattara himself was banned from running in the 2002 election because his parents, it was alleged, were from Burkina Faso. And it doesn’t matter who is right: southerners will always think they have been cheated if their candidate loses, while northerners will always insist that the vote was legitimate.

The problem has crippled Ivory Coast for almost twenty years, and it will not go away. Mercifully, the killing so far has only been in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands. But if Ivorians can’t resolve the current dispute quickly, it may be time to consider a divorce.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Reunification…Gbagbo”; and “So Ouattara…defend”)