Ivory Coast

29 September 2002

Ivory Coast: The End of the Great Exception

By Gwynne Dyer

Another African country is sliding over the edge, and this time it’s one of the continent’s few success stories, Ivory Coast. A bloody coup attempt, French and American troops flying in to evacuate trapped whites, a looming civil war: deja vu all over again. Except that Ivory Coast was supposed to be the Great Exception.

To its west are Liberia and Sierra Leone, ravaged by a dozen years of civil wars and mass mutilation of civilians. To the north lie Guinea, Mali and Burkina Fasso, three of the poorest places on earth. To the east is relatively fortunate Ghana, where per capita income has halved since independence but at least there has been no war.

There are few more devastated regions of the planet than West Africa, but Ivory Coast still has shining skyscrapers, good restaurants and fairly reliable electricity — and one of the highest per capita incomes in Africa, right up there with countries like Guatemala and the Philippines. Now, however, the miracle is falling apart.

The man who led Ivory Coast to independence in 1960, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was a model despot. He had his little follies, like turning his native village, Yamoussoukro, into the capital, but until he died in 1993, the spoils were shared equally and no group felt left out. They surely miss him now.

Houphouet-Boigny’s chosen successor managed to stay in power for six years, though the corruption quickly started to get out of hand and the once-good social services began to rot. The first coup came in 1999, led by General Robert Guei, but he was persuaded to allow free elections the following year — which he lost.

The man who should have won, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, was banned from running on the spurious grounds that some of his ancestors came from Burkina Fasso, but really because his supporters were the Muslims of the north, the country’s biggest single voting block. Instead, the old establishment’s candidate, Laurent Gbagbo, won the election, mainly by appealing to the anti-Muslim sentiments of the Christian south. It was a victory that guaranteed further trouble.

On 19 September President Gbagbo summarily disbanded a military unit that served as bodyguards to General Guei — and rather than lose their jobs, the 700-800 soldiers mutinied. Guei and his family were still quietly at home in Abidjan when a squad of paramilitary gendarmes loyal to Gbagbo arrived there and killed them. Ouattara was targeted by another paramilitary death squad, but managed to escape and found refuge with the French ambassador.

After a day of street-fighting in Abidjan that killed at least 270 people, the mutinous soldiers fled north towards their homes — and their allies seized control of Bouake, the second-biggest city, and other major towns across the north. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional security organisation, announced on 29 September that it would send troops if necessary, the rebels warned that that would cause years of civil war, and the government promised an all-out assault as soon as foreign troops had rescued their own citizens.

This is the same road that Liberia and Sierra Leone went to Hell on. How did things get so bad so fast?

The conditions for a rapid collapse of Ivory Coast’s prosperity and order were probably always present, but they were held at bay for over thirty years by the careful impartiality of the independence hero and perpetual president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. It probably helped, too, that he kept a close relationship with France (which meant reliable troops on tap), and hired tens of thousands of French experts as ‘advisers’ (which minimised the opportunities for corruption available to native-born Ivorians).

Once Houphouet-Boigny’s imposing personality was gone, however, all the ethnic and religious rivalries that blight other African countries kicked in. Gaining or holding power became a question of creating ethnically-based coalitions and rewarding your supporters lavishly. Ten years of that, and it’s not just the roads and the schools that are falling apart. The trust and the tolerance that are vital in a multi-ethnic country are exhausted as well, the guns have come out, and the familiar African tragedy begins to unfold once more.

It’s worse in West Africa than elsewhere, because there it’s not just the usual welter of different tribes and languages in a single country. There is also a dividing line that runs right through the middle of all the coastal countries and on across the continent through Chad and Sudan to the Red Sea. South of the line and towards the sea, most people are Christians; inland towards the Sahara, most are Muslims. Half the countries along this line have already had at least one north-south civil war, and Ivory Coast may be next.

At least the countries of the region now understand the danger. “A threat to Ivory Coast is a threat to us all,” said Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo on Saturday. Nobody with an good alternative would want an intervention by the often thuggish and thieving troops of ECOWAS’s military arm, ECOMOG (when the Nigerian-led force was in Liberia, the locals claimed that it stood for ‘Every Car Or Movable Object Gone’), but nobody in Ivory Coast has a better option. And even if it is saved from the fate of Liberia and Sierra Leone this time round, its time as the Great Exception is gone.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“To its…war”; and “It’s worse…next”)