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Côte d’Ivoire: The Laurent Gbagbo saga

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Côte d’Ivoire: The Laurent Gbagbo saga

A lot is being made of the 15 January International Criminal Court (ICC)  acquittal of former Ivorian President –  Laurent Gbagbo –  on all of charges of crimes against humanity. He was arrested following the bloody conflict that ensuing after the disputed 2010 elections. Below we reproduce one of our 2011 Cover stories on the issue, which makes for a great and revealing background reading of the saga that led to Gbagbo 8-year incarceration in The Hague. A must read.

From our archives – The story behind the story

So far, as usual, the reporting of the political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire by the international media has skirted the crux of the matter. The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, has been portrayed as the bad guy who would not go peacefully after losing the second round of the presidential election. But is the Ivorian crisis only about the presidential election? Or is there more to it? Here, we tell the story behind the story in Côte d’Ivoire. By Tom Mbakwe.

After the initial few weeks of shuttle diplomacy and threats of military intervention and sanctions, the political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire appears to have settled down for the long haul. Both sides have dug in and are preparing for the push and shove and the psychological warfare ahead.

Beyond the country’s borders, however, reality has dawned and leaders of global, continental and regional institutions who appeared to have been swept off their feet by the events of the first few weeks, are re-assessing their positions.

The presidents of four of the 16 Ecowas member countries met in Abuja in those tempestuous few days after the disputed presidential run-off. They hastily suspended Côte d’Ivoire from Ecowas membership and threatened to use military force to remove President Laurent Gbagbo from power if he did not go peacefully after “losing” the run-off to his main challenger, Alassane Ouatarra.

Ghana’s president, Prof John Atta Mills, one of the four leaders who met in Abuja (the others were from Nigeria, Senegal and Liberia), initially objected to military action and has since publicly reinforced his objection by saying that Ghana, a major military power in the Ecowas equation, would not take part in any military intervention in Côte d’Ivoire. Without Ghana’s participation, any Ecowas military action will be hamstrung. Liberia, too, has ruled out troop contribution to Ecowas. Of course, Nigeria can go ahead single-handed (or together with others) and intervene militarily in Côte d’Ivoire, but Nigeria itself has presidential and legislative elections coming up in early April – what if a Côte d’Ivoire situation arises in Nigeria, a country with a notorious record for bad elections in the recent past. Would Ecowas similarly intervene militarily in Nigeria? Or would Big Brother Nigeria be left alone to solve its problems using its domestic electoral laws?

Côte d’Ivoire will be a major discussion point at the African Union summit at the end of January in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Having had time to digest the strange goings-on in Abidjan since the presidential run-off, African leaders are now better prepared for the heated debate that is likely to happen in the Ethiopian capital.

The story behind the story

The reporting of the crisis so far by the international media has, as usual, skirted the core of the problem in Côte d’Ivoire, which goes beyond the presidential election. In fact, the presidential election is only the tip of the iceberg. According to keen observers of the Ivorian scene, the real problem is not even between Gbagbo and Ouattara; they say it is between Gbagbo and France, the former colonial master whose huge tentacles are still firmly planted in Côte d’Ivoire and in the other 13 Francophone countries in Africa. They say until the French connection is understood and resolved, real peace will be difficult to achieve in a severely polarised Côte d’Ivoire.

According to President Gbagbo’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Koffi Charles (Ouattara has since sent his own UN ambassador to New York), “the core of the problem in Côte d’Ivoire is a conspiracy by the French government to use any means necessary to remove Gbagbo from power because they think he is dangerous and inimical to their interests in Francophone Africa. But Gbagbo will not allow the French to control and run Côte d’Ivoire on their own terms.”

According to Gbagbo and the left-leaning intellectuals grouped around him, “the French problem” goes back a long way. Gbagbo is a professor of history by career. So he and the intellectuals around him know inside-out the Colonial Pact that France signed with its former African colonies before granting them independence in 1960. Gbagbo and his group hate with passion the Colonial Pact and the Cooperation Agreements attached to it!

And not only them – across Francophone Africa in general, thousands of intellectuals and discerning people hate the Colonial Pact as well. And they want it abrogated.

They think the Pact gives France too much control over their “so-called independent” countries.

Gbagbo’s beefs

Gbagbo and his like-minded group of intellectuals have yearned to break free from the tight French stranglehold on their countries. But there is danger attached. If France allows Côte d’Ivoire out of its grip, the other 13 CFA member countries might go the same way, and France would be a king without clothes. In fact, it would seriously affect not only French prestige internationally, but also its economy. France without Francophone Africa would be like a pot of soup without salt.

So France cannot let that happen. In the past, before Gbagbo’s time in government, any Francophone African president who as much as whispered the thought of breaking free from the French grip or even advocating for an amendment of the CFA arrangements, was given a nice send-off via a coup d’état. Thus fear immobilised the Francophone leaders, preventing them from doing anything about the Colonial Pact.

The French knew Gbagbo and his group very well, long before he became president. They knew his agenda, that he wanted to throw them out of Côte d’Ivoire; so for years they tried to stop him from becoming president. But he slipped through.

Of course, France could not leave Gbagbo alone, to triumph over them in the long term! Some experts have even suggested that the coup of 2002 that nearly overthrew Gbagbo had the mark of French hands all over it. Gbagbo was on a visit to Italy when the coup happened. Insiders say he was offered a super-attractive political asylum in France by President Jacques Chirac but Gbagbo turned it down and rushed home in the middle of the counter-assault by his loyalist troops to re-take the capital, Abidjan. That fighting, unfortunately, developed into a rebellion that split the country into two – a civil war between the now government-controlled South and the Forces Nouvelles-controlled North. As expected, President Jacques Chirac’s antagonistic policies towards Gbagbo have been continued by his successor, President Nicolas Sarkozy. Ironically, in the early months after the baton passed from Chirac to Sarkozy, Gbagbo told a foreign TV interviewer that “since Chirac left the Elysée Palace, I can go to sleep without thinking that a military expedition is coming to get me in my bed.”

Gbagbo’s side has forever accused the French of being the masters behind the rebels in the North. They even say the French are using the rebels to restore the status quo ante. Thus, to Gbagbo and his supporters, a Ouatarra presidency is another name for French control of Côte d’Ivoire. They say this is why France and its allies have overlooked Gbagbo’s complaints of “massive electoral fraud” perpetrated in eight districts in the North, to give Ouattara victory in the presidential run-off.

According to Koffi Charles: “The French tried to help Ouattara to steal the elections because they know they can use him to serve their interests in the country. Well, the French can choose to disrespect us as an African country but we are proud of who we are and will never, ever again allow them to bully and cheat us.”

Charles’ view is shared by Gbagbo’s legal advisor, Augustin Douoguih: “Some people have simply reduced the Ivorian crisis to just an election dispute. No! The election impasse is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said in a major interview published in mid January. “To better understand the complexities of the crisis, one has to know the role and the culpability of the French in it and the French hidden agenda.”

He continued: “Beneath all the noise going on is a quiet struggle by President Gbagbo to free Côte d’Ivoire from French economic exploitation and a vicious French government using any means necessary to bring him down.

Charles added: “President Gbagbo has called for an international panel to investigate and analyse the electoral process and the results to settle the dispute, but the French and Ouattara say no.

“The A f r ic an Union’s f i r s t envoy to Côte d ’ Ivoire, former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, after carefully reviewing the situation, made similar recommendations. Where is Mbeki now and what happened to his report and recommendations?”

Charles then made his strongest statement yet. “The military, the police and the people are all solidly behind President Gbagbo,” he said. “We will resist any foreign intervention with the last drop of our blood and till the last man falls. No one should underestimate our resolve to defend our constitutionally-elected president, our country and its sovereignty. Any attempt by Ecowas or any foreign power to forcibly remove President Gbagbo will lead to a bloody civil war that may engulf the whole of West Africa. About a third of the Ivorian population is from neighbouring countries; Burkinabes alone number about three million.

“Some Ecowas leaders have been hoodwinked by the French into rushing to consider military action without thinking through things for themselves. Does it make sense to plunge West Africa into war and destabilise the region over an election dispute?” Koffi Charles asked defiantly.

The way forward

All said and done, natural justice demands that Gbagbo’s complaints of electoral fraud and rigging in the North must be investigated for what they are by a truly impartial international community. Rigging an election against a sitting president is as bad as rigging it against an opposition candidate.

If the investigation finds Gbagbo’s complaints to have no

merit, then he can be forced out if he doesn’t go peacefully. If his complaints turn out to have merit, then the demands of the Ivorian Constitution should be allowed to hold sway. A new election should then be supervised by truly impartial international observers who will be free to go anywhere in the country, without fear, let or hindrance.

Until such an investigation is carried out, any threat of military action and the imposition of economic and other sanctions (as already applied by the European Union, France, America and their allies) is against natural justice and will not bring real peace to Côte d’Ivoire. Such things may succeed in putting Ouattara in power, but experience from Iraq and elsewhere say such impositions are no solutions at all as they bring no real peace to countries polarised like Côte d’Ivoire.

The Francophone Colonial Pact

It is the Colonial Pact that set up the common currency for the Francophone countries, the CFA franc, which demands that each of the 14 CFA member countries must deposit 65% (plus another 20% for financial liabilities, making the dizzying total of 85%) of their foreign exchange reserves in an “Operations Account” at the French Treasury in Paris.

The African nations therefore have access to only 15% of their own money for national development in any given year. If they are in need of extra money, as they always are, they have to borrow from their own 65% in the French Treasury at commercial rates.

And that is not all! T­here is a cap on the credit extended to each member country equivalent to 20% of their public revenue in the preceding year. So if the countries need to borrow more than 20%, too bad; they cannot do it. Amazingly, the final say on the CFA arrangements belongs to the French Treasury, which invests the African countries’ money in its own name on the Paris Bourse (the stock exchange).

It is also the Colonial Pact that demands that France has the first right to buy or reject any natural resources found in the land of the Francophone countries. So even if the African countries could get better prices elsewhere, they cannot sell to anybody until France says it doesn’t want to buy those natural resources.

It is, again, the Colonial Pact that demands that in the award of government contracts in the African countries, French companies should be considered first; only after that can Africans look elsewhere. It doesn’t matter even if Africans can obtain better value for money elsewhere, French companies come first, and most often get the contracts. Currently, there is the awkward case in Abidjan where, before the elections, Gbagbo’s government wanted to build a third major bridge to link the central business district (called Plateau) to the rest of the city, from which it is separated by a lagoon. By Colonial Pact tradition, the contract must go to a French company, which incidentally has quoted an astronomical price – to be paid in euros or US dollars.

Not happy, Gbagbo’s government sought a second quote from the Chinese, who offered to build the bridge at half the price quoted by the French company, and – wait for this – payment would be in cocoa beans, of which Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer. But, unsurprisingly, the French said “non, you can’t do that”.

Overall, the Colonial Pact gives France a dominant and privileged position in Francophone Africa, but in Côte d’Ivoire, the jewel of the former French possessions in Africa, the French are overly dominant. Outside parliament, almost all the major utilities in Côte d’Ivoire – water, electricity, telephone, transport, ports and major banks – are run by French companies or French interests. The same story is found in commerce, construction,

and agriculture (particularly with regard to cocoa plantations and agro-industry) – French companies and interests dominate the scene.

In short, the Colonial Pact has created a legal mechanism under which France obtains a special place in the political and economic life of its former colonies. Under the Defence Agreements attached to the Colonial Pact (which were run by the French defence ministry), Paris had the legal right to intervene militarily in the African countries, and also to station troops permanently in bases and military facilities in those countries, run entirely by the French.

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