The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Ivory Coast:
After the Coup

Apr 10, 2000

Ivory Coast president Henri Konan Bedie was ousted by General Robert Guei on December 24, 1999, after a two-day mutiny by an army regiment over missing pay, followed by a wave of mass looting by the population. The military coup occurred without a confrontation between the army’s different elements and without bloodshed. The French army, present on the outskirts of Abidjan, did not intervene, except to ensure the personal security of the fallen president, transporting him to Lome, Togo’s capital, and then supplying him, his family and a few of his ministers, with visas for France.

Bedie now joins a long list of former dictators and heads of state offered shelter by imperialist France, after years of services rendered.

Bedie had been French imperialism’s "chosen" agent in the Ivory Coast, a country that has long been the flagship of France’s former colonial empire in Africa. It has been hard-hit by crisis, due as much to the squandering of state funds as to the fall in the price of cocoa, of which it is the world’s most important producer. Nonetheless, the Ivory Coast is French capital’s chief outpost in the region, through which it exerts its influence over its other ex-colonies, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and also the former British colony of Ghana.

For the past ten years or so, the Ivory Coast has been held up as an example of "democracy" in Africa. But even before the military coup, this required a strong imagination. The country was run as a dictatorship by Houphouet-Boigny and his party, which now calls itself the PDCI (Democratic Party of Ivory Coast), from the time of independence in 1960 until Houphouet-Boigny’s death. He was an old hand at French politics even before decolonization, having been minister in several governments of the French Fourth Republic.

"Democratization," which came at the end of Houphouet’s rule, amounted to the legalization of a few other political parties. But the PDCI retained a monopoly over all the positions of power, from municipal to state level.Beyond the small world of politicians, this "democracy" remained the kingdom of the gun, of powerful repressive forces, of the unwritten law of large-scale racketeering by the police and army, but most of all, of the tyranny of poverty over the majority of the population. If the Abidjan of businessmen has banks and sky-scrapers comparable to a rich Western city, poverty is present in their shadow. It is even worse in the outlying districts, where two to three million poor people live in slums and only a tiny number have regular, low-paid work.

After Houphouet-Boigny’s death in 1993, the constitution provided that the temporary presidency should go to the president of the parliament, who was Henri Konan Bedie. Once in place, the new head of state ensured that the presidential election of 1995 was a total sham, boycotted by the two main opposition parties: Laurent Gbagbo’s "Front Populaire Ivoirien" (FPI), supposedly a left-wing party, and Alassane Ouattara’s "Rassemblement Republicain." Ouattara had been Houphouet-Boigny’s last Prime Minister, but he left the PDCI because of his rivalry with Bedie.

Thus, president Bedie was duly "elected," but in a charade which could pass for a genuine election only to those, most notably in Paris, who wanted the Ivory Coast, under French control, to appear "democratic" at all costs.

What follows is an account of the military coup and its consequences by the UATCI (African Union of Internationalist Communist Workers). The first two texts translated below are excerpts from Pouvoir aux Travailleurs (Power to the Workers), the UATCI’s publication in Abidjan, written immediately after the coup.

Since then, General Guei seems to have consolidated his power. All parties, including the PDCI, with whom he is negotiating to form a mixed government of military and civilian personnel, are engaged in bargaining to gain places in a future government. But they all recognize Guei’s military regime and are concerned only with maintaining or improving their own access to positions of power. At the same time, Bedie has stepped up the use of ethnic demagogy against his rival Ouattara; this has now also been used by Laurent Gbagbo with the same aim.

We also include a third text written just after Guei took power, recounting his jailing of the national soccer team for losing a game. This gives an idea of how this kind of regime rules over the population not only through armed force, but by making use of nationalistic demagogy.

As UATCI predicted immediately after the coup, the threats against the poor masses, which existed under Bedie, survived his downfall.

The Downfall of a Scoundrel

(Translated from Le Pouvoir aux Travailleurs, December 28, 1999, Abidjan, Ivory Coast)

Nobody in the working class will regret Bedie’s departure. He enriched his family and his clique through looting the coffers of the state, scheming and bribery. This is even more scandalous with the vast majority of the Ivory Coast’s population living in utter poverty. In order to win the presidential elections against Ouattara, he had fueled ethnic tensions and xenophobia; he bears a major responsibility for the rise in such ideas which are a lethal threat to the whole of society. But the fatal blow for Bedie did not come from the elections. The military coup is a reminder that the question of power is not decided at the polls.

But Bedie was not just a thief, though he is a thief and a big one at that. He was not just the leader of a regime which ignored basic civil rights; although his regime always made a mockery of "democracy," even in the sense that the bourgeoisie uses the word. He was, above all, the head of a state totally devoted to the rich and powerful.

Thanks to the 233 mutineers from the army, who allowed Guei to take power, the state has changed leaders. But the state itself has not changed.

This is why those who, in the poorer classes, rejoiced at the arrival of a new man and perhaps a new state, who cheered Robert Guei and see in him a liberator, will soon be very disappointed. The army has not brought Guei to power in order to take measures in favor of the working class and the poor. On the contrary, it did so in order to contain them.

It does not matter if Guei himself was responsible for the coup or if he only took advantage of the situation created by the mutiny. The main purpose of the army mutineers, who were ex-members of the commandos sent to Central Africa by the U.N., was to obtain the special payments that Bedie’s clique was about to steal from them. The whole military hierarchy became rapidly involved, because its leaders believed Guei capable of controlling the mutiny and of maintaining the army’s unity. And Bedie’s calls for "resistance" fell all the more flat as the last thing the ruling class wanted was a divided army in which units would fight one another according to their political inclination, thereby creating a power vacuum.

The few hours of chaos created by the mutineers on Thursday, December 23, were enough for the military high ranks and the wealthy to catch a glimpse of the potential for an uncontrollable social explosion.

The first to profit from the temporary absence of any authority were undoubtedly the petty crooks, more used to robbing poor people, but who could now exploit far more lucrative areas. But once the floodgates were open, many people from the poor quarters followed, seeing this as a chance to take what is usually denied them. The looting became a collective act. The poor majority, normally deprived of even the most basic necessities, could finally take from the rich.

Unfortunately, though, not from the richest those who stash their fortunes in the big Western Banks. The main victims of the looting were small and medium-size shopkeepers and a few big ones. It was the foot soldiers of the bourgeoisie, their sub-lieutenants and other underlings who ply their trade in the poor quarters, who paid for the misery that the big bourgeoisie imposes on the vast majority.

What is more, the poor only helped themselves to goods; they did not attack the rich capitalists, nor their hold on the economy far from it. But the wealthy must have trembled in fear at the threat represented by these poor masses who no longer respected their property.

Those who are used to taking from the poor cannot accept that the poor take from them. Order had to be restored. Konan Bedie, discredited, could not do it. Guei has done it, for the moment at least. The French army, close by, reinforced its troops to make its presence felt, just in case Guei was not able to "restore order." As for Bedie, French troops only ensured he could leave the country. Bedie was only France’s puppet, despite his boasting last week. Once used up, he could be thrown away.

But the order now restored is the same order as before Bedie’s fall. Guei intends to govern with the same people, the same prefects, even perhaps the same discredited politicians, and of course the same army, as is shown by the fact that he is currently meeting with them, one after the other. What is more, the bourgeois from France and the Ivory Coast are still there, continuing to dominate an economy where workers are lucky to have a badly paid job and where peasants literally die from poverty.

So, let us not lull ourselves with false hopes: the poor will not change their destiny by proxy. Illusions will not fill their pots, will not increase salaries nor lower prices. Even less so if these illusions concern the army, the forces of repression trained to keep the poor in their place.

It would be even more dangerous for the working class and the poor to rejoice the coup, or for some to lament it, on the basis of ethnic feelings. Guei will do as little good for the Yacoubas and other West Ivorian ethnic groups as Bedie did for the Baoules. For the working class and the poor who, no matter which ethnic group they belong to, have received only severe blows from the bosses, the wealthy and their state, there is only one possible way: unity of all workers in order to defend their common class interests.

To build this unity, the working class and the poor must consciously refuse all ethnic divisions. Only their alliance can give them the strength to resist the permanent increase in exploitation for those who work and the permanent misery for those who do not. Their alliance is also the only way to defeat the rise of ethnic feelings before it turns into war as in Liberia or Rwanda.

"The emancipation of the working class will be the task of the working class itself" this saying is still true. Real change will occur when the poor go beyond the stage of looting; when workers state their rights consciously and proudly: not just their right to a few groceries in the shops which belong to the wealthy, but the right to expropriate all the capitalists and take hold of the economy so that it can be put in the service of the entire population and not of a minority of scandalously rich parasites.

The Military Regime Settles Down

(Translated from Le Pouvoir aux Travailleurs, December 28, 1999, Abidjan, Ivory Coast)

It is Bedie who created the political situation which led to the coup.

First, the internal affairs: the insults against Ouattara, the arrest of the leaders of the RDR, and the ethnic demagogy of the president’s circle was even starting to worry the wealthy. They had no problem with Bedie being a demagogic scoundrel, but not to the point of disrupting business. What is more, the wealthy knew they did not need to fear Alassane Ouattara, Houphouet’s ex-minister, and a fraction actually believed that he was more able to manage the affairs of the bourgeoisie than Bedie. Ouattara still had many supporters in the state administration itself and even in the army, as the composition of the National Public Safety Council (CNSP) set up by Guei was to show later. This does not mean that Ouattara was responsible in any way for the coup, nor that those who hold the power today will yield it to him tomorrow. Nonetheless, Ouattara, practically eliminated by Bedie from the presidential race, may now be in a good position to gain from the coup, at least if Guei and the army keep their promise to leave the political scene and allow politicians to run the government.

In any case, the political and legal battle that Bedie had been conducting for several months against a rival who was not seen as a particularly worse option than himself by the wealthy, and the bitter speech he made against him on the eve of his downfall allowed Ouattara to appear as dictator in-waiting and the army to appear as "liberators."

Bedie and his associates had obviously been mistaken about their own strength in the state apparatus. They had also overestimated the protection that France would provide.

Konan Bedie had certainly, and for a long time, been the man French imperialism could count on. But the rivalry between Bedie and Ouattara hid a very discreet rivalry between France, clinging to the most crucial country of its sphere of influence in Africa, and the U.S., which inclined toward Alassane Ouattara, someone they know well as the ex-associate general director of the IMF. If Guei’s reign turns out to be temporary, with Ouattara coming to power "democratically," this will probably be a sign that French imperialism is losing some of its influence to the benefit of American imperialism.

French imperialism may already have distanced itself from Bedie before he fell. It knew that his regime was worn-out and corrupt. Not that corruption bothers imperialist powers; on the contrary, it is one of the usual ingredients, along with military force, of their system of domination. But the plundering by the Bedie regime has emptied the state coffers of the Ivory Coast. The international bourgeois institutions, from the IMF to the European Commission, have started to freeze credits and aid. The fall in prices of raw materials, a catastrophe for farmers, also affects the state coffers. The government was on the brink of bankruptcy. It was one thing for Bedie to be unable to pay teachers, but not paying the army was dangerous. Stealing the allowance given to them for a war was even worse. Bedie thought he could swindle everybody, including the forces of repression, without which he was nothing.

Even supposing that the political leaders of French imperialism were surprised when Guei proposed himself as candidate for president while Bedie was still in office, they chose not to interfere during the two crucial days of December 24 and 25 when, with Bedie’s own gendarmerie still hesitating, the outcome of the fighting between the two camps was still uncertain. They had no reason to further exacerbate an already explosive situation, simply in order to save their henchman. After all, he was disposable. What is more, they knew Guei well, since he had been a student in the French military school, Saint-Cyr-Coetquidan, and Houphouet’s former head of staff. Guei may have had the reputation of being a "liberal" and a "republican," earned when Bedie had fired him; he may have been flattered by Laurent Gbagbo, always a boot-licker, and by the "left" FPI; but the French knew that Guei, head of the CNSP, was no softy. The protestors of 1990-91 know that too. Paris had no reason to block Guei’s path since the French expatriate bourgeoisie seemed to have chosen Guei from the start, and dreaded an ill-inspired intervention from the French army, posted at Port Bouet, a few miles from the centers of power.

So, the French army only moved a few troops in the direction of the Ivory Coast to show that it was there, just in case... From then on, Bedie’s fate was sealed. The Ivory Coast, presented as a model of democracy in Africa, turned into a military regime overnight. It is true that Bedie’s conduct had amply demonstrated that in this "democracy," the purpose of the presidential election was to comfort those in power, and not to allow a change in leaders. Even if the army allows elections, it is now clear that in this democracy weapons ensure political change, not ballots, even when elections oppose two parties as similar as the PDCI and the RDR.

For the moment, apart from the actual person occupying the presidential palace, there is little difference between the military regime of Guei and the elected regime of Bedie. The forces of repression were already omnipresent. Guei has not forbidden political parties, but then, all of them have pledged him their allegiance. The head of the CNSP takes advantage of a sort of consensus of the political forces: a confused PDCI joins the FPI and the RDR in their allegiance to the military regime. The new president’s ethnic group, the Yacouba, has also contributed to a kind of consensus between North and South.

But all this does not fill the state’s coffers. The new council may more easily ask the population for yet more sacrifices. What is more, the military, which already had been able to racketeer the population, might feel even freer with their boss now in the presidential palace. As the regime settles down, capitalist investors might feel reassured. But nothing good will come out of it for the working classes.

Dictatorship, Misery, and Soccer

(Translated from Le Pouvoir aux Travailleurs, February 6, 2000, Abidjan, Ivory Coast)

The Ivory Coast soccer team lost a game to the team from Cameroon.

It may have been an ordinary defeat, but that is all that was required for the new dictator, General Guei, to go into a complete frenzy. Guei immediately dispatched a military airplane and a team, this time of soldiers, to bring back the soccer players who were guilty of this terrible sin having the bad taste to lose a soccer game. Upon their return, the soccer players were immediately "consigned" for three days to the military barracks. They were placed under strict military control, in order to inculcate a "good sense of their civic duty."

The players’ humiliation did not end there. They were dispatched to the presidential palace where they were received by General Guei himself. First, they had to stand at attention in front of him. Then they had to sing the national anthem and march in step. He lectured them about patriotism and accused them of projecting a negative image of the country because they did not carry out their so-called "mission," which they should have taken more seriously. Finally, he told them that they should feel lucky, because if they lose again, they will not just spend three days in the hole but they will undergo 18 months of military service. The players were only then allowed to return home.

In order not to disturb the general any further, the players did not ask to be paid the rest of what was owed them.

The soccer players on the national team are not the worst off, compared to the workers who have to endure misery and humiliation for their whole life. But this incident reveals the kinds of methods used by the military and their civilian counterparts who choose to collaborate with them.

The regime is aware that a part of those young people who do not have jobs and live on the margins of society, who feel they have no choices, sometimes try to escape their situation by following the soccer matches when they are not drawn into drug use. Under the previous dictator, Bedie, the soccer matches sometimes were a kind of mass outing for the hordes of young people usually from the poorest neighborhoods. If, by some misfortune, "their" team lost, their anger could lead to violence. A few years ago, the Ghanian minority living in Abidjan was mistreated after the team from the Ivory Coast lost to the team from Ghana.

The Bedie regime never opposed this. On the contrary, team officials, high functionaries in the state apparatus, well-known people, not to mention the press commentators tied to the regime, all encouraged this anger.

Unfortunately, the Ivory Coast is not the only regime to behave like this. Recently a bus transporting Nigerian players was stoned by supporters who were disappointed by the poor performance of their favorite team.

Soccer matches have become a kind of escape valve which governments use to channel the anger and frustrations produced by the social inequalities and gross injustices that they uphold.

The new regime of the Ivory Coast does not want to change anything any more than did its predecessors. Committed to not conceding anything to the poor classes, it searches for ways to divert the anger that will eventually come from the poor neighborhoods. It feeds a few victories by sports teams to the youth as an anaesthetic to make them forget the misery and dead end engendered by the capitalist system in which they are being battered.

In making the soccer team the scapegoat, in forcing the players to march in step, Guei was aiming a demagogic demonstration toward the youth.

What is certain is that if this maneuver allows the reactionary general to gain some approval, he will not hesitate to use it to try to impose a policy aiming at keeping down all the exploited for the profit of the rich and the exploiters.