The Spark

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

Ivory Coast:
Confrontations at the Top and Fear of Renewed Violence in the Country

Nov 14, 2006

Laurent Gbagbo’s term of office as president of Ivory Coast was due to end on October31, 2005. But the United Nations gave him a one-year extension, named a Prime Minister belonging to a different clan, Konan Banny, and asked both men to organize a presidential election.

The ballot was to take place in the South, which was still run by Gbagbo, as well as in the North, governed by the armed rebellion that has split the country in two, and it was aimed at the reunification of Ivory Coast.

At the same time, the rebel soldiers were supposed to be brought back into the army ranks and the militias that swarmed the country were to be disarmed.

As it turned out, no election was organized. The voter registration was a failure from the start. The definition of who was a potential voter was one of the key disagreements between Gbagbo and the authorities of the North. Gbagbo wanted the list of voters to be based on that of 2000 – which had allowed him to win the election – while the North’s leaders declared that many voters from the northern part of the country had been rejected from this list, on the grounds that they were not genuine Ivorians. There was talk about holding “fairground hearings,” traveling court hearings held in the open air, to publicly identify a multitude of people who have never had an identity card. The hearings were meant to determine their nationality – and whether or not they qualified as voters. But the pro-Gbagbo militias started agitating against the hearings and only a few of them were held before the whole scheme was cancelled altogether.

A year passed, and not a single step forward was made toward the planned disarmament or an election.

International diplomatic circles pondered the problem and solved the crisis… by giving the protagonists another one-year reprieve.

On this subject, here are two articles from the November 14th 2006 issue of Le Pouvoir aux Travailleurs, a monthly magazine published by the UATCI (African Union of Internationalist Communist Workers).

On the Edge of a Precipice

After the failure of the fairground hearings, it became obvious to everyone that it was impossible to organize a new election before the deadline and that, on October 31, 2006, the situation would roughly be the same as on October 31, 2005.

For a month now, the relevant international organizations have been trying their best to find a “solution” to the crisis or, more exactly, to hide the fact that they have no solution to offer.

There was a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria on October 6, 2006. This was followed by a meeting of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union (A.U.) on October17 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Both gatherings were attended by a bevy of African heads of state, blabbering on about the situation in Ivory Coast and settling their own accounts in passing — as well as the accounts of their friendly protectors, the big imperialist powers.

During the Addis Ababa meeting France discreetly got rid of the mediator named by the A.U., South African President Thabo Mbeki. The French thought he was too favorable to Gbagbo. Thabo Mbeki made no fuss about it, handed in his resignation and was replaced by Sassou N’Guesso. The headline of Le Patriote was a gleeful “Gbagbo no longer in power!” while Notre Voie (Our Way) ranted and raved about the Addis Ababa “muddle.”

The A.U.’s recommendations traveled all the way from Africa to the U.N. Security Council in New York. It was the big powers’ turn to ponder the problem!

There were new rounds of discussions. The French officials, basing themselves on the A.U.’s proposals, tried to push a resolution which, though it confirmed the nomination of the Gbagbo-Banny duet as leaders of the executive, would have given the latter more power and, above all, the means he needed to exert his authority. But standing in the way of French diplomats were not only China and Russia, but also the United States. Since France had refused to support their venture in Iraq, the Americans were only too happy to retaliate.

Needless to say, the future of Ivory Coast and, more importantly, the fate of its inhabitants, were not the main concern of diplomatic circles. The resolution that finally passed was ambiguous enough to satisfy all parties. It merely put the U.N. stamp on recent developments.

Nothing To Write Home About

Gbagbo’s presidential mandate and Konan Banny’s premiership were thus confirmed, with the explicit condition that they would organize a new election. They said they would – “cross my heart and hope to die.”

While the hot-air artists of the ECOWAS, A.U. and U.N. were rambling on, the country remained split in two – in a state of armed peace or genuine civil war, depending on the area or the time period. The consequences are dramatic for the vast majority of the people: a sluggish economy, factories cutting their production by half or shutting down, people and goods being smuggled over the border between the two zones as well as inside each of them.

Though both camps criticized the U.N. resolution, each naturally took advantage of the ambiguity and interpreted it in a way that served its own interests.

For Gbagbo, the U.N. resolution was the glorious result of a “real diplomatic battle” he had won. Meanwhile, the rebel forces welcomed Konan Banny’s new prerogatives.

Fraternité Matin was more sober. The paper’s headline was: “Gbagbo-Banny: the stalemate.” Not much different than the headline of Le Patriote, which ran: “Gbagbo hasn’t won, Banny hasn’t lost.” To sum it up, nothing has changed and the tug of war continues.

The Test of Strength Continues

In fact, even though the Prime Minister was given new prerogatives, Gbagbo made headway because he remains president for another year, without any election. As for the extra power given to Banny, what is it really worth? The U.N. resolution gives him “authority over defense and security forces.” But he was denied “the power to name civil and military officials” – which means he cannot get rid of General Mangou and his supporters who were named by Gbagbo and remain faithful to him. In Addis Ababa, Banny whimpered, “Mangou doesn’t respect me.” Well, Mangou will continue to have no respect for Banny, which means that, in the South, Gbagbo will continue to control the army. And those who have guns have power.

In short, the other African countries and the U.N. have merely decided to wait another year and let the internal relationship of forces between Gbagbo and Banny decide who will impose himself at the head of the executive and, more importantly, what will be done – if anything – to reduce the split between the North and the South. And if, once again, nothing new happens, they will wash their hands of it.

Of course, a divided country is a bit disorderly and the convulsions such a situation can create aren’t good for business. The capitalist companies exploiting Ivory Coast’s riches probably feel that the old times, under the dictatorship of Houphouët-Boigny, single ruler of a united country, were preferable to the present situation.

But they have no choice. Of course, they could decide on a massive military intervention, but that would be costly and nobody wants to take such a responsibility – and for whose benefit?

Paris, or at least President Chirac, does not like Gbagbo. But the North’s “Prime Minister,” party leader Guillaume Soro, and his bunch are not considered more reliable.

The U.N. resolution shows that the big powers have accepted the situation as is and that, concerning the division of the country, they will make do with the status quo. At least for one more year. Then they will take stock of the situation.

After all, there are many African countries split in two or more parts! The apparent unity of countries like Congo-Kinshasa, Sudan and others is a fiction. Imperialism puts up with it, especially when the exploitation of these countries’ natural resources is uninterrupted, as in Congo-Kinshasa, despite the division of the country into bits and pieces, the countless casualties, war, famine and the dreadful conditions of ordinary people.

The same thing is happening in Ivory Coast. Its economy stagnates, a number of small French profiteers have left, fearing the political situation, but the country as a whole still yields comfortable profits to big international companies – particularly French companies, which are still among the biggest. Despite the state of war, it is exploitation as usual on the big plantations where the bosses can afford to buy off the “uniformed bodies” or militias roaming in their area. These people may see the division of the country as an embarrassment, but certainly not as a catastrophe.

The countries, big and small, which for four years now have looked into the Ivory Coast problem – with no result – simply want to avoid the chaos of an all-out war. This explains why buffer zones have been created and why the French army along with troops of the United Nations Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOIC) remain in the country.

The main reason for the French army’s Operation Unicorn is to protect French interests and play the role of policeman for the other imperialist powers. It is significant, for example, that during the discussions around the U.N. draft resolution, the main argument of the French delegation was, according to the press, the threat of withdrawing the 3500soldiers of Operation Unicorn. The threat apparently was convincing enough and the U.S. delegates, who never miss an opportunity to annoy French diplomats, finally accepted a compromise that avoided sending more U.N. troops (and the cost of it) to replace the French contingent.

How Will The Relationship of Forces Evolve?

The actual relationship of forces between the two contending armies, the Ivory Coast national armed forces and the so-called “Forces nouvelles” is unstable, but could remain what it is for quite a while. There is no obvious foreseeable development that might prompt the “Forces nouvelles” to surrender. These troops control the poorer part of the country, but money can be extorted even from poor people. The troops are also said to be trafficking right and left with the neighboring countries. They most certainly can get the armaments they want – if they can pay the price.

The same can be said of the South where, for the time being at least, Gbagbo seemingly controls the official army.

Who knows how long the present balance of forces will last and how it might eventually develop?

One important aspect of the situation is Gbagbo’s control over the army. He has carefully chosen the chiefs-of-staff, on the basis of their loyalty to him. Will this loyalty last forever? The recent example of General Guei, the former dictator whose troops abandoned him in favor of Gbagbo, shows that the loyalty of the army chiefs to the president is not at all absolute.

Gbagbo can also rely on the militias of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). They give him the means of keeping a tight rein on the population. They also exert a pressure on the army itself, at least on the officers. This pressure is not due to their actual strength as a military force (they mostly attack unarmed people –like the army itself, for that matter), but they are seen as the army’s back-up troops. Like the national army, they defend Gbagbo’s plans, but at the same time they act as a counterbalance to the army.

Another important factor is the militias’ capacity to keep ordinary people in check, or at least to frighten them.

For many months, following the example of the meetings Gbagbo’s supporters held in the square called “la Sorbonne,” a multitude of meetings called “parliaments” and “agoras” emerged, spreading the government’s propaganda and influencing ordinary folks, all the more so since the “Young Patriots,” as the gangs in favor of Gbagbo called themselves, kept a high profile. However, it seems that things are changing in this respect.

One reason is that the opposition itself –with or without the agreement of its leaders – has set up self-defense groups. In many instances, during fights at the end of August around the “fairground hearings,” young members of the Meeting for Peace and Human Rights forced the Gbagbo militias to retreat. As a consequence, the declarations of Blé-Goudé, the Young Patriots’ leader, are less warlike than they used to be.

Secondly, some neighborhoods reacted violently to attacks by the Gbagbo militias. On November 3, for example, FPI militiamen were turned out of Yopougon-Azito by the people themselves, despite the fact that the FPI considered this area one of its fiefdoms. But the people were fed up with the extortion, beatings and rapes, and they reacted. The youths of this particular neighborhood attacked the militia’s camp and, despite help provided by the “uniformed bodies” of the army, the militiamen had to be extricated from the battle; two of them were killed.

The people of Yopougon-Azito no longer passively let themselves be attacked, and they are quite right.

Is this an indication of a change in the attitude of the population as a whole?

Only time will tell, but this element could tip the present balance of things in Ivory Coast.

For ordinary people, the most dramatic aspect of the situation is not the fact that the army is split in two, with one side controlling the North and the other occupying the South. Whether united or split in two, the army has always been used as a force of repression and has always lived off the population.

The main threat today is the eventual division of the population along ethnic lines under the influence of Gbagbo supporters whose propaganda opposes those who were born in the South to those who were born in the North or in foreign countries. In some “agoras,” or open air meetings in city squares, they openly call on people to buy machetes. And in many villages, there are violent land disputes in which ethnic arguments are used against the other party.

His followers urge Gbagbo to get rid of Konan Banny and to name his own Prime Minister. Like all his rivals, Konan Banny is not a genuine friend of ordinary people. But if Gbagbo dismissed him, despite the fact that he was installed by the U.N. and is supported by the opposition, that would certainly be seen as a declaration of war. In his November 7 speech, Gbagbo was very careful. He said he was organizing a “consultation” – which gives him the time he needs to assess the relationship of forces and reckon who is on his side, both in and out of the country. The first results of his “consultation” (with the churches, the bosses and the union confederations) seem to indicate that his followers are favorable to a war aimed at regaining control of the North.

Not much would be needed for the country to sink once again into bloody and sterile chaos. The country is teetering on the edge of the cliff because of the rivalry between power-hungry leaders and their imperialist accomplices. In the North and the South, the Ivorian leaders are preparing to make the ordinary people, whatever their ethnic origin or political convictions, pay the price of their rivalry. This is what’s in store for the people of Ivory Coast unless they decide to react. They have nothing to gain and everything to lose from a new outburst of violence.

Their Fight Is Not Our Fight. We, the Workers and the Poor, Have Our Own Interests to Fight For

On October 31 and November 1st, the people living in the poor neighborhoods were relieved when they realized there was no gunfight in the streets of Abidjan. The end of Gbagbo’s U.N. mandate was not the beginning of bloodshed. The FPI and the opposition had not mobilized their followers.

But how long will this situation last?

Everyone knows that not a single problem has been settled and that the struggle for power, which is dormant for the time being, can suddenly lead to new outbursts of violence.

No one can say who is going to win this struggle. But the losers are sure to be the ordinary people, the vast majority of the population. They have been on the losing side from the beginning, because of the increased poverty, the company shutdowns and the difficulties they face when they try to find a job in Abidjan. In the villages, the poor have seen living conditions worsen because the conflict prevents farmers from cultivating the land. Getting enough to eat has become more and more problematic.

However, there is worse. There’s the suspicion, the hostility spread by the country’s leaders about who is pure Ivorian or which ethnicity to trust. In some poor neighborhoods, people who live in the same courtyard, who are all victims of the same exploitation, whether they have a job or not, are on guard, even fearful of the other inhabitants. They are careful about what they say or choose not to say. Everyone knows that this situation could lead to confrontations like those that have already caused bloodshed in some villages.

We all want security, but we can only count on ourselves to get it. We cannot count on the African heads of state who met in Abuja or Addis Ababa or on their wheelings and dealings to keep us safe. They have already shown their total incapacity to stop the crisis in Ivory Coast.

That is no surprise, of course.

These heads of state oppress their own people and help the big capitalist conglomerates, whether local or international, to exploit them.

How could the heads of other African states make decisions favorable to the poorer people of Ivory Coast when they fail to do it for their own people?

We cannot either, for obvious reasons, count on the big powers, and especially not on France whose soldiers are presently in the country. The French troops are there to protect the interests of French capital, not the people of Ivory Coast.

The army that imposed France’s colonial domination and defended her post-colonial economic domination under Houphouët-Boigny and his successors cannot be expected to become, all of a sudden, the protector of the people. That is not what it is here for.

Of course, Gbagbo and his clan claim to stand for the interests of the whole population, denouncing France’s interventions in Ivory Coast. But that is pure demagogy on their part. In reality, like his predecessors, Gbagbo agrees that big conglomerates like Bouygues (construction, civil engineering, etc.) and Bolloré (railroads, shipping, etc.) should dominate his country’s economy. He even does his best to facilitate it.

One easily understands why those who were born in the North fear this type of demagogy used to consolidate the positions of Gbagbo and his clique. But they should have no illusion: the French army will not protect them. Those who think so are mistaken and gravely misjudge the situation.

We must be aware that Ivory Coast’s power-hungry politicians want us to play the role of the victim. Choosing one side against the other is not in our interest. Gbagbo is not the friend of ordinary people living in the South, and the same can be said of Ouattara or Soro in the North. What have they done to make our conditions a bit less harsh? Nothing. And French imperialism is only concerned with the continued plundering of Ivory Coast and exploitation of its workers.

But we, the people who work, the day laborers, the unemployed of all origins, we have many things in common, starting with our poverty and the fact that, though we create the wealth of this country, in the plants, on the building sites, on the plantations, we get practically no benefit from it. The country’s economy has been declining for years now but, paradoxically, Ivory Coast remains a most attractive country for capitalists, both national and international, whether French, American, Lebanese or from elsewhere. The reason behind this is not only the existence of huge natural resources, but also the fact that there are people to make these resources profitable: workers to make the plants run smoothly, field hands to look after the plantations, construction workers to build the facilities that will increase the value of the land bought up by real estate sharks. There are the “small merchants” who help the poor to survive, small planters who remain poor while the regime’s notables and the cocoa and coffee middlemen make fortunes.

It is obvious that our interest is to reject all those who want to set workers against other workers, who want to indoctrinate us with the idea that this or that community is ethnically superior or has special claims because one is more purely Ivorian than another.

But we must also remember that we should fight for our own interests, not for other people’s concerns. Wherever we come from, our interest is to have a job and a wage that allows decent living conditions. Our interest is not to live in neighborhoods that have become cesspools and dwellings that are turned into disgusting hovels. Our interest is to impose respect for our basic rights: our children must have access to education and we must have access to medical care when we need it.

All of this is possible. We must not believe those who say Ivory Coast is a poor country. We can see for ourselves that huge capitalist conglomerates, as well as small Ivorian or foreign profiteers, manage to get rich, live in luxury homes, obtain treatment in private clinics when they are ill, send their children to school in rich countries where, to be on the safe side, they also send the money they have stolen from the poor in Ivory Coast. If this wealth was shared by all, if production was organized to answer the needs of all, everyone could live a decent life.

In Ivory Coast, as in any other country, the true dividing line is between the social classes, between bourgeois people, no matter where they come from, and the workers who make them rich. All we need is to be conscious of this fact and act accordingly.