In 2010, 14 former French African colonies celebrate 50 years of independence. Paris dedicated its Bastille Day celebrations to these countries but there was one notable absentee: Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivorian president. It seemed that the once favoured West African nation had turned its back on its former colonial master.
“I think there’s nothing to celebrate because after 50 years of independence… we have a country which is divided in two. We have poverty, we have war, we don’t have election[s], and we don’t know where we are going,” author and journalist Venance Konan says.
After independence, European investors and immigrant workers from neighbouring countries flowed in to Cote d’Ivoire creating a vibrant and culturally diverse environment. They called it the Ivorian miracle.
But many of the international investors have since left because of the country’s continuing political instability.
Charles Ble Goude, President Gbabgbo’s confidante and protege, is unelected but one of the most powerful men in Cote d’Ivoire. He rallies political support for Gbagbo, even though there has not been an election for ten years, and only two have been held since independence in 1960.
The latest date set for elections to take place is October 31. But given recent history no one is holding their breath. In February, Gbagbo cancelled scheduled elections for the sixth time in five years. Riots inflamed his home town of Gagnoa and five people were killed.
“The only person, the only leader who wants [an] election in Cote d’Ivoire is President Gbagbo. It’s him who wants [an] election. The other leaders are pretending to [want] the election to take place but they don’t want it,” Ble Goude says.
But critics disagree.
Many locals accuse Gbagbo of not investing enough in his home town, a charge repeated by opponents across the nation.
Such criticism provides a stark contrast to the legacy of the so-called Father of the Nation, Felix Houphouet Boigny, the country’s first president. He ruled Cote d’Ivoire for 33 years, mostly as a one party state.
A bastion of peace
In the years following independence in 1960, the country became known as a bastion of peace and prosperity in an otherwise turbulent region.
It blossomed on the wealth of the cocoa plant. Investment flowed in and the Ivorian miracle became the envy of the continent – and Boigny claimed the credit.
Many Ivorians still respect him because he invested much for the country’s development.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is the biggest church in the world, the centrepiece of Yamoussoukro, which Boigny declared the nation’s capital in 1983.
Boigny spent more than $300mn on its construction, but by the time it was completed in 1989, the Ivorian miracle was over.
When he died in 1993, his beloved country was on a precipice, and decisions taken during the years of prosperity were coming back to haunt the nation.
“After independence, Cote d’Ivoire was richer than the other countries so a lot of people came again from Burkina Faso, from Mali, from Togo, from Ghana to work in the cocoa plantations, coffee plantations and they stayed here,” Venance says.
Cocoa and coffee are both labour intensive industries and the Ivorian population struggled to cope with the global demand for its crops. So like the French before him, Boigny encouraged immigration from neighbouring countries. In return he gave the incoming immigrants Ivorian nationality.
When times were good, this policy of integration paid dividends, as the Ivorian GDP reached a peak growth of 360 per cent in the 1970s. But by the end of the decade global cocoa prices collapsed and the Ivorian economy began to suffer.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed austerity measures on the country in the 1980s and discontent started to take hold.
The concept of Ivoirite
Following Boigny’s death in 1993, his successor, Henri Konan Bedie, was quick to capitalise on the growing racial tension.
A new term entered Ivorian politics. Ivoirite, a term that distinguishes so called ‘real’ Ivorians from those with a ‘mixed’ background.
Based on this concept a new law banned anyone whose parents were not born in the Cote d’Ivoire from standing for the 1995 presidential elections. Thousands were forced into exile and 26 per cent of the population were suddenly denied the right to vote. Most of those excluded were from the north of the country and originating from Mali and Burkina Faso.
“You cannot keep a quarter of out of the political game. That was the main problem. Who, nowadays, who is Ivorian, who is not Ivorian? We don’t know. We don’t have the answer,” Venance says.
But the architect of this policy remains unrepentant.
“We must keep in mind that the Ivory Coast was a country of huge immigration. At one point the issue of immigration created much resentment within the Ivorian population. Immigration is more stable now but we remain a country of high immigration rate. The Ivory Coast is a country that has always been known for hospitality and tolerance,” Bedie says.
Having firmly entrenched his ideology into Ivorian politics, Bedie was ousted by a 1999 military coup led by General Robert Guei.
Guei called elections in 2000. The challenger was Laurent Gbagbo, a veteran opposition leader and university lecturer. Guei claimed he had won convincingly, but Gbagbo disputed the result.
On October 22, 2000 a popular revolt broke out in Abidjan in favour of Gbagbo, and Guei was forced to concede.
Gbagbo became the country’s fourth president. But the concept of Ivoirite did not go away.
“The population is angry with the president. People think he is responsible for what happened. He accentuates the exclusion of the northerners. He may have not been responsible for Ivoirite but he continued the concept,” Kande says.
Northerners had hoped that under Gbagbo the country would once again be welcoming to the immigrant population. But they continued to be excluded. And the discontent was turning into outright revolt.
“Often when we had to show our identity cards to travel around the country and the official would see our northern names and they would say ‘but you’re a foreigner’. It was frustrating and humiliating,” Madi Kone, who was part of the rebel Force Nouvelle, says.
On Monday, September 19, 2002, while Gbagbo was on a state visit to Italy, the first shots of what was to become a full-scale rebellion against his government were fired.
“There was a lot of fighting on this road, at the time we could see burnt bodies here. All bodies were scattered here. The people burned the bodies to express their anger. A dozen bodies. It was not a mountain,” Kande says.
Troops from the north of the country had mutinied, and by midday they had control of the region, an area the size of Great Britain.
Madi Kone was part of the rebel Force Nouvelle. Led by the youth leader Guillaume Soro, she was just one of many thousands of northerners who were inspired to join the cause.
“The behaviour of the powers that be towards those of foreign descent was especially frustrating. We created this movement for legitimacy and democracy in Cote d’Ivoire,” Kone says.
The once peaceful country was now divided. And the north suffered the consequences of war.
“There were no doctors in the hospitals, people were left to die …. Bodies were transported in wheelbarrows to the cemetery. There was much suffering …. Nobody thought this would happen, that the country would split in two, they thought this event would only last a few days,” Kande says.
But the fighting intensified, and the former colonial power soon became involved.
Living a guerilla war
In November 2004, after a failed peace accord Gbagbo ordered an attack on the nation’s second largest city, Bouake, hoping to seize control of the rebel-held territory. Nine French soldiers were killed.
In response France bombed and destroyed the entire Ivorian airforce.
Thousands of young Gbagbo supporters, led by Ble Goude, streamed onto the streets of Abidjan claiming they were waging a non-violent struggle against the colonialists.
Rioters attacked white businesses and anyone they perceived to be French. Thousands fled. But, having lived in Bouake for close to 30 years Catherine Delon refused to panic.
“We lived a guerilla war here. It was not war, my bookshop remained open and I’m not a courageous person. I stayed as I had investments here,” Delon says.
In 2005, Gbagbo’s mandate as president ran out but he cancelled the first of several elections and remained in power.
In Abidjan Ble Goude’s Young Patriots had become Gbagbo’s unofficial army and stood accused of attacking immigrants. A charge he vehemently denies.
“I’ve been a student in England. I know how difficult it is to live in a country as a stranger, as an immigrant. So I can’t harass and use violence against immigrants. We were in a situation where some young boys took guns and weapons against the regime. So I said I’m not going to do like them. I’m going to mobilise people in the street like Martin Luther King, like Gandhi,” Ble Goude says.
Like Gandhi the Young Patriots felt it was their duty to free their country from colonial interests. But unlike Gandhi this nationalistic fervor turned into violence.
The Young Patriots took to the airwaves ordering people onto the streets of Abidjan to attack the United Nations peacekeepers.
The UN responded by imposing travel sanctions on Ble Goude, accusing him of posing “a threat to the peace and reconciliation process in Cote d’Ivoire”. Since 2006 he has not been able to leave the country and his assets have been frozen, although Ble continues to deny any wrongdoing.
New leaders needed
In March 2007, a peace treaty was signed. Rebel leader Guillaume Soro was given the post of prime minister and Gbagbo kept his position as president.
The country remains divided, with the Force Nouvelle controlling the north and Gbagbo’s government the south.
Despite the UN’s accusations against Ble Goude, Gbagbo made him Ivorian peace ambassador. A role Ble Goude claims demonstrates that he and the Young Patriots are a positive force for the country.
“You know the detractors of Nelson Mandela said he was the problem for South Africa and now they are saying he is the solution. And he is the solution. So he went to prison because he was accused of being a terrorist. And now I am from the EU and the UN so I don’t care. It is for me to win. They will say I am the solution. And I am the solution,” Ble Goude says.
This year, five years after Gbagbo’s mandate as president ended, electoral campaigning is once again in full swing. Once again, the three big men of Ivorian politics are looming large: Laurent Gbagbo, Konan Bedie and Alassane Outtara, who was previously banned from standing by Ivoirite legislation.
But with the country in paralysis many are not sure the old politicians are the answer to Cote d’Ivoire’s problems.
“I think that first we have to have new leaders, we don’t have, and I’m looking around me but we don’t have anybody. We need a good leader so that his country will go forward,” Venance says.
Even in this election the issue of identity persists but as comedian and somewhat unlikely presidential candidate Dolo Adama points out Cote d’Ivoire is a nation of immigrants.
“We should sit and settle this problem. In Cote d’Ivoire there are 20 million inhabitants: Two million Guineans, four million Burkinabe, three million Malians, that’s already nine million; 500,000 Lebanese, 500,000 Mauritanian, there are one million from Niger, one million Senegalese, 1,000,000 Nigerians, plus Ghanians, people from Benin, Cameroon etc. If we decide to count after removing all these people, there would be maybe five Ivoirians left,” Adama says.
Fifty years on from independence, the Cote d’Ivoire seems as far away as ever from achieving a political consensus that can ensure its long-term stability.
“We really wish for elections because without them this country will be devastated. Me personally I don’t want the resumption of war, death like 2002 to 2004. We the Ivorian people must use every means to go to the elections and an election no one can dispute. We need the elections to be honest if we want to avoid war,” Madi says.