Presidential Election brings the country to the brink of full scale war and worsens the crisis of capitalism
That the November 28 run-off election in Ivory Coast has produced two presidents – Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo – is not a surprise, though the working people had expected the election to usher a return of peace. The country has been divided into two since the 2002 coup attempt and subsequent rebellion with each half effectively having its own de facto government. The north is controlled by rebels, Forces Nouvelles (New Forces), while the south is under Gbagbo with the support of the armed forces and youth militia. Therefore, on this account and with the ethno-centric sentiment that has characterized Ivorian politics in the last two decades, it is natural that the results of the election from either half would be bitterly disputed by the party declared the loser of the contest.
The electoral commission declared Ouattara, a northerner and a former prime minister under Felix Houphouet-Boigny, as the winner of the election while a few hours later the Constitutional Court, reportedly headed by a strong ally of Gbagbo, cancelled some votes in the north citing electoral frauds and handed victory to Gbagbo. The international observers said while there were some cases of irregularities across the country, the election was broadly free and fair and that Ouattara won. On its part, the United Nations mission, who by terms of the peace accord that set in motion the electoral processes is mandated to certify the conduct and outcome of the election, endorsed the victory of Ouattara. Both men have claimed to be presidents and appointed separate cabinets while the post election crisis has already claimed about 173 lives and driven about 20,000, mostly women and children, into refugee camps in Liberia. There is also allegation by the United Nations of the existence of two mass graves of those killed by Gbagbo’s supporters. This has been denied by the Gbagbo’s camp.
The "international community", the euphemism for western imperialism; France, the former colonial ruler with massive economic interests in Ivory Coast; the African Union and ECOWAS have mounted sustained pressure on Gbagbo to accept the verdict of the electoral commission and step down as President. The United States and the European Union have imposed a travel ban on Gbagbo and his inner circle, while the World Bank and the regional West African central bank have frozen his finances in an attempt to weaken his grip on power. Indeed, the leaders of ECOWAS countries, the immediate neighbours of Ivory Coast, have threatened to use "legitimate force" should Gbagbo refuse to relinquish power, something that has not been ruled out by the American and British government. A few days before Ecowas announced the possibility of option of force, William Fitzgerald (Deputy Assistant US Secretary of State for African Affairs) had given the hint. He said, "Is there the option of destabilization and sending in a stabilization force? Of course, all options are open, but probably not an American force. It may be an African force". (Bloomberg, December 21, 2010)
However the "international community’s" concern for democratic elections is entirely hypocritical, look at the silence over the massive rigging of Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections, let alone the mild criticism of the Nigeria’s 2007 election fraud. Imperialism only shouts about election rigging when the "wrong" candidate wins or when it fears the fraud will provoke popular unrest.
So far, Gbagbo has refused to budge and remained defiant to all the pressures and threats. He has continued to whip up nationalist sentiment against the "international plot" to remove him. This has found an echo and support among a section of Ivorian population who has long bought into the principle of "Ivoirite" – the state of being a "true" Ivorian – readily played up by successive sections of ruling elite in power since 1993 as a means to maintain power and access to loot in the face of socio-economic hardship. This xenophobic frenzy was not invented by Gbagbo but he has found it useful to preserve himself in power. It was originally devised by Henri Konan Bédié in a previous power struggle with Ouattara over who would to succeed their co-master, Houphouet-Boigny, after he had died in late 1993 after over three decades in office. This was no principled struggle, it was over who would be in a position to make fortune out of the privatization of public enterprises and cuts in social spending. Before Houphouet-Boigny’s death Bédié had been President of the National Assembly while Ouattara had been Prime Minister.
Bédié’s "Ivoirite" policy meant that anybody with one or two parents who were not Ivorian is not eligible to hold political office and enjoy some social rights including ownership of land. This divisive concept has marginalised most people of the northern origin with whom most of the economic immigrants from the neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger who share a similar ethnic background. It was able to strike a chord with most Ivorians at a period when the decline in the once West African most prosperous economy had reached a head. Hence, it was easy for the ruling elites to make immigrants, who constitute about 30% of the population, the scapegoats of the economic woe inflicted by the capitalist crisis.
Together with the army, Gbagbo has at his disposal a youth militia known as "Young Patriots", who are mostly unemployed youths mobilized by "Ivoirite" and morbid nationalism, whom he readily deploys against threats to his leadership. According to the World Bank over 4 million young men out of the population of about 20 million are unemployed. This is a veritable reservoir of political tools for the self-serving ruling elite. The "Young Patriots", whose leader, Charles Blé Goudé, is a minister in Gbagbo’s cabinet, were central to the attacks on French and white population in 2004 after the French military destroyed the Ivory Coast Air Force in retaliation for the bombing of a French base in the north which killed nine French soldiers and an American. They are also against the influx of northerners and immigrants, who provide cheap labour and take over the few available jobs from the original inhabitants, into the south especially Abidjan. As they did in 2002 after the outbreak of the rebellion, the Young Patriots have been involved in the attacks on northerners since the post-election crisis has broken out.
The "Young Patriots" style themselves as anti-neo-colonialist especially against the French, who firmly control Ivorian economy as most companies and ports are French-owned, and are allegedly out to remove Gbagbo in order to maintain the country as a client state. However, the assaults on northerners and immigrants reveal them as being used for xenophobic and ethnic jingoist attacks.
Gbagbo and French imperialism
Gbagbo has never been the first choice of the French imperialism for the leadership of its flagship outpost in Africa. Gbagbo, with a radical background, was at the centre of protests against the one-party "democracy" of Houphouet-Boigny. He ruled the country as his personal fiefdom and made it the goldmine of French exploiters and fortune hunters. Houphouet-Boigny’s regime enjoyed unflinching support from western imperialism since it was good enough for their economic interests and also an instrument against radical and pro-Moscow leaders in Africa in the period of cold war. There were reports, for instance, that Houphouet-Boigny played a central role in the removal of Kwame Nkrummah and Thomas Sankara in Ghana and Burkina Faso respectively. After the legalisation of opposition parties Gbagbo was the only opposition leader bold enough to stand up and contest the first ever presidential election in 1990 against the political juggernaut Houphouet-Boigny. Ten years later Gbagbo was indeed ushered into power by mass uprising that swept away the then military dictator, Robert Guei, who had refused to concede defeat in the 2000 presidential election widely believed to have been won by Gbagbo.
Then, in the face of popular support, French imperialism did not have any choice but to accommodate Gbagbo, dropping their earlier call for fresh elections on account of the Supreme Court’s exclusion of Ouattara from the ballot on the grounds that he was not Ivorian. But Gbagbo was not a threat to the vast economic interest of the French ruling elite. However despite all the present anti-French imperialism grandstanding of Gbagbo, as a contributor in the Guardian (London), Pierre Haski, reveals, “throughout Gbagbo’s 10 years in power, French businesses landed the biggest contracts: Total for oil exploration, Bolloré for the management of Abidjan’s harbour, Bouygues for telecoms”. (Guardian, London, January 5, 2011). Besides, he indeed runs the country on the basis of capitalist neo-liberal economic agenda and signed in 2001 a monitoring programme that submits the economy to the dictates of IMF. Nevertheless, their relationship became strained as a result of the 2004 bombing incident which also reinforced the suspicion of the Gbagbo camp that France had a hand in the largely northern based rebellion that broke out in 2002. However, it was the French forces that helped repel the advancement of the rebels to the south when it appeared they were strong enough to overrun the country and also facilitated the 2002 cease-fire. The French apparently had to do this in order to safeguard their businesses which are mostly sited in the south.
It was a French military base kept as a part of buffer zone in the north after the cease-fire accord that was bombed by Ivorian forces in 2004 who claimed the action was a mistake. Previouly Houphouet-Boigny through a defence pact signed in 1961 had reduced Côte d’Ivoire to a military outpost of France and allowed the retention of a French military presence, with the 43rd Marine Infantry Battalion stationed in Port Bouet on the southern outskirts of Abidjan.
Political Crisis – Excuse for further attacks on the working people
No doubt, the political crisis occasioned by the civil war has had an adverse effect on economy and livelihood of ordinary people particularly in the north where access to social service like education, health care and electricity has also broken down. The crisis has however provided the excuse for Gbagbo to unleash attacks on ordinary people, workers and farmers, while the access to loot by the ruling elite in Gbagbo camp has been seamless. The only exception is the resources like gold and diamond in the northern part of the country which are now cash cows for the rebels. Even though there has been international embargo on the sales of diamonds, there are viable outlets for smuggling. The exports of cocoa and other cash crops like coffee mostly from the south have not been fundamentally affected. Besides, the earnings from the export of crude oil rose dramatically in the period of global oil boom and were only slowed down last year by the global economic recession. Indeed, over the period the revenue from crude oil, which is located offshore and therefore not threatened by rebellion or political crisis, surpassed that of cocoa. There have been widely published cases and reports of financial scandals involving top government officials especially around revenue from cocoa. Like obtains in most African countries there have been no independent audits of cocoa and oil sectors.
The economic policy of the government is designed only to oil the engine of the government and privileges of its functionaries while the ordinary people are put at the back queuing for the crumbs. In order to reserve adequate money for the elements in government, social services and living condition of workers have deteriorated not only in the north but also in the south due to poor funding and neo-liberal attacks. Public expenditure on health as a proportion of GDP is said to be the third lowest in sub-Sahara Africa. The government also squeezes cocoa farmers to boost revenue. According to World Bank figures from 2008, the Ivorian farmers get only 40% of world market prices, in comparison to 65% in Ghana or 85% in Nigeria. A huge proportion of Ivorian farmers, despite being the live wire of the economy, are among the poor in the country. They had to rely on child labour to reduce the cost of production of cocoa and make something out of the sales.
Fight-back by the Working People
Of course, there have been fight backs against the attacks with strikes by workers in different sectors like health, education and local government especially between November and December 2009. All this has been met with repression by the government with arrest and detention of worker activists some of whom were arraigned in court and handed suspended sentences. Also in private sector, the workers have not folded their arms. The dock workers and truck drivers went on separate strikes in 2009. Thousands of dock workers braved the repressive measures of their private employers who invited armed police and sustained the action for two weeks between June 2 and 17. There were also different mass protests against official hike in fuel prices and the increase in food prices in 2008. The farmers also went on strike in 2004 and 2006 to demand decent share in the price of cocoa.
It is clear that the different sections of the working people are ready to struggle for a better deal from the thieving and repressive ruling elites. A taxi driver, Yacouba Fandio, for instance, in Abidjan told IRIN (United Nation news agency) that he, like many people in the city, was interested in taking part in protests but had not done so far. "Many times we hear that a protest will take place against the cost of living but it has been called off at the last minute. Next time a demo is called, the turn out will be so huge (the government) will have to listen," he said (IRIN, March 31, 2008). Unfortunately, there was no viable trade union federation that could harmonise the angers of workers and ordinary people and organise a general strike and mass protest.
Blue-eyed boy of imperialism
However, there is no hope of a better deal for the ordinary Ivorians from the alternatives available at present in the person of Ouattara, a blue-eyed boy of imperialism. One does not need a crystal ball to conclude that Houphouët-Boigny’s former Prime Minister, who later became the former Deputy Managing Director of IMF, will run the country according to dictates of world imperialism.
Already, Ivory Coast has been enlisted in the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative programme of the World Bank and IMF, as a step towards getting relief from debt burden it was largely plunged into by the archetypal pro-imperialist government of Houphouët-Boigny. This means that the country has to service its debt and implement harsh economic policies of structural adjustment or capitalist neo-liberal programme, as dictated by the IMF and World Bank, to be eligible for relief. No doubt, Ouattara will not blink from unleashing such neo-liberal attacks on the working people. He is an old war horse of imperialism. It should be recalled that he was seconded to help Houphouet-Boigny impose and implement austerity measures and structural adjustment programme in early 1990s. To him, neo-liberalism which has proved to be a nostrum for development particularly in Africa is medicine for economic ailments. However, Ivory Coast had reached what is called the decision point of HIPC in March 2009 meaning that Gbagbo has not done badly in implementing the World Bank and IMF dictated neo-liberal attacks. The IMF gave Gbagbo a thump-up for this achievement and asked him to fast track the "reforms" towards HIPC completion point. No doubt, Ouattara, a true-blue IMF agent, will do better than Gbagbo.
It is no secret that western imperialism, particularly France, has vested economic interests in Ivory Coast. France for instance has some 500 businesses that dominate important sectors of the economy. The country is the largest producer of cocoa, which is used for chocolate, accounting for 40% of the global output. It is also a major exporter of coffee and timber while there has been increase in its crude oil production. There are also deposits of gold and diamond in the north. There is also a report, credited to the International Commission of Enquiry on the allegations of violations of human rights in Ivory Coast between 19 September and 15 October 2004, of discovery of oilfields whose reserves could make the country the second or third largest African producer of crude oil. The Commission also reported the discovery of huge gas deposits whose reserves are enough for a hundred years’ exploitation.
To resume the full exploitation of the economy and resources of the country, it is in the interests of the imperialism for the current civil war to end. By their calculation, this could be achieved with Ouattara who enjoys mass support in the north having come from the region and supported by the rebels whose leader, Guillaume Soro, he has appointed as the Prime Minister. He also appeals to some sections in the south as president. It is not impossible for Ouattara to have had huge votes from Baoules, the largest ethnic group in country which Houphouet-Boigny also hailed from, on account of ex-President Bédié who asked them to vote for him. Bédié, who came third in the first round, got most of his votes from Baoules who are mostly cocoa farmers and had some axe to grind with Gbagbo on account of their decreasing share in cocoa price and his historical opposition to Houphouet-Boigny. Ouattara promised them that if he was elected president Bedie would be his "boss" and that he would immediately start governing from Yamoussoukro, until now the titular capital, which was Houphouet-Boigny’s home town.
Spectre of war
So far, the pressure of western imperialism and its proxy – ECOWAS – has not offered solution. It is not impossible for Ecowas, on the prompting of western imperialism, to make good its threat to use force to oust Gbagbo if all diplomatic means fail. This will no doubt raise the spectre of ethnic conflict amongst Ivoirians and also endanger of the lives and properties of millions of African nationals from other countries who will come under vicious attacks from the supporters of Gbagbo. The outbreak of war could trigger social unrests and tensions in a country like Burkina Faso which have about 3 million nationals in Ivory Coast. Already, the Nigerians living in Ivory Coast have warned the Goodluck Jonathan government against the planned military intervention. Besides, Ivory Coast is not Sierra Leone where ECOMOG could easily remove a coup plotter from power. The Ivorian army, presently loyal to Gbagbo, is not a push over while the fervent nationalist sentiment among a section of the population would make it easy for Gbagbo to mobilize a good number youths, some already organized under the "Young Patriots", to take up arms against foreign forces and occupation. Gbagbo’s popularity among some sections of the population in the south, for instance, rose after the France’s attacks of 2004.
Labour, socialist and pro-working peoples’ organizations in Nigeria and other countries in West Africa should begin to voice and plan mass actions against the planned military interference in Ivorian crisis and also emphatically call for class unity among the working people and the poor of Ivory Coast irrespective of ethic backgrounds, faiths and nationalities.
Even, the "voluntary" exit of Gbagbo is not a guarantee for restoration of a lasting peace. Indeed, the resolution of the stalemate is not currently on the horizon. The option of a power-sharing "unity government" as obtained in similar circumstances in Kenya and Zimbabwe has, so far, been ruled out by the international community. The degeneration into a full scale civil war with active involvement of foreign forces, both orthodox and mercenary, appears to be the next phase of the crisis. This will be a move from fire to hell, already seen in central Africa, for ordinary working people that have already been the worst hit by the years of capitalist neo-liberal attacks and political crisis.
United workers’ movement and democratically elected peoples’ assembly
It is the unity and organisation of the working people that could stop this horror. With the different strikes and mass protests against neo-liberal attacks that working people have waged in the last few years, they have proved they could rise above ethnic and religious divides being exploited by self-serving capitalist ruling elite and get united in fighting for their common interests for a better life. The problem is that it appears there is no central working class movement that could mobilize the mass of Ivorians, workers, farmers and artisans, against xenophobia, ethnic jingoism and war, and organize them as a formidable political movement that could wrest power from all the factions of the capitalist ruling elites who have plunged the country into this abyss of economic and political crises. Hence, there is need for building a genuine united movement of the working people that could also challenge the grip of the imperialism on the economy.
The radical trade unions leaders, left activists and socialists should immediately call a conference for the building of a united workers’ movement that will unite workers, farmers and the poor of all ethnic and religious divides against xenophobia, Ivoirite and ethnic war and mobilise a mass resistance against both ethnic and sectarian clashes and also the possible military intervention being considered by Ecowas. A movement like this could be the basis for the formation of a working peoples’ party, with a socialist programme. In opposition to the manoeuvres and struggles of the rival cliques, working people need their own alternative: the creation of a genuine peoples’ assembly – formed by elected representatives of workers, farmers, traders, professionals and ethnic nationalities – that could form an interim government that would act in the interests of working people and the poor. Such a government would be able to conduct a really free, fresh election, without interference from the pro-capitalist UN, in which a working peoples’ party could campaign on the basis of resistance to neo-liberal capitalist programmes and for a socialist alternative.
Workers, farmers and the poor have to realize that "Ivoirite" and xenophobia are products of the crisis of capitalism that besot the country in the 1990s, and have continued to rise with aggravation of socio-economic problems by anti-poor neo-liberal capitalist agenda supported by all the factions of the ruling elite presently at war. Hence, whoever, between Gbagbo and Ouattara, comes out victorious in this war for political power, workers and the poor in Ivory Coast will discover that their living standards are not fundamentally improved, if do not get worse. This will definitely deepen the social discontent and may open possibilities for a mass struggle and search for alternative that could raise consciousness for socialist alternative in the country.