Côte d’Ivoire: Social revolts shake Ouattara regime

Public sector strike and soldiers’ mutiny expose reality behind “economic growth”. 
Côte d’Ivoire is currently going through a period of heavy social turmoil. The year had started well for the ruling regime, with the anouncement of an expected 8 % GDP growth for 2017 (the highest in Africa this year), and the formation of a new government. This was the first government under the brand new “Third Republic” after the adoption of a new Constitution in November 2016.

Côte d’Ivoire is currently going through a period of heavy social turmoil. The year had started well for the ruling regime, with the anouncement of an expected 8 % GDP growth for 2017 (the highest in Africa this year), and the formation of a new government. This was the first government under the brand new “Third Republic” after the adoption of a new Constitution in November 2016.

However, as usual, the regime took its “successes” for granted while under the surface, unrest was boiling. A sudden mutiny among the army and a public sector general strike are but the latest signs of how explosive the situation has become.

Rebellion by a fraction of the army

When Ouattara gathered an army based on Northern poor farmers and craftsmen led by newly risen warlords to help him kick the then President, Gbagbo, out of power, he allegedly promised them $10.000  each, though no written word exists of that agreement. In 2014 already, a surprise mutiny spread to every barracks in the country and soldiers were seen marching in the streets in Bouaké and Abidjan.

This year again, ex-rebel soldiers have risen to demand the payment of their war money, as well as better living conditions. What is surprising is the speed at which the movement, starting in Bouaké on 6 January at 7 am, has spread throughout the whole country that very same morning.

Even though backstage deals are not excluded, it appears that this movement is essentially an uprising of the poorest and most downtrodden layers of a ragtag army, angry at being forgotten by their leaders who have enriched themselves. Even though the mutineers have stolen property, they have mostly targeted signs of wealth and privilege such as expensive cars, etc. While civilians were left unhurt, the army chiefs and the Defense Minister were taken hostages. This was essentially a class revolt inside the army.

Despite the war crimes committed by some of those ex-rebels during the Ivorian civil war, we have to understand that those young people are essentially victims of the system and of false promises of happiness once the war would be over and their masters in power. Many were fighting for the “dignity of the North”, but realise now that they have been fooled : indeed, the Northern bourgeois, just like their Southern brethren, still do not see any interest in investing outside of the capital Abidjan. Moreover, the regime’s antisocial policies have hit the Northern people hard, such as the bulldozing of small, informal shops from the market areas, etc.

The government was forced to agree to a deal after only two days. Soon it was announced that the mutinous soldiers would get their due bonuses, and that the country was “back to safety”. But this was only the beginning. Soon, other sections of the army started demanding money themselves. The lesson of the mutiny was clear for all to see : the governement has money, but won’t share it unless it is forced to do so.

The Ivorian army is deeply divided between diverse factions of ex-fighters. In 2011, the national army under Gbagbo was fused with the “Forces nouvelles” rebel army, despite the fact these forces had fought each other for 8 years. The Gbagbo loyalists in the army feel that they too deserve something for having fought for the defense of the State at that time. Hence, soon the gendarmes (military police) and policemen blocked Abidjan harbour and other cities for a day with their own demands, and the ex-rebels who had already got their share were used to repel them.

Last week also saw movements from the prison guards. Customs officers have also threatened strike action, and most recently, on Monday, 600 firefighters marched through the streets of Abidjan chanting “Président, voleur! Ministres, voleurs!” (the President and Ministers are thieves !).

The strike in the public sector

The movement which is hitting the public sector also shows a new determination from the workers to fight and get organized for their demands. It also reflects the general thirst for more democracy.

Public sector workers have been demanding the payment of unpaid wages due since at least 2009, worth a total of €380 million. A movement had already been initiated in 2013, but it was very disorganized and did not bring much. Also, the workers were divided and easily fooled by promises of “talks” with the government which were only used to delay and tire the strikers.

But now, a new movement has been sparked by the implementation of a new pension law that aims to increase the retirement age by 5 years, cut retirement benefits by half, and increase the taxes taken from workers’ wages in order to pay for their pension. The reform also states that if a worker dies, then his spouse won’t get access to his/her retirement benefits before the actual age of retirement (that is, until the corpse itself turns 65).

In a country that purportedly has the highest growth rate in Africa, public sector workers cannot understand why they cannot get their share of this new prosperity. What is the economic growth for if the people don’t see any improvement in their living conditions?

Teachers are also enraged at a decision by the Minister of Education that classes shoud be given on Wednesdays in primary schools. Until now, Wednesdays had been a day off, although many teachers use this to give paid “reinforcement” classes to students. The reform was announced through the newspapers barely two days before the end of the holidays, so no time was given at all for the teachers to prepare for new courses’ program. Teachers are also losing money, since the paid “reinforcement” classes are replaced by official public work, but without any pay rise.

This time, the strike has been united across the public sector: teachers, nurses, and public administration workers are all together in one movement. All decisions are taken during general assemblies of workers’ representatives, held in university lecture halls. The government has done everything to force the union leaders to call off the strike (including promises of opening “talks” once the strike ceases, or organizing a “social forum” at the end of February), but this time it has not worked: the leaders are bound by the decisions of the assembly. The workers have also set up successful platforms on social media which they use to publish pictures, reports and opinions about the strike and debate amongst each other.

When the mutinying soldiers received millions which were owed to them by the regime for years, this had the effect of increasing the workers’ resolve to get their own demands satisfied.

Since then, the regime has resorted to dirty tactics to artificially put an end to the strike, including, incredibly, the abduction of union leaders, who were physically threatened by government forces on Sunday with the aim of forcing them to publicly call off the strike on the national television. This only made public workers even more furious.

This shows that the government is desperate to get back a semblance of control over the situation. It knows that conceding anything to public sector workers will only encourage further other sections of society to step forward and demand their share in turn. This is why the situation is very volatile at the moment and could lead to virtually anything in the coming days, including a possible intervention by French troops which are permanently stationed in Abidjan.

At the same time, public school students have launched their own strike to protest against the fact that schools have been closed for three weeks, asking the government to meet the teachers’ demands. In several towns and cities, fights are taking place between school students and policemen, and groups of students have also been occupying main roads and bridges. The student union, LIGES, has issued a statement this weekend to support the public sector and the army strike.

Rumours of unrest are also coming from the countryside. Peasants complain that they haven’t managed to sell their cocoa since November, and that their produce has started to rot. Indeed, Côte d’Ivoire ceased exporting cocoa several months ago, in a context where the price to be paid to peasants, itself based on very complex calculations implemented by the government, is higher today than the decreasing prices on the world market. Peasants have been mostly passive these last years, as prices were increasing every year, but they could well too decide that they want their share of the billions that are now being demanded by various sections of society.

Whereas no voice is heard from the “opposition” parties who organize protests only when their own political interests are directly threatened, the CWI’s sympathizers in Côte d’Ivoire have been active in the public sector strike since it started, giving out leaflets which have been very appreciated by the workers, and taking part in talks with the various unions, including student unions. At the moment we are trying to convince trade unionists to stop simply sitting at home but to start an “active” phase of their strike, by organizing public meetings and marches not in the official areas of Abidjan, but in the popular neighbourhoods so as to rally popular support and anger against this government. We also want to spread our own agitation’s material in the streets to raise support for striking workers among the general public.

We also call on public sector workers to support the military strike and vice versa, to understand that they are all victims of the same system of lies and domination. We need the widest front possible against this government, of all those oppressed or cheated by this regime, so as to all get our share of the wealth and growth.

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January 2017