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Chaos in Ivory Coast: Roots and Consequences

Will Ivory Coast’s civil war realign West Africa along ethnic lines?

November 17, 2004

Will Ivory Coast's civil war realign West Africa along ethnic lines?

Back in the fall of 2002, an attempted military coup had failed in Ivory Coast. But — instead of really giving up — the mostly northern army officers retreated and took control of the northern half of the country, while the government held on to the south.

The south has most of the country's wealth, including its lucrative cocoa and coffee plantations, as well as the port of Abidjan which — far beyond Ivory Coast — serves much of French-speaking West Africa.

The French, with about 5,000 soldiers there, managed to stop the renewed government offensive in November 2004, which actually had no chance of succeeding. Unexpectedly, though, the Ivorian government ordered the French military base in Bouake — the rebel capital — to be bombed.

Nine French soldiers were killed and French president Chirac immediately ordered a retaliation that destroyed the tiny Ivorian air force of a few Soviet-era fighters and helicopters, which has been flown by Byelorussian mercenaries without much success against the rebels.

The events in Ivory Coast mark a turning point in West Africa. The roots of the north-south conflict are fairly typical of contemporary Africa. Ivory Coast's northerners are mostly — but far from entirely — Muslim and traditional local religions, with some significant Christian minorities.

The country's southerners are mostly Christian and also adherents of traditional local religions, but a large number of northern Muslims have settled in its main cities and have been working the cocoa and coffee plantations for decades. Both sides have been at odds since the early 1990s.

Ivory Coast once had a booming economy, but a lack of adequate reinvestment in agriculture and mismanagement led to stagnation in the 1980s and 1990s, while the population continued to grow.

In the increased competition for resources, people retreated to their ethnic and regional identities. The southern political elite — which had been running the country since independence — realized that in a free election a northerner might win.

To prevent such an outcome, they disenfranchised northerners, claiming they were all immigrants and not "genuine" Ivorians. They also encouraged southerners to take lands long held — and worked — by northerners in the south.

So, when the military rebels — who received help from neighboring Burkina Faso — retreated to the north in 2002, they found a friendly population. There were massacres of southern civil servants in northern cities and of northerners — in particular of immigrants from Mali and Burkina Faso.

The country was headed for a genocidal war. The French stopped the situation from spinning out of control by inserting their army in late 2002, with U.N. approval.

Why did France take this step? Because Ivory Coast has always been its most important, richest and best ally in Africa — and the linchpin of the French-African quasi-commonwealth.

That commonwealth is critical because it gives France a big voting block in the United Nations and makes French an important international language. Yes, there are some resources at stake, but none that are critically important.

In 2002, France had investments of about $4 billion in Ivory Coast, less than the market value of many of France's large corporations or banks. It was the prestige of being a big international player that most influenced the French decision to try to save Ivory Coast from civil war.

From the start, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo bet that France would ultimately be forced to fight for him to disarm the rebels — something his own army has been incapable of doing.

President Gbagbo has been in power since 2000, following an election in which northerners did not vote and his leading potential opponent was disqualified on the grounds of being a northern "foreigner."

He signed various truce agreements, but never implemented any of them and periodically let loose his thugs — armed young militants from his part of the country — into the streets of Abidjan.

Their mission was to rough up some of the large French community still living there — and also to occasionally massacre northern Ivorians.

Frightening the French was supposed to make them see that they had to destroy the northern rebels. It never worked — and killing French soldiers, plundering French establishments in Abidjan and raping a few Frenchwomen has not made France any friendlier, either.

France cannot take over the country and run it. Few Ivorians actually like them or the wealthy, colonial lifestyle those who had stayed were still living. The country's ethnic divisions are now too severe to heal easily. The economy is going to be in ruins as the French — and eventually the Lebanese, who run much of its commerce — flee.

But if this all happens, France's African commonwealth will disintegrate — and with it, much that is left of France's role as a great international power.

The world will undoubtedly find other sources of chocolate. And if any oil is found off shore, the French oil giant Total — or some other foreign oil company — will figure out a way to secure its drilling platforms and extract the oil by bribing whatever gang rules the coastal area.

More tragically, much of the rest of francophone West Africa, which is much poorer — especially Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — faces economic disaster as well. These countries will no longer be able to export migrants to work in Ivory Coast, or use the port of Abidjan.

If civil war continues in the Ivory Coast, it will spread to neighboring countries that have ethnic groups closely related to the Ivorian ones. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and perhaps even stable Ghana could suffer, as vast numbers of refugees move across borders to flee the war.

But this is the end of an era for other reasons, too. President Gbagbo was once the darling of the French left because he was a "socialist," whom French socialists addressed as "Comrade Gbagbo."

Now he turns out to be just another tribal leader unable to behave with anything close to the required statesmanship. So, this is also one of the last of France's old time heroes from the third left to be exposed.

Then, it turns out that Mrs. Gbagbo — the president's wife, who is known to support the armed gangs and death squads that have done so much damage in Abidjan — is an evangelical Christian. What she really wants is to turn Ivory's internal conflict into a holy war against Muslims.

So far, religion has not played much of a role in Ivory Coast. But if the war continues, it will, since it is an effective way of mobilizing support in both the north and south.

With the probable demise of French influence will come more killing — and more chaos. Ultimately, it will trigger the start of a reorganization of West Africa along more ethnic and religious lines.

This entire process started in Nigeria years ago, but will now spread much farther. This is what France and Kofi Annan — the Ghanaian U.N. Secretary General — are afraid of.

The Ivory Coast, therefore, is not just another little tribal war in the making — but potentially a major catastrophe.