REVIEW: Article

Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire: The Need for a New and Coherent US - Africa Policy

A number of American diplomats, especially those who have specialized in Africa, have been concerned about the current state of affairs in Côte d’Ivoire and about the role, if any, that the United States (US) might play in this tenuous situation. Their attention was recently drawn to the cryptic declaration of French President Jacques Chirac, who during a brief visit to Senegal, observed that as far as the political situation in Côte d’Ivoire and its implications for France: “…[T]he situation is clear. We will do what we are asked. If people want us to stay, then we will stay. If they don’t want us to stay, then we will leave.”  He later added, “If the United Nations asks France’s Unicorn Force to stay, we will examine that request positively but only on the condition that the African leaders ask for it,” meaning of course, the Ivorian government.

It is intriguing to contemplate that the short-lived but intense flare-up in violence could cause France to have serious doubts about how to proceed in Côte d’Ivoire, the most important of its former African colonies. It is even more intriguing to consider that this flare-up, if taken seriously, might have important implications for Franco-African relations and might provide the United States with an opportunity to revolutionize its policy towards Africa.  I have always argued that, except for Thomas Jefferson’s decision to send United States Marines to confront the pirates “on the shores of Tripoli,” the US has almost instinctively shied away from dealing directly with Africa. The result has been problematic and troubling.

The most recent instance of this has been our policy towards the Sudan and Darfur. Perhaps we were embarrassed by the charges that we might have permitted “genocide” in Rwanda when we used the humiliating spectacle of “Black Hawk Down” in the streets of Mogadishu as an excuse for abandoning our efforts to help Somalia. Our actions to encourage the African Union (AU) to help resolve the problems in the Sudan and Darfur may well lead to a new Afrocentric policy by the State Department. Because the US has insisted that Americans not be charged with genocide before the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, we seem to prefer that the AU be given the opportunity to deal with Darfur.  If this happens, the US might provide the AU with a most important gift: the ability to deal with Africa’s biggest problem, that is, instability in its new and fragile nation states.

The ethnic conflict now facing Côte d’Ivoire, like those facing many African societies conquered by Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, is largely the precipitate of colonialism, and the chaotic decolonization that took placing during the Cold War. One result of the pax europeanensis was the increase in the colonies when the Europeans permitted and encouraged the flow of persons to areas targeted for economic development.  They not only brought different groups together within colonies, they even dismembered neighboring colonies to get the labor they desired. Unfortunately, the French colonial regime (falsely called a “colonial state”) fostered allegiance to the “metropole,” and exacerbated rather than facilitated local loyalties to the emerging socio-economic and ultimately political units. The result was that, as in Côte d’Ivoire, when the colony moved towards independence, the component ethnic groups not only competed for power, but also used the East-West struggle in their drive for “political independence” or “international sovereignty” as the Europeans preferred to call it.[1]        

The problem for most of the colonies was that ethnic strife increased as they were integrated into their respective “metropoles,” components of the world capitalist system.[2]  In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, the French were so anxious to exploit its resources that after first utilizing the coastal acephalous populations in the colony for that purpose, they later tapped the peoples in the Sudan-Sahelian regions. The northerners were Mande-speaking peoples from the former Mali Empire, and the neighboring populous Mossi kingdoms. The Mossi population of what was then called Upper Volta was considered “a reservoir of manpower.” In 1912, the French recruited thousands of men for forced labor. By 1922, “they recruited 2,000 for work in Côte d’Ivoire, [with] renewal every six months.” An early report declared: “For the railroads of the Ivory Coast, Mossi country is tapped. The woodcutters leave their lagoons and tap the Mossi.”[3] As a result, the northerners formed an important part of the 60 or more ethnic groups that would create the Ivorian “miracle”—a region made rich by the export of timber, coffee, cocoa, bananas and other tropical products.

While earlier French economic activity was centered in the forest region, by 1936 Abidjan on the coast had a growing population of some 17,500 persons. Lacking an opening to the Atlantic, the French took advantage of World War II and a dictatorial Vichy government to build the Vridi Canal, linking Abidjan to the sea. The northerners played an important role in building both the canal and Abidjan, which by the war’s end became the Mecca for most migrants to Côte d’Ivoire. Those persons who had settled in shacks in the canal area were soon joined by thousands of former plantation workers who erected shacks (bidonvilles) in unoccupied areas. They all started to find employment with the French and Lebanese in the emerging capital. With relatively secure status many migrants received wives from home and sent their children to schools where they learned some French, but became fluent in Dyula, a Mande-based lingua franca from northern Côte d’Ivoire. Incidentally, Islam became the religion of an increasingly multi-ethnic population.

The Cold War and the decolonization of Africa brought important changes to Côte d’Ivoire. Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who emerged as head of Baule-speaking African coffee farmers, formed the Syndicat Agricole Africain, in 1944, to compete with French planters for migrant labor. His cooperation with Communist deputies in Paris forced the colonial administration to ease the lot of African laborers and quadruple wages. Houphouet-Boigny traveled north to encourage laborers to migrate to Côte d’Ivoire. Initially, the migrants were no more than interested spectators when Houphouet-Boigny founded the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI), but they supported him when he associated with the African Democratic Rally (RDA). When France recreated the Upper Volta to punish Houphouet-Boigny and to please the northerners, many migrants faced a new crisis of what the whites called “nationality.” But their immediate status was not affected because Houphouet-Boigny welcomed them to the country. Later Houphouet-Boigny broke with the Communists, appealed for and received support of all residents on the basis of mutual and local interests in Côte d’Ivoire.

With the growth of the “Ivorian miracle,” the inhabitants of Côte d’Ivoire envisioned a bright future. Foreign capital, including American, flowed in, and French, Lebanese and a few Ivorian entrepreneurs prospered. The Ivorians encouraged migration from the north, but the potential migrants, who still feared forced labor, took wives with them and headed for Abidjan rather than the plantations.[4] The newcomers worked in small enterprises, and youngsters eagerly apprenticed themselves to craftsmen, ignoring the French penchant for professional certificates.

Trouble first appeared when young educated Ivorians suddenly evicted persons of Dahomey and Togo origin, who had left French employment, became local government functionaries, and moved into the private sector.[5] Houphouet-Boigny objected to the pogroms and most northerners kept their largely unskilled jobs. Nevertheless, local recessions began to affect the status and identity of many migrants from the north of Côte d’Ivoire. Concerned about stability in his country, Houphouet-Boigny insisted that all of the inhabitants of Côte d’Ivoire were eligible for membership in the PDCI.[6] He advised them to respect traditional leaders but advised all persons to vote so that Côte d’Ivoire could participate in the affairs of the country and of the French Republic. Many of these people went to the airport to greet Houphouet-Boigny, with the assent of France, when he returned from Paris in 1960 bringing “independence” with him. 

Houphouet-Boigny strongly supported France’s links with the United States in opposition to the Soviet Union during much of the Cold War. Faced with the debacle at Dien Bien Phu, and the disastrous Algerian war, the French elected Charles de Gaulle to power. De Gaulle sought but failed to get help from the US to save Indo-China but then attempted to save the French empire in Africa, by creating a French community. He lost the support of Sekou Toure in Guinea, but persuaded the US to encourage Liberia to send arms to Guinea, bereft of all arms. Houphouet-Boigny persuaded the people of Upper Volta, Dahomey, Togo and Niger to create a “Council of Understanding” so that they could accede to international sovereignty without disrupting economic relationships with France and the West.

The independence of much of Africa brought problems to France and the United States, which still supported British and Portuguese colonial rule in southern Africa and South Africa’s apartheid policy. Meanwhile independent African states vowing the end of European rule in any part of the continent created the Organization of African Unity (OAU).  Houphouet-Boigny’s loyalty to France and the United States frustrated the total Pan-Africanist goals of persons such as Kwame Nkrumah. The citizens of New York marveled when they witnessed Felix Houphouet-Boigny with the French delegation at the United Nations in New York, while Sekou Toure of Guinea and Fidel Castro of Cuba visited and lived with them in Harlem.

Unfortunately for Houphouet-Boigny, emerging ethnic conflict in his home country began to sour. Many Ivorian-born people in foreign countries, or “strangers” as they were called, were coming of age, and were torn between their new homeland, and their land of origin.  Some of these youngsters preferred to speak Dyula, the northern lingua franca, rather than the languages of their parents. Houphouet-Boigny encouraged this youthful assimilation by insisting that persons born in Côte d’Ivoire were “Ivorian.” He de-emphasized ethnic association and residential segregation by creating non-ethnic ward structures within the towns. He even discussed the possibility of dual citizenship for persons who were either born or resident in Côte d’Ivoire.

This situation changed dramatically when ethnic-based political conflicts broke out in neighboring countries. With the support of France and the United States, however, Houphouet-Boigny remained calm. Nevertheless, increasing signs of economic malaise in Côte d’Ivoire created problems. Many Ivorians in Abidjan from the forest belt began to insist on “jobs in their own country.” Conditions worsened with the “Ivorianization” of both the public and private sectors, and bankrupt European entrepre­neurs departed. The growth of the number of Ivorians, sans travail, now led to labor unrest.[7] And while initially Ivorian officials refused to support opposition to the “foreigners,”[8] some, like the Municipality of Abidjan, undertook to deport many unemployed “northerners.” Then, as the economic situation worsened in the 1970s and 1980s, the code word “foreigners” was often used in newspaper articles dealing with criminals.

The US grew uneasy with the increasing conflict in the country but looked to France to maintain order and to guide its own African policy. It supported Houphouet-Boigny’s policy during the Biafran conflict in Nigeria, and encouraged his policy toward the Portuguese in Africa. The US also encouraged Houphouet-Boigny to temporize with white South Africa in the hope of changing the hostile attitude of his neighbors against Pretoria, going so far as to invite Afrikaner leaders to visit Abidjan while ignoring the growing regional support for Nelson Mandela. These policies helped him to stave off the worst effects of the economic crisis in the country, helped along by the support of inter-national organizations such as the newly established African Development Bank in Abidjan.

However, it was the increasing economic malaise in Côte d’Ivoire—now complicated by the various political factions—that set the stage for Houphouet-Boigny’s eventual retirement. Not only was there competition for the declining number of jobs, but also political groups and persons began jockeying for power. Regional groupings and even different generations (or age-grades) began to organize for power, and while Houphouet-Boigny finally legalized political opposition in 1990, he sought preference for his own “Baule” ethnic group when the PDCI won the country’s first multi-party presidential election. His major opponent was a university professor, Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), largely supported by the ethnic groups of the southeastern region.  However, when Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993, a fellow Baule, Henri Konan Bedie, became President.

The problem of citizenship status and the issue of succession complicated the presidency of Bedie. He supported the notion of Ivoirité, a trait-complex, deemed characteristic of persons of Middle and Southern Ivorian origin. Bedie also supported a movement within the PDCI-dominated National Assembly to impose a grandfather clause in the new electoral code (December 8, 1994) requiring that both parents of candidates be of Ivoirian origin. These measures created such political conflict in the country that opposition parties boycotted the election in October 1995, in which Bedie was re-elected.  His nationality clause had directly affected Alassane Ouattara, who had accepted Houphouet-Boigny’s request to leave his position at the International Monetary Fund to become Prime Minister. Ironically, Ouattara’s problem was created when he accepted an American scholarship given to West Africans. He, the US, and Côte d’Ivoire ignored as irrelevant the movements of African youngsters whose parents had migrated as a result of official policies to use their labor.

Alassane Ouattara’s decision to challenge Bedie divided the country along ethnic and religious lines. Conflict ensued when Bedie was overthrown in a military coup led by Robert Guei and fled to France. Then, in October 2000, Guei proclaimed himself President, but Laurent Gbagbo, claiming that he was the true winner, overthrew Guei and proclaimed himself President. The clause preventing Alassane Ouattara from running in a fresh election led to conflict between Gbagbo’s mainly southern Christian supporters and Ouattara’s mostly northern Muslims. President Gbagbo’s FPI emerged as the biggest single party in parliamentary elections, but after increasing conflict President Gbagbo and opposition leader Ouattara met and agreed to seek reconciliation.

Unfortunately, despite calls for reconciliation in the country, reports of child slavery on cocoa plantations strained relations between the government and the international community. And when Ouattara’s party gained a majority in local elections there were calls for new presidential and legislative elections. In June 2001, Amnesty International condemned the government for its reported human rights abuses during the former presidential election campaign. President Gbagbo established a National Reconciliation Forum, but General Guei refused to attend. During the resulting confusion Alassane Ouattara returned to Abidjan from a year-long exile in France and Gabon, and the government granted his party four ministerial posts in the new government. This gesture did not bring peace because shortly afterwards young soldiers revolted over dissatisfaction with their pay. Full-scale rebellion broke out when the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement rebels seized control of the north.

By the beginning of January 2003, Côte d’Ivoire was in chaos, alarming the US and others in the international community. These conditions led President Gbagbo to accept an invitation to go to France to negotiate with the rebels the Linas-Marcoussi Accord. Under its terms, the former rebels, now known as the New Forces, agreed to enter the government. The problem was that the New Forces continued to control the northern part of the country above Bouaké. They also controlled the cities of Man and Danane, close to the Liberian border. The hope was that this power-sharing agreement would satisfy all of the competing elements.

After Marcoussi, it was expected that Seydou Diarra, a former Prime Minister, would be able to form a consensus cabinet, and in May 2003, everyone agreed to a ceasefire ending the rebellion. Chaos resurfaced when a group of suspected mercenaries and supporters were apprehended and detained in France on allegations of planning to assassinate President Gbagbo. As a consequence, the rebels withdrew from the unity government and violence ensued in December of that same year. 

The growing conflict in Côte d’Ivoire posed a serious problem for the Ivorians, the French and the international community, including the US. The United Nations (UN) responded by deploying peacekeeping forces in the region, but this did not prevent local inhabitants, especially those in Abidjan, from attacking the French and foreign whites. This chaotic situation led Gbagbo to order the Ivorian air force to attack the rebels. In the resulting fracas, the Ivorian air force allegedly killed a number of people including nine French soldiers. The French retaliated by destroying the Ivorian air force, and this led to violent assaults on the French and whites throughout Abidjan. France persuaded the UN to impose an arms embargo to halt the carnage.

This conjunction of the French, the UN, and the US to restore order in Abidjan, largely to protect the whites, led many Ivorians to believe that these actions were an alliance of outsiders against them.  Many local leaders criticized the US, the UN, and the French for preventing them from resolving their problems. Appeals were made to the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) and the AU to help bring about peace.  Ironically, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa played an important role in this process, thereby highlighting the unfortunate role that Houphouet-Boigny had played in the liberation of South Africa. As of now, the various opposing factions in Côte d’Ivoire cannot agree about proposals for peace being offered to them by ECOWAS and the AU. 

The US is apparently supporting ECOWAS and the AU in their attempts to bring peace.  Various meetings hosted by ECOWAS and envoys, such as President Mbeki, have so far failed to achieve this end. Gbagbo now hopes that the elections in October 2005, agreed to in the Marcoussi Accord, might bring peace. Unfortunately, the rebels are insisting that they be given important ministerial positions before they agree to any further negotiation. It is this stalemate that led President Jacques Chirac to declare: “For France, the situation is clear. We will do what we are asked. If people want us to stay, then we will stay. If they don’t want us to stay, then we will leave.” Gbagbo, for his part, would prefer not to seek France’s departure, however, the sentiment among many Ivorians is that the time has come for them to run their own affairs. 

It is surprising that the French government has reached this conclusion about its closest and most prosperous friend in Africa. It is also lamentable that the US never really attempted to develop an Afrocentric policy of its own. For the US, this debacle in Côte d’Ivoire demonstrates, in all of its pathos, the lack of a coherent policy in dealing with Africa in the face of an emerging reality.  France’s position in Côte d’Ivoire must now be viewed against the backdrop of the growth of the EU and the decision of the Europeans to carve out new space in a world in which they are no longer the hegemon. True, the US would like to put the unpleasantness attending the crisis in Iraq behind it, but the emerging global system should be handled carefully.  Not only are the African states faced with the problem of national integration as they attempt to build viable polities out of their past colonial status, but they will need all the help they can receive to overcome centuries of “under-development” or as I prefer to say, “mal-development,” as they were integrated into the economies of their “metropoles.” Those links are posing a problem for contemporary Africans seeking to transform loyalties of ethnic groups to the nation states.

The US also is facing the necessity of transforming its relationship with the fragile African nation states, attempting to meld their ethnic groups with economic realities.  Apropos of this, its difficulties with Sudan represent an unhealthy confluence of that country’s attempt to create a viable nation state in the face of competition between ethnic groups, which earlier used the same ecosystem in a peaceful manner. The need of the emerging Sudanese state for oil resources in the areas still inhabited by ethnic groups, which formerly were able to live in peace, is a case in point.[9] Sudan needs the oil resources that were not part of the political economy of its traditional ethnic groups, which now find themselves in conflict with each other when in an earlier period they lived in relative harmony. The result of these new pressures on the Sudan has led to ethnic violence between ethnic groups, which were normally peaceful.  What is unfortunate is that a world community that abhors the violence among the Sudanese ethnic groups has globalized this local conflict. Sudan needs to sell oil to China, which in turn is protecting it against charges of genocide. Similarly, it was America’s desire to help stop ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, generated by groups faced with new socio-economic and political problems, that led to trials at The Hague.

Whether it is in Serbia, Somalia or Rwanda, where traditional ethnic groups are faced with the prospect of having to develop viable relations with each other in their now common state, there will be conflict as a result of competition. The US understandably refuses to have its citizens, who get involved in these local conflicts, tried by international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, whose legitimacy and efficacy it questions and does not trust. It is my contention that since the major need in contemporary Africa is to create loyalty between its ethnic groups and its weak states, we should encourage regional entities, such as ECOWAS and the AU, to tackle what we often perceive as parochial problems. The result will not only prevent the US from getting involved in problems which it does not completely understand, but as in the case of Côte d’Ivoire, it can enable Africans to continue dealing with their own problems.  After all, in this era of global inter-relationships, “African solutions to African problems” can only work if Africans receive global support, facilitated by the United States.

The author wishes to thank Ambassador Theodore R. Britton, Jr. for his careful reading and commentary on this article. In addition, the author’s assistant, IfeanyiChukwu Egbuniwe, helped track down valuable information. Any errors are the author’s own.

[1] The author did fieldwork among the Mossi people of then Upper Volta in 1955-1956, served as United States Ambassador to Upper Volta/Burkina Faso from 1966-1969. He also did fieldwork among the Mossi in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in 1986 as a Distinguished Fulbright Professor.

[2] Immanuel Wallerstein, Africa and the Modern World., Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1986, pp. 101 ff.

[3] Albert Londres, Terre d’Ebene (La traite des Noires)., Paris: Albin Michel, 1919, pp. 126 ff.

[4] Alain Bonnassieux, “De Dendraka a Vridi-Canal,” These de Doctorat de troisième cycle sous la direction de Monsieur le Professeur Balandier, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Centre d’Etudes Africaines, 1982, p. 23.

[5] Elliott P. Skinner, “Strangers in West African Societies,” Africa., Volume 33, No. 4, 1963.

[6] Aristedes Zolberg, Creating Political Order., Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966.

[7] Michael A. Cohen, Urban Policy and Political Conflict in Africa: A Study of the Ivory Coast., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974, pp. 73-74.

[8] Ibid., pp. 105 ff.

[9] Elliott P. Skinner, Peoples and Cultures of Africa., American Museum of Natural History [by] Natural History Press; First Edition, 1973. See also, Talal Asad, “The Seasonal Movement of the Kababish Arabs of Northern Kordofan,” in Sudan Notes and Records., 1964, Volume 45, pp. 45-58. See also, Frederick Barth, “The Settlement of the Nomads as a Development Policy,” (in Arabic), Sudan Society., 1963, No. 2.

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United States Ambassador to Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), 1966-1969