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Review: Making War in Côte D’Ivoire

Anthropologist Mike McGovern unravels the historical and sociological dynamics underlying the Ivory Coast's politics and past conflicts.
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It has been a little over a year since the Ivory Coast’s long season of division came to an ostensible close, the seminal moment captured in the Reuters photograph featuring a forlorn Laurent Gbagbo sitting on the edge of a bed in the Golf Hotel, soldiers and journalists milling in the background and his wife beside him, slumped and unbelieving.

Gbagbo has since moved on to the Hague where he awaits trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has launched an investigation dating all the way back to September 19, 2002, when rebel forces from the north laid siege to the south in a failed coup that split the country in half. Now come the machinations of blame, the supposed dissolution of impunity, and the barrage of headlines about economic, social and political rehabilitation.

But as per usual, the international justice movement seems rather selective with Gbagbo and his supporters bearing the bulk of the blame while the victor in the war and current president Alassane Ouattara, along with his legitimised rebels, tans himself in the favour of the world. Similarly, militia leader Charles Blé Goudé is a wanted man while his rebel counterpart Guillaume Soro walks along the corridors of power. And sporadic violence continues.

How can blame be apportioned for eight years of dynamic conflict involving dozens of different players on all sides of the fight? And is the fight really over? Or has it just slumped into another of the latent phases that sometimes define conflict in the Ivory Coast? These will be some of the nagging questions as Gbagbo’s trial picks up pace, and Yale anthropologist Mike McGovern sets out to answer them in his 2011 book Making War in Côte D’Ivoire.

McGovern, who was once the International Crisis Group’s West Africa project director, focused his research on the years leading up to the 2010 electoral violence that brought Ouattara to office. Only a post-script actually deals with the four months of intense fighting. Still, McGovern argues that the seeds of the fight were sown at least as far back as Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s decades of one-party rule (1960-1993), if not before in the colonial era.

McGovern focuses on systems and processes – of land use, of entertainment, of ethnicity, of assimilating outsiders, of applied history, education and intergenerational rivalry – to explain the conflict. His analyses are far-reaching. At times, it seems like everyone is complicit – a category of guilt the ICC will never address.

The politics of cocoa

On the surface, and thanks to the self-serving rhetoric of the Ivory Coast’s power players, the conflict seems centred on ethnicity; northerners, often lumped together as Burkinabe, were allegedly barred from the political opportunities enjoyed by the southerners who were billed as the true Ivorians. This is the familiar argument surrounding the infamous Article 35 of the constitution, which barred Ouattara from a shot at the presidency because one of his parents was born outside the country. According to McGovern, however, it all goes back to cocoa.

The cocoa industry is the economic prize at the centre of any conquest for political power in the Ivory Coast. In the colonial era, French land use policy brought labour from Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast. They focused their plantations in the west of the country, which was home to ethnic groups like Wé, Bété and Dan, all of whom were seen as backwards by the French administration. Accordingly, they brought in the eastern Baule, who they admired enough (with due condescension, of course) to work the plantations.

Boigny was Baule. He was a doctor, a cocoa farmer, and a public figure. After decolonisation, his regime maintained close ties to the French and used the ever-blooming cocoa industry as his own personal cash cow, using practices of patronage and pork barrelling – i.e. spending government funds for localised projects primarily to bring money to specific districts or political players – to his advantage. And there was lot of ‘pork’ to slop around. The country produced about 40% of the world’s cocoa, and Boigny used the opaque marketing board to fuel his government. At the same time, he was careful enough to let ordinary Ivorians share in the wealth.

Fissures began to appear in the 1980s when the value of cocoa took a dive. In the 1990s, foreign governments and world lending institutions began putting pressure on the Ivory Coast to open up the industry. This era marked Ouattara’s first appearance on the political scene. A former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Ouattara found himself in the position of prime minister, a post from which he was meant to reform the cocoa industry.

Laurent Gbagbo and the slippery coup of 1999

In 1999, the army led a coup to overthrow Henri Konan Bédié, the Baule president who replaced Boigny after his death in 1993. McGovern frames this moment of violence as the tipping point for the next decade of destabilisation. General Robert Gueï was coaxed out of retirement to lead the new government. It was the general who ushered in Article 35, effectively barring Ouattara and Bédié from presidential elections held in 2000.

That left Laurent Gbagbo, who had been simmering behind the scene for years. McGovern posits that though he despised Boigny and his Francophile tendencies, Gbagbo clearly benefitted from them, both as a darling of the Ivory Coast’s economic advantage (he was an educated and successful history teacher) and again as an exiled political agitator living in France. He won the election, and violence broke out between Boigny/Bédié’s Parti Démocratique de Côte D’Ivoire (Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast) and Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivorien (Ivorian Popular Front), and again between Gbagbo’s supporters and those of Ouattara’s Rassemblement des Républicains (Rally of the Republicans).

Two years later, northern rebels, some of whom had been exiled to Burkina Faso, tried to overthrow the government, and Gueï and his family were killed by unknown assailants during the battle. The country was split in two, setting the scene for a long period of occasional violent outbursts, bloody clashes between Gbagbo’s government and the French, and, after years of delays, the 2010 election that sparked renewed atrocities and brought Ouattara to his current position as president.

The kids aren’t alright

McGovern explores a galaxy of socio-economic systems swirling behind the headlines depicting the Ivory Coast to the world. A key contributor to the country’s problems was its young people. Ivorians have long benefitted from robust education, and many of them attended post-secondary classes in Abidjan where they were exposed to the intense student politics of the Féderation Estudiantine et Scolaire de Côte D’Ivoire. Interestingly, the federation was at different times headed by both Goudé and Soro, who were even roommates at one point (one of many contradictions and ironies McGovern underscores throughout his book to enforce the idea that various agents used the politics of division pragmatically to gain popularity).

Highly-educated and politically-engaged, not to mention often poisoned by the toxic and hyper-partisan Ivorian press, these young people would return home to their villages bitter about the country’s dwindling job prospects and politicised against the stranger-class that settled in the west to work the cocoa plantations. McGovern points out here an added layer of tension, this one between young people and their older family members, a sort of intergenerational rivalry in which the youth were too impatient to wait for the spoils of senior life.

Meanwhile, in Abidjan, the young patriots in the years of Gbagbo’s presidency were galvanised by anti-French and anti-foreigner rhetoric. In November 2004, after Gbagbo tried to reclaim the north and his forces bombarded a peacekeepers’ barracks killing nine French nationals and one American, the West retaliated by destroying Ivorian planes and helicopters. The move inspired three days of rioting in which French and European nationals were beaten, raped and terrorised, though not murdered. In response, the French opened fire on a group of protestors, killing 20 by their count and 64 by Gbagbo’s. Violence of that kind was also regularly directed by Gbago’s forces at those people thought to be northerners or Burkinabe.

McGovern explains this kind of mentality as play, defining the term in anthropological terms. Everything was cartoonish, not least the firebrand speeches by the likes of Goudé which were woven with humour in a style that McGovern suggests lifted participants out of reality, allowing them, and the conflict in general to unravel for years, characterised by sudden explosions of violence followed, almost immediately, by long periods of calm. He also explains how this dynamic was mirrored in the culture of Coupé-Decalé, the Ivory Coast’s mega-popular war-time music movement.

The stranger at the door

Another key backdrop to the conflict is the socio-political traditions surrounding hosts and strangers. Going back far enough in history, even people of the same ethnicity living in villages a few kilometres apart were considered strangers. There was and is a constantly evolving and highly detailed structure of relations between strangers and hosts, and one of its central facets was that strangers were not allowed to participate in local politics, even if inter-marriage remained possible.

The colonial and Boigny’s strategy of re-settling the west of the Ivory Coast smothered these traditions because strangers quickly outnumbered their hosts. McGovern points out that, by 1998, over 80% of the inhabitants in Gbagbo’s home region of Gban were outsiders, a phenomenon which had obvious impacts on politics, and one that was reflected in Front Populaire Ivorien policy.

When, in 1990, the Ivory Coast was pressured to relinquish one-party politics, Boginy was ready for the election, in which he beat Gbagbo by winning nearly 82% of the vote. Having staked himself as the father of the Ivorian economic miracle, Boigny courted the stranger vote to boost his Parti Démocratique de Côte D’Ivoire. He extended voting and land rights to Malians and the Burkinabe who had benefited from his land use policies.

After his death in '93, when Ouattara and Bédié were struggling for the top job, Ouattara took the northern vote with him almost overnight when his Rassemblement des Républicains splintered off the stump of the Parti Démocratique de Côte D’Ivoire, which managed to keep the Baule vote.

The stage was set for a tense future of ethnic fault-lines, all of which were over-pronounced by politicians.

Going forwards

Gbagbo’s fate at the ICC is obviously punitive. The important questions for the Ivory Coast’s future regard impunity and the factors that propelled it beyond the brink in 2010.

On impunity, a lot remains unresolved. Ouattara’s government may pay lip service to reconciliation, inviting exiles back into the country and preaching a conciliatory rhetoric. But his crackdowns on the pro-Gbagbo press were a problem throughout 2011. Meanwhile, pro-Ouattara players have not been brought to task for their roles in massacres committed during the conflict.

Ouattara is trying to reform the cocoa sector. There’s a new marketing board, but producers have been complaining about the endurance of the same extortionist roadblocks used throughout the country’s crisis years.

It is also unlikely that bitter memories existing in the massacre-riddled west or along the once-bloodied streets of Abidjan are put to rest just because IMF and UN money are flowing into the country. McGovern points to the agitating role played by enterprising middlemen, at least one of whom, Denis Maho, still rides high.

When McGovern first completed his book, the November 2010 climax of the Ivorian crisis was just about to take place. At that time, he referred to the country’s existence since 2002 as a war that hadn’t happened, a limbo of neither peace nor conflict, but a twisting continuum of both. Today’s situation is certainly not the same as then. The country is no longer physically divided; the politics, despite a boycott by Gbagbo’s party in last year’s legislative elections, are not as explosive.

Still, many of the causal factors outlined by McGovern exist today. But institutions do not have the scope to blame and punish factors like that. Such factors are both historical and sociological, existing forever, permanently in the past and variously in the present and future. What is important now is that today’s players, regardless of how yesterday’s fare at the ICC, exercise caution in their remembrance.

Corrections 30/5/2012: Laurent Gbagbo was photographed in the Golf Hotel Abidjan, not the presidential palace. Mike McGovern worked for International Crisis Group, not International Crisis Centre. Félix Houphouët-Boigny won almost 82% of the vote in the 1990 presidential elections, rather than barely winning. Alassane Ouattara's cocoa reforms have already been announced and are not due for announcement next month. Denis Maho was arrested on 5 December 2011 and therefore is no longer riding high. The UN Operation in Côte D'Ivoire (UNOCI) has not ended. It currently comprises almost 11,000 uniformed personnel and its current authorisation, which can be extended, lasts until 31 July 2012.

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