By Wilson Aiwuyor
As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, which is marked on march 8 annually, the news of the March 3 killing of at least six unarmed women protesters in Ivory Coast by forces loyal to the embattled leader Laurent Gbagbo reminds us of the plights that women – and ordinary people – face around the world, particularly in conflict zones in Africa. Ivory Coast (also called Cote d’Ivoire) is now on the brink of a civil war. This situation is about the struggle for a new era of democratic participation and popular sovereignty as much as it is about the struggle against neo-imperial stranglehold. My proposition is that we cannot sacrifice one on the alter of the other.
While the attention of the world was fixated on the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, Ivory Coast degenerated into a tumultuous country, following the disputed presidential elections last December between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Outarra. So far, over 360 people have been killed. Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced amid reports of looting, intimidation, and gross human rights violations. The Gbagbo regime has cut off electricity and water supply to the north, where his rival Outarra draws much of his support. This has brought untold hardship on the people, especially women and children. According to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs, the February 28 cut in service has resulted to a situation where “vaccines are going bad, taps are dry and the families of women in labour are ferrying buckets of water to hospital.”
The current crisis started in December after the second round of presidential contests between Gbagbo and Outara. In the first round of the elections held in October, Gbagbo (of the Ivorian People’s Front) obtained 38.04% of the votes while Ourtarra (of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire) received 32.07%, and Henri Konan Bédié polled 25.24%. During the second round, Bédié supported Outtara, and the result released by the country’s electoral commission declared Outarra winner with 55.16% of the votes against Gbagbo’s 44.8%. This result was acknowledged by election observers from the African Union, UN, the EU, and the entire international community. Laurent Gbagbo rejected the outcome, and has since refused to step down. The West Africa regional body, ECOWAS, has mounted pressure on him to relinquish power. It has imposed economic sanctions on the country and even threatened the use of “legitimate force” as a last resort against Gbagbo. There have also been sanctions by the US and the EU against members of the Gbagbo regime.
Gbagbo has remained defiant to, not only to the sanctions but also to series of diplomatic missions from the ECOWAS, the AU, and the UN mediating the dispute.
There have been reports that Gbagbo’s government has employed propaganda, intimidation, violence, and that he has whipped up xenophobia, religious, and sectarian sentiments to manipulate the people, especially youths in the southern part of the country, in order to maintain his stay in power. Thugs backed up by security forces have looted properties of opposition politicians, attacked UN peacekeepers, and threatened away some AU mediators from the country. There are fears that situation is escalating into a civil war between the north and south of the country.
Claims and Counterclaims
The crisis has now reinforced the country’s north-south divide and the politics of identity and citizenship which were among issues that had resulted to an initial civil war in 2002. Gbagbo and his supporters claim that Outarra, who has worked at International Monetary Fund (IMF), is an agent of the IMF and Western/French neo-imperialism. They maintain that Outarra used his Western influence to rig the elections in order to derail the effort by the Gbagbo regime to delink itself from France’s neocolonial stranglehold. They have also linked the country’s 1999 and 2002 coups to Outarra and his French enablers.
On the other hand, Outarra’s loyalists accuse Gbagbo and his followers of engaging in politics of exclusion, whipping up xenophobia, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments to accentuate the north-south division in the country and deny northern Ivoirians their citizenship and political rights. This division is backed up by the political/cultural ideology known as Ivoirité.
Ivoirité, Citizenship, and Democratic Rights
The concept of Ivoirité refers to Ivoirian national identity or ivoirianess and what it takes to be an original citizen of Ivory Coast. Developed by one Professor Niangoran Porquet in the 1970s, Ivoirité was later exploited by politicians to accentuate ethic cum cultural differences. Ivoirité questions the Ivoirianess of many of the 5 million Ivorian citizens in then mainly Muslim north, whose ancestry were in full or part traced to migrant workers from neighboring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. Ivoirité was manipulated to question these people’s ivoirianess, even though they were born in Ivory Coast and had hitherto had national identity cards and had been allowed to exercise their citizenship right to vote. These northern citizens were thus considered to be less Ivoirian than their southern compatriots. In 1995 and in 2000, when Alassane Outarra attempted to contest for the office of president, Ivoirité was used as a basis for his disqualification. He was said to be having “suspicious nationality,” as one of his parents was from Burkina Faso. This was despite the fact that he had served as an Ivoirian cabinet minister before.
This north-south division and exclusion was among the factors that plunged the country into a civil war between the rebel led north and the central government in 2002. This was after Gbagbo won an election in 2000 whose legitimacy was contested. The intervention of ECOWAS, the AU, and the UN ensured that an agreement – the Ouagadougou Accord – was signed among the warring parties in 2007. After frequent postponement of elections, the 2010 polls were overseen by Gbagbo who had already served a 10 year period of an extended presidency. Some analysts have dismissed Gbagbo’s claim that Outarra rigged the 2010 polls. It is widely believed that Gbagbo’s underlying reason for clinging to power is the political ideology of Ivoirité, according to which Outarra is a symbol of French/Western neo-colonialism, and is not Ivorian enough to be president.
Democracy above Strongmen and beyond Elections
Both Gbagbo and Outarra belong to what the Ghanaian born economist, George Ayittey, call the Hippo Generation. The Hippo Generation of leaders in Africa is stuck with the old rhetoric and deformed ideas of leadership and governance. It is the Cheetah generation – the new generation – that can fix Ivory Coast and transform Africa. The struggle in Ivory Coast should not been seen merely as a struggle between Gbagbo and Ouatarra. It is rather a struggle to ascertain who decides the future of the country – the Hippo or the Cheetah generation? It is a struggle to determine whether popular sovereignty or the power to determine the destiny of the country should be wielded by the people or by strongmen or leaders who manipulate the people for selfish political ends.
Both Outtara and Gbagbo represent the brand of African leaders whose stranglehold the younger generation of Africans must get rid of, as being done in Egypt. But the project of freeing the continent of such men must involve a democratic process that upholds the will of the people. This process cannot be guaranteed in Ivory Coast by tolerating Gbagbo to establish himself as a strongman who undermines democratic values, disregard regional framework for democracy, devaluing life by using state security apparatus to kill innocent citizens and eliminate women who are asserting their rights to peaceful protest. This process cannot be achieved by leaders who whip up xenophobic, sectarian, and religious sentiments.
Outtara is accused of being closely associated with politicians and corporations in France as well as with the IMF and World Bank, whose policy dictates most Ivoirians and Africans consider imperialistic and anti-people. France has historically manipulated the pseudo-solidarity of Francophone to accentuate the division of the West African sub-region between French-speaking and English-speaking factions. This has worked against the regional integration project of ECOWAS, while the organization has struggled to checkmate France’s neo-imperial influence in the sub-region. If Gbagbo’s defiance towards ECOWAS is allowed to further divide and weaken the organization, it would be to the advantage of France and other dictators who want to repress popular sovereignty to perpetuate themselves in power.
The best option is one that gives popular sovereignty to Ivoirians, consolidate national unity, advance politics of inclusion, while strengthening ECOWAS/Africa’s ability to use regional solidarity and democratic framework in checkmating the kind of politics and leadership that work against the human rights and economic interest of the people.
In this regard, only the entrenchment of a strong, democratic tradition/institutions that prioritizes the will and interest of the people can ensure that Outarra himself would not be given the space to become an agent of neo-imperialism when he assumes office.