In Other Words

France’s African Comeuppance

During the past decade, citizens of the former French colony of Ivory Coast have revived ethnic rivalries in their struggle to overcome a 20-year-old economic downturn. The ideology of ivoirité (or "Ivoirianness") was employed as early as 1994 by then President Henri Konan Bédié. This vague concept excludes foreigners — people who come from outside ...

During the past decade, citizens of the former French colony of Ivory Coast have revived ethnic rivalries in their struggle to overcome a 20-year-old economic downturn. The ideology of ivoirité (or "Ivoirianness") was employed as early as 1994 by then President Henri Konan Bédié. This vague concept excludes foreigners — people who come from outside Ivory Coast or who have at least one parent not born in Ivory Coast — from public jobs and political life. The current president, Laurent Gbagbo, has offered preferential treatment for his ethnic group, the Bétés (one of the country’s largest), at the expense of non-Ivoirians and other ethnic minorities. By 2002, the animosity between the country’s many ethnic groups plus a more severe economic slump helped trigger armed conflict.

Enter France. After ethnic turmoil reached its peak in September 2002 — when rebel soldiers attacked the economic capital of Abidjan and invaded the northern portion of the country — French authorities became involved, in accordance with a military agreement concluded in 1962, two years after Ivory Coast’s independence. That document requires France to intervene in the West African nation in case of "characterized external aggression." Paris initially hesitated because it could not determine whether the attacks came from a foreign country. But some believe France was merely scared to jump into a military trap, especially to defend a regime known for its human rights abuses.

Writing in Le Nouvel Afrique Asie, a monthly Paris-based magazine, Abidjan correspondent Mbaye Gueye deftly describes two months of French-led negotiations between the three rebel movements and the government and how, in Gueye’s opinion, Gbagbo sabotaged his country’s hopes for peace.

For France, a diplomatic solution was essential: Between 15,000 and 18,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast, and France is the African nation’s top trading partner. A little more than a week after the negotiations began in Marcoussis, outside Paris, in January 2003, the parties put together a "tool kit," as Gueye calls it, to end the crisis. Under this agreement, Gbagbo would remain president until the next election in 2005. Until then, he would share power with the main rebel group and let his opponents choose a new prime minister, who would lead the executive branch. Moreover, the rebels would choose the ministers of defense and interior. But on January 25, when the agreement was supposed to be signed, Gbagbo balked, threatening to resign altogether. Finally, after negotiating with French President Jacques Chirac, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, Gabonese President Omar Bongo, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the rebels and Gbagbo agreed the president would control the selection of a prime minister but would relinquish power over the ministries of defense and interior.

Meanwhile, the Ivoirian economic capital plunged into chaos. Once it became clear the rebels had won some concessions, young "patriots" financed by the president took their anger to the streets and vandalized French institutions in Abidjan. They accused France of a "constitutional coup" and attacked the French high school, Air France headquarters, and the French Embassy.

In late January, Gbagbo returned to Ivory Coast. But instead of easing tensions, he exacerbated them. In a speech in Abidjan, Gbagbo dismissed the Marcoussis resolution as a "mere proposal." For the next two weeks, he did nothing to stop the riots. Since September 2002, thousands of people have died and more than one million have been displaced. Finally, Gbagbo addressed the Ivoirian people again in early February, assuring them that "nothing will be done without my signature." Counter to the spirit of the French agreements, the president decided to retain all power. To Gueye, "[t]he biggest danger today is that nobody has anything to lose in the Ivory Coast crisis. Especially Laurent Gbagbo."

Such setbacks underscore Paris’s difficulties when dealing with its former African colonies. Paradoxically, the best way for France to keep its privileged commercial and cultural links with Africa may be to stay out of the continent’s internal politics. Otherwise, the former colonial power may attract the wrong kind of attention. Consider prominent Ivoirian politician Mamadou Koulibaly’s new book, France’s War Against Ivory Coast. Or, as Gambian President Yaya Jammeh has stated, "… it’s a shame for Africa that all these talks have been created, organized and paid for by France." But on a continent where 19 governments have been overthrown in the past 10 years — from Mauritania to Madagascar to Democratic Republic of the Congo — it is unclear if Africa can solve its own problems.

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