Global Policy Forum

The Crisis in Ivory Coast


By Lansana Gberie *

June 24, 2004

In the early 1980s, the British writer V.S. Naipaul visited Ivory Coast. The country was then one of the most stable and prosperous in Africa. As everyone knows, Naipaul is a deeply cynical and unabashed Afro-pessimist. But in the piece that he subsequently wrote about Ivory Coast, enchantingly entitled 'The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,' Naipaul was genuinely admiring. Yamoussoukro, the country's political capital, and a sprawling metropolis with many elegant structures-including the massive Roman Catholic Basilica (total cost: $150 million), which the Pope consecrated as a "minor Basilica", although it is actually taller than the Basilica of St. Paul's in Rome---Naipaul called "one of the wonders of black Africa." "Out of apparently little," Naipaul observed, "wealth had been created… And this wealth has been shared and used…something extraordinary had been accomplished." Never one to give unqualified praise to achievements in the so-called Third World, however, the Trinidadian-born writer wearily reflected that the success of Ivory Coast "induces a kind of anxiety. Will it last?" As he reflected further, the great city of Abidjan now "seemed sinister: proof of a ruler's power, a creation of magic, for all the solidity of the concrete and the steel: dangerous and perishable…"

That, as we have seen, was still in the 1980s. Ivory Coast, surrounded by countries that were sucked into what Naipaul colourfully described as either "chaos or nullity", was a thriving place. A relatively small country, it was sub-Saharan Africa's fourth largest economy, with a GDP per capita that was more than double the continent's second largest economy, oil-rich Nigeria. Its largest city, Abidjan, which began as a small colonial port town built on the side of a bleak lagoon, had become a commercial centre of great sophistication. Today, it is the only country in West Africa with an industrial base that contributes more to its GDP than the agricultural and extractive sectors. The little red guide-book for the Basilica, which features the country's first President, a very dapper Felix Houphet-Boigny, sitting besides Pope John Paul, carries a message which, when it was first issued, would be overlooked by the casual visitor but which now carries particular resonance: "This House of God witnesses to the desire to transmit a particular message: a message of Peace and Love. 'O, Our Lady of Peace, keep the human family always in peace!'"

Almost as though to fulfill the grim prophesies of Africa's doomsayers, the country today appears to be unraveling. And it all started in September 2002, when a group of about 750 retrenched soldiers---they had been hastily recruited by a former military leader---attempted to take over the government in a violent coup. As a result, Ivory Coast, once so tranquil and prosperous, is now enmeshed in a civil war, and the country has been effectively split into two, with the northern (and largely Muslim) half controlled by a near-mysterious rebel group, the southern (and largely Christian) half by a frequently churlish and pedestrian government.


Most rebel insurgencies in West Africa start as incursions from neighbouring countries by armed groups, beginning with attacks from the border areas and gradually progressing towards the capital city, often far removed from the initial scenes of fighting. This was the trajectory of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean conflicts. In the Ivorian case, however, the violence flared up, suddenly and unexpectedly, in Abidjan, and very quickly, with little apparent movement of forces, spread to the northern cities of Korhogo and Boauke. The attacks appeared to have been well-coordinated, and were bloody. In the first few days of fighting, 400 people were killed, many of them in Abidjan, including the country's Interior Minister, Emile Doudou, and a former President, General Robert Guei (the country's first successful coup-maker) and his entire family.

Ivory Coast's army was an ill-equipped and ill-prepared force. It was created in 1960 with little prospect that it could one day get involved in armed combat. It had never even participated in any peacekeeping mission that involved combat, and 80 per cent of its budget was, until the current crisis, used to pay the soldiers' salaries. Facing a threat that could well destroy it, however, the army (known as FANCI), quickly mobilized, and in a few days of fighting repelled the rebels from Abidjan. The rebels, though, had already taken over the northern cities of Bouake and Korhogo. A less than spirited attempt by FANCI to retake the cities was repulsed. A crack force of French troops, long stationed in the country as a result of a defence pact, staged a dramatic rescue of foreign nationals, including hundreds of American students, from Boauke in the first weeks of fighting, and a reinforced French contingent established camps just outside Bouake and along a zone roughly dividing the country into two parts---a formal acknowledgement, if this were needed, that the rebels now controlled the northern half of the country. The government of President Laurent Gbagbo, elected just over a year before in a popular but controversial vote, reinforced its control of the southern half.

The stalemate was disrupted, in November 2003, by the emergence of two new 'rebel' groups in western Ivory Coast. The two groups, the Mouvement Populaire du Grand Quest (MPIGO) and the Mouvement pour la Justice et la Paix (MJP), said they were fighting to avenge the death of General Guei, and determined to do so by removing from power Gbagbo, whom they accused of the killing. It emerged, however, that the rebels were really former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) soldiers from Sierra Leone and units from Liberia's army loyal to then President Charles Taylor, and that pillage, not politics, was driving their 'insurgency'. Unlike the group holding the north of the country (the Mouvement Patriotique de la Cote d'Ivoire (MPCI), which established itself as a rather well-behaved force in key cities, the new groups in the west of the country soon became notorious for vandalism and terror, and they soon after clashed with French troops, leading to serious casualties. Tens of thousands of Ivorians fled the country.

But who were the far more important northern rebels? Were they simply mutinous soldiers hungry for power? Or were they champions of a marginalized sector of the country, the mainly Muslim---and Dyula-speaking---half of the country (the north), as they claimed? Or were they, as Gbagbo's government claimed, foreign mercenaries carrying out a plot by Ivory Coast's neighbours, particularly Burkina Faso, to destabilize the country? These questions persisted months after the failed coup and the beginning of the insurgency. Western reporters who ventured into the rebels' stronghold generally found them genial and charming, behaving well to the civilian population but otherwise not engaged in any form of governance. A reporter from a major American newspaper found the rebels "lazing about," and possessing "more satellite phones than battle scars." The reporter noted that five months after the rebels' occupation of Bouake, the banks there were not functioning, businesses were boarded up, schools closed and half the town's population had fled. As the months progressed, the World Food Programme announced that 50 per cent of residents in Boauke had no savings, and that the rest had lost 80 per cent of their purchasing power. Starvation loomed, precipitating still further mass exodus from the city.


I visited Ivory Coast for three weeks in December 2002, a few months after the failed coup. Just before I flew to the country, the BBC World Service news program showed dramatic footage of thousands of apparently frenzied young men storming a recruitment centre in Abidjan in answer to a government call for new recruits to help fight off what officials called "terrorists" who had occupied large swathes of the country. I thought I had seen something like this before---in Sierra Leone, in 1991, at the start of what would turn out to be an extremely destructive conflict, with hundreds of young men, many of them drifters and thieves, turning up to be recruited into the country's feeble army, only to become 'rebels' and 'sobels' and the principal despoilers of the country. I had been properly appalled by events in Ivory Coast, but now I knew things were taking a sharply more sinister turn: the country was setting itself up to unravel. Ivory Coast had been a bad player in West Africa's linked crises; now it appeared the country's well-fed elites had learnt nothing from what had happened in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

It was a mark of the confusion surrounding the conflict that the circumstances of its beginning, so recent, sounded almost like legend even when recounted by hard-headed diplomats. Over lunch a day after I arrived in Abidjan, a Western diplomat tried hard to explain how it all started. Less than two weeks before the failed coup plot in September, there had been a dramatic heist at the headquarters of the Central Bank for the West African CFA Francs, in Abidjan, by armed men using a car with the State House number D-10. The car had been stolen, and in spite of the sophisticated security system at the Bank, which is located in downtown Abidjan, the robbers made away with CFA 2.5 billion. The chief of security at the bank, a fellow named Siapopo, fled, and was later arrested in Burkina Faso carrying a Ghanaian passport. What was the point of this story? "There are strong indications that the robbers were the rebels who later led the coup attempt," he said. "It was almost certainly a way of funding their assault on the state. It was classic guerrilla tactic." Little was known about the rebel leadership. All that was clear about it was that it comprised of mainly ex-soldiers and that a prominent figure in the group was a former radical student leader named Guillane Soro. Soro soon emerged as spokesman for the group, and in one interview he reacted impatiently to questions about his group's real identity. "Who are we? We are young Ivorians, and we are ready to fight and die." He then described his group as a mix of exiled soldiers and former students furious at the Ivorian government's mistreatment of northern Ivorians. "If you are from the north," he said, "you are subhuman, according to the government. We want a united Ivory Coast. We want a country that lives in harmony and includes everyone. We want a Pan African nation where the Ivory Coast is a melting pot."

Self-serving no doubt, but the rhetoric clearly taps into long-simmering grievances among the relatively impoverished, and largely politically marginalized, inhabitants of Ivory Coast's northern regions. Since independence in 1960, the country has been ruled by people from the southern part of the country, who as a result constitute an elite class dominating the country's government, civil service, the academia and the business sector. This charmed circle, from mainly the Baoule and Bete ethnic groups---the first two Presidents of the country, Houphet Boigny and Konan Bedie, were Baoule, and Gbagbo is Bete---has in the past even contorted the country's constitution to maintain the lopsided status quo. The most striking case was the adoption of a new electoral code by the National Assembly, at the instance of Bedie, which stipulated that Presidential candidates must be born in Ivory Coast to parents who were themselves born in the country. Gbagbo, then an outspoken opposition figure, angrily described the electoral code as "liberticide, racist, xenophobic and dangerous."

The intention, however, was purely churlish: to exclude from participation in the polls Bedie's chief rival, Alasane Quattara, of Dyula ethnicity from the north, and a former Prime Minister of the country. Quattara's mother is said to have come from Burkina Faso, and he was subsequently barred from contesting the 1995 Presidential polls, which Bedie won. But the code, which sedulously created a distinction between 'pure' and 'mixed' Ivorians, had much more far-reaching implications. Now it is Gbagbo, a self-styled socialist, who has been exploiting 'Ivorite', using coded language. When he returned to the country after the failed coup, he said in a televised speech: "In this country, once and for all, we need to know who is who and who wants what. We need to put on one side those who are for democracy and the Republic, and on the other those who are against democracy and the Republic." He called for a sweep of the shanty towns, where many foreign workers reside, displacing them and arresting a large number of them (at the site of one shanty town, by the middle-class suburb of Cocody, only a small bar, belonging to a gendarme, was left standing when I visited there in December 2002). This demagogic approach alienated many potential supporters, including some West African regional leaders. For Ivory Coast has been, truly, a West African melting pot.

When Ivory Coast gained independence in 1960, it had a population of 3 million; in 2002 the population stood at 17 million. The remarkable increase resulted as much from natural growth as from labour immigration. Under the patrician President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who led the country to independence in 1960 and ruled it until his death in 1993, the Ivorian government made it a policy to encourage huge immigration into the country of other Africans from the more depressed---and sometimes chaotic---states adjacent to Ivory Coast. The new immigrants were smoothly integrated into Ivorian society, with some of them holding important governmental positions, and the majority employed in the country's booming agricultural sector. By the 1980s, world market prices for cocoa and coffee (the country's key export commodities) slumped drastically, and the huge presence of nationals from other African states began to be seen as a burden. In 1990, Houphouet-Boigny named Quattara, a senior official of the IMF, Prime Minister partly to handle the economic crisis. Quattara introduced residency permits for foreign nationals in the country. They cost $50 per annum for nationals from ECOWAS states and $500 for non-ECOWAS nationals. Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993, and Bedie, then head of the National Assembly, won a power struggle with Quattara to become President. It was then that the toxicity of ethnic politics was smuggled into the debate about non-native Ivorians. In 2002, there were an estimated 3 million Burkinabes, 2 million Malians, 500,000 to 1 million Ghanaians and over 250,000 Guineans in Ivory Coast plus tens of thousands of Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast. In his power-struggle with Quattara, Bedie's rhetoric persistently hammered on the concept of 'Ivorite' or 'pure Ivorian-ness'. It was his way of ensuring that he remained at the helm, one of the most invidious uses of ethnicity. And it irked the millions of non-native residents of Cote d'Ivoire, and, more significantly, Ivorians in the north who generally supported Quattara.

In December 1999, non-commissioned officers, led by Staff-Sergeant Ibrahim ("IB") Coulibaly, ousted the incompetent Bedie in a bloodless coup, and invited former army chief Robert Guei---who had been sacked by Bedie for refusing to use the army to crush civilians protesting the flawed electoral process of 1995---to become the new Head of State. Guei was himself forced to organize elections in October 2000 in which he contested for the Presidency. Making use of the Bedie electoral code, he banned Quattara from contesting. Longtime oppositionist Gbagbo stood, however, and he appeared to have emerged victorious by a wide margin. Guei's attempts to rig the results were scuttled by massive demonstrations in Abidjan, and he fled the country in a helicopter. Gbagbo became President. Less than two years later, the foiled coup and insurgency occurred, with the rebel leaders citing the controversial elections which excluded Quattara as one of the reasons for their rebellion.

The question of national identity in Ivory Coast, in other words, is instrumentally used by all parties, but it has become a key issue in the conflict, one that has threatened to unravel all the best efforts at bringing peace to the country. The country's famous musician, Alpha Blondy, called 'Ivorite' "black Nazism," noting that the "only people benefiting from the madness are the people in politics."


France, Ivory Coast's former colonial master, remains the most important Western presence in the West African nation. Before the September 2002 crisis, there were 20,000 French nationals---some of them simultaneously holding Ivorian citizenship---in Ivory Coast, and a further 20,000 Ivorians who held French citizenship. A 600-strong contingent of French troops was based in Abidjan. These troops, however, did not participate in crushing the coup attempt of September 2002, and France became involved in the crisis only after its spread to engulf much of the country threatened a serious humanitarian catastrophe. Many Ivorians suspect that this was because the French wanted to punish Gbagbo, whose mouthing of African nationalist and socialist rhetoric did not endear him to the French. Worse, Gbagbo had begun to actively court the Americans and Chinese---no contradiction here---and on one occasion offered a lucrative contract to the Chinese for which a French company had applied. But France's hands may also have been held by a more searing pathology.

France, whose investment in Africa is 5 per cent of its external trade, and whose sense of 'national grandeur and power'---to quote Rachel Utley's seductive phrase ---has been a projection overseas of its potential to exercise unmistakable influence and power, has since the 1960s militarily intervened in at least nine African countries. France intervened in Mauritania, Senegal, the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon and Chad in the 1960s; in Chad again, as well as in Djibouti, Western Sahara, the Central African Republic and Zaire in the 1970s; and in Chad twice more in the 1980s; in Togo in 1986; and finally---and most controversially---in Rwanda in the 1990s. These interventions earned France the title 'the gendarme of Africa.' In fact, in early 2001, French President Jacques Chirac was a prominent proponent of intervention in Guinea, during a time when Liberian-supported guerrillas were ravaging the southeastern parts of the country; and France still maintains significant military bases in Senegal and Djibouti. Unlike other former colonial powers, especially Britain, France continued to regard much of its ex-colonies in West Africa as its traditional sphere of influence and maintained a policy of rayonnement towards them. France's military aid to Africa was 800 million French francs in 1984, and in 1990, France had 6,600 troops stationed in Africa. This military presence by a major European power was a source of great disquiet among other, non-French-speaking African states, especially the West African regional power Nigeria, which viewed the intrusive French presence in West Africa as a kind of 'Trojan Horse' strategy and the recipient African nations as neo-colonial client states.

France could no doubt afford to ignore the African nationalist rhetoric of neo-colonial intervention. But it could not brush aside the deeply embarrassing episode of its Rwandan adventure, which amounted, in the eyes of many around the world, to collusion in the genocidal campaigns of the Hutu leadership of the country in 1994. After that episode, France decided to be more cautious about militarily intervening in an African crisis. When the Ivory Coast crisis broke out, France's initial impulse was to use its forces to protect its interests and foreign nationals in the country. French troops staged a dramatic rescue of Western nationals from Bouake during the first two weeks of the crisis. After that, the French called on the warring parties to observe a ceasefire and to resolve the crisis be peaceful negotiations. Meanwhile, 200,000 Ivorians fled rebel-controlled Bouake on foot and by bus in the first four weeks of the crisis.

In January 2003, the French, concerned about the escalating crisis, proposed peace talks between the government of President Gbagbo and the rebels, to be held in France. Earlier, in November 2002, less than two months after the crisis started, French Foreign Minister Dominique Villepin visited Ivory Coast and held talks with the government. His visit coincided with a government offensive, said to have included foreign mercenaries, on Vavoua, which alarmed the French. Villepin visited the country again, in January 2003, and obtained a promise from President Gbagbo to expel mercenaries from the country and halt air attacks against supposed rebel strongholds. The French foreign minister was quick to disavow support for either side in the conflict. "France," he said, "has no other camp except the one for peace." Through ECOWAS and French mediation efforts, a ceasefire agreement between the government and the western rebel groups was signed on 13 January, and the participation of the rebel groups in proposed talks in France was assured.

Talks began on 15 January in Linas-Marcoussis, just outside Paris, and ended on 24 January with an Agreement that was signed by all the parties. The Agreement called for the establishment of a Government of National Reconciliation with wide executive powers, and was to be composed of ministers from the main political parties and the rebel groups on a roughly equal basis, but the current government of President Gbagbo was to be given primacy in the arrangement. Gbagbo was to be remain President, but a Prime Minister with wide-ranging powers was to be appointed in agreement with the other groups.

The Linas-Marcoussis Agreement was anchored on three main principles: the need to maintain the territorial integrity of Ivory Coast; the creation of a Government of National Reconciliation, with a new Prime Minister; and the need to conduct transparent and free elections in which people would not be excluded by means of fraudulent electoral requirements..

Other concerns included the need to re-organise the army, the granting of amnesty---only slightly qualified---to the army mutineers and other militia forces which constituted the insurgent forces; and, most far-reaching, the need to address the issue of identity or nationality with new legislation that integrates and protects the millions of immigrants residing in the country. The Agreement states that "foreign nationals…have made a major contribution to national wealth and have helped confer on Ivory Coast its special position and responsibility within the sub-region," noting that "the petty annoyances perpetrated by the administration and the police and security forces, which often disregard the law and human rights and which often affect foreigners, can be caused by using willful misapplication of identification laws." The new government, therefore, "will immediately eliminate the residence permit requirement…for nationals of ECOWAS countries and will carry out the immigration inspection needed by using means of identification not subject fraudulent misuse." The Agreement also called for changes to land ownership laws to grant the immigrants access to land.

Appropriate measures were also to be taken to ensure the freedom of the media, but the Agreement condemned "the incitement to hatred and xenophobia propagated by certain media." Measures were also to be put in place to facilitate the liberation of prisoners of war. In quick order, the French government dispatched Force Licorne to Ivory Coast, on 6 February 2003, partly to facilitate the implementation of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement and to protect French interests across the country. Force Licorne, which beefed up the French military presence to 4000 troops, quickly deployed across the country and was able to check the spread of the violence. Troops from West African states, acting under the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, also deployed to bolster the French effort. On 27 February 2004, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a full peacekeeping operation for Ivory Coast, and mandating nearly 7,000 UN troops to monitor and help implement the peace agreement. Both the ECOWAS and French forces have been, as a result, subsumed under the UN mandate, although the French still maintain an independent command structure, and officially pledged only to playing a supporting role to the UN. West Africans troops, on the other hand, have been 'rehatted' by the UN and brought under UN command---the commander of the ECOWAS forces, Senegalese General Ibrahima Fall, is now the commander of the UN force. Very little, however, has changed on the ground since this new development: the country remains divided, and the rebel forces have refused to disarm, saying that they won't do so ahead of the elections slated for October 2005. It is, really, back to Square One.

Some observers now say that the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement is dead in the water, destroyed by the insincerity and waffling of the signatories. Popular sentiment in Abidjan, where the government is now effectively based, is against making any concessions to the anti-government rebels, and the government has often acted in a heavy-handed manner to crack down on perceived opponents. In March 2004, demonstrators calling for concrete progress in the peace process were shot at in the city: the UN said that 120 people were killed in several days of clashes with the security forces, and that the clampdown had been "carefully planned and executed" and was ordered from "the highest state authorities." Earlier, shortly after the failed coup in 2002, several mass graves were discovered just outside of Abidjan, and it was reported that the government had set up 'Death Squads' to hunt down opponents.


The big question now in the region is: Will Ivory Coast survive this crisis and emerge out of it a unified nation? No one now thinks that the country would, any time soon, return to the grand tranquility which so famously set it apart from the rest of unstable West Africa for many decades. That it would come to this---come to, that is, a question of basic survival for a country that offered so much hope just a few years before; and that still functions, in parts held by the government, far better than, say, Nigeria---to come this point is to utterly unsettle ones idea of nationhood in Africa. Just what does this mean for the much-vaunted notion of African Renaissance? The government of President Gbagbo appears in no mood to appreciate the gravity of the situation: just this week it stirred up an unnecessary frenzy over a sensible decision by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, UNOCI, to set up an FM radio station which would be used to 'sensitise' all parties and the general public about the mandate and limits of the UN operation. Gbagbo's government announced that it would ban the station, claiming that the mission had set up a 'pirate' radio station which would aid the 'enemy'.

At a seminar in Accra, Ghana, recently, West African diplomats and military officers went almost over the top in praising France for its intervention in Ivory Coast---intervention that has supposedly averted a major humanitarian catastrophe. That signaled a new, more positive image for French military presence in Africa. It also means that African leaders must work harder to take full charge of their continent.

*About the Author: Lansana Gberie is a senior research fellow at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana ( A University of Toronto trained historian, his book on the recently-ended war in Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone: Destruction and Resurgence, will be published in London. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it (footnoted version obtainable at the above address)

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.