Ivory Coast – a reactionary civil war drawing to a close?

Ivory Cost is a former French colony in West Africa which sporadically gets a mention in the newspapers because of the civil war that has been going on there since 2002 and which has led to de facto partition of the country. The civil war is of benefit neither to the broad masses of the people living in that country – yet attempts made to date to put an end to it have proved largely futile.

Hopes are running high, however, with respect to the current peace deal, which was concluded in March this year at Ougoudougou (the capital of Burkina Faso) – but what are the chances that this deal will succeed where other have failed?

A reactionary civil war

A Joint Statement by the Communist Parties of West Africa (including the Revolutionary Communist Party of the Ivory Coast) states that the civil war is reactionary and has as its economic and social consequences “

the collapse of the economies of the whole region, particularly the Ivory Coast and neighbouring countries (Burkina, Mali, Niger). A humanitarian catastrophe which is affecting the populations of the region (displacement of populations, a massive flow of refugees, epidemics, famine, etc). Massive violation of human rights (collective massacres, pogroms, political assassinations…”.

The Statement makes the point that it is above all a war inspired by French imperialism’s inability to control its lackeys. Bearing in mind, however, the fact that the conflict from which this civil war arose has been seething for years, it is difficult to believe that another important element behind the actions of the various Ivorian players is not the inter-imperialist contention between France and the US.

History of Ivory Coast since Independence – the model neo-colony

To understand the situation in Ivory Coast at the present time it is important to understand recent history, at least the history since Independence was gained in 1960. At the time, under the one-party government rule of the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI) led by an old collaborator with French imperialism, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a canny person of more or less social-democratic persuasion, the Ivorian ruling class was able to negotiate with the French the right for Ivorians to retain control of a fair proportion of the economy, including public services and vast amounts of agrarian production, most of which technically belonged to the Ivorian state. As a result, while French multinationals were accorded plenty of juicy concessions at very low cost, enough was left for the Ivorian ruling class to be able to develop the country and its economy for their own benefit and even, to a limited extent, for the benefit of the masses of the people. The government was able through the sale of agricultural produce in particular (mainly coffee and cocoa) to generate the income to upgrade roads, improve communications and raise the educational level of the masses. It also set up very many local production units (factories) to try to ensure that it did not become import-dependent, producing not only consumer goods but also ‘intermediate’ goods, i.e., commodities used in the production of consumer goods, such as textiles and chemicals.

Such was the buoyancy of the Ivorian economy in these early days that there was actually a shortage of workers, to meet which peasants were lured away from the land and the entry of immigrants from other less successful African countries, especially Burkina Faso (also a French colony until 1960). By 1998, the immigrant population was about 26% of the total, and over half of these came from Burkina Faso.

The behaviour of the Houphouët-Boigny government towards these immigrants is extraordinarily like that of the bourgeois governments of various western imperialist governments, including Britain, today: on the one hand they encourage immigration because it is good for the economy, but on the other hand they use the immigrants as scapegoats for the economic ills suffered by the exploited class as a whole. Even in good times the amount of wealth that ‘trickles down’ to the working masses is minimal and their livelihoods are forever insecure. What could be better than to direct their anger against their fellow workers on the grounds that they are of a different national or ethnic origin? It is a tactic that works in America and in Europe, and also works in Africa, where the anger of the oppressed can be diverted against other working people on the grounds of nationality, ethnicity or tribal affiliation. Even those who profess to be communists find it difficult to counter the argument that ‘foreigners’ are causing a lowering of wages and deterioration of conditions of employment. The sheer seductiveness of what boils down to the race card is such that communists have a huge mountain to overcome in organising the working class for an effective class struggle. What is more, the pervasiveness of racist thinking actually hinders the development of a genuinely nationalist anti-imperialist movement in countries such as Ivory Coast, simply because that part of it which is directed against workers of foreign origin only serves to undermine the strength of the entire anti-imperialist movement. In any event, it was above all by encouraging xenophobic trends that Houphouët-Boigny safeguarded the interests of the Ivorian ruling class, while at the same time encouraging immigration and even granting Ivorian citizenship to immigrants – perhaps as a means of securing electoral support.

The golden era comes to an end

As from the late 1970’s, however, the Ivory Coast was hit by a triple economic whammy from which it has to this day never recovered. On the one hand the market price of its important coffee and cocoa exports plummeted, and on the other both the cost of fuel and the cost of borrowing soared to an unprecedented extent, bringing the Ivorian economic miracle to an ignominious end. Inflation and unemployment spiralled, giving rise to high levels of public protest and strident criticism of the country’s political leadership. Among those raising angry voices were Ivorian intellectuals – teachers, students and university professors – one of whom was Laurent Gbagbo, the future Ivorian strong man.

Houphouët-Boigny responded to the crisis in a typical klepotcratic style, hurriedly accumulating wealth for himself and his family while imposing on the Ivorian masses stringent austerity measures – e.g., the freezing of government salaries – intended to pass the burden of the crisis onto their shoulders. Moreover, in the struggle to maintain control, Houphouët-Boigny thought nothing of exposing the corrupt practices of anybody likely to challenge his leadership, a tactic which had the ‘merit’ of misdirecting public anger against the corruption endemic in comprador politics, i.e., against the corrupted as opposed to the system operated by the corrupter, French imperialism, which Houphouët-Boigny continued faithfully to serve.

In 1988 the US government published a ‘Country Study’ on Ivory Coast, edited by Robert E Handloff, which remarkably aptly describes the economic disaster suffered by Ivory Coast during the period of economic downturn:

“… First the emergence of a domestic market large enough to allow


manufacturers of import substitutes to benefit from economies of scale required a wage for agricultural workers – the largest segment of the labour force – that was high enough to support mass consumption. But because the government relied on agricultural exports to finance imporvements to infrastructure, commodity prices and wages could not be allowed to rise too high. Second, the government’s focus on import substitution increased demand for intermediate inputs the cost of which often exceeded that of the previously imported ocnsumer goods. Moreover, Côte d’Ivoire’s liberal investment code

[i.e., its subservience to French imperialism]

encouraged capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive industrial development. Consequently, industrial growth contributed little to the growth of an industrial labour force or a domestic market, and prices for consumer goods remained high, reflecting the high costs of production and protection. The investment code also permitted vast funds to leave the Côte d’Ivoire in the form of tax-free profits, salary remittances, and repatriated capital. Decapitalisation, or the outflow of capital, led to balance of payment problems and the need to export more commodities and limit agricultural wages … By the start of the 1980’s, as surpluses from commodity sales dwindled, the government continued to depend on foreign borrowing to stimulate the economy. Inexorably, the external debt and the burden of debt service grew.”

Between 1981 and 1984, the Report tells us, GDP from industry fell 33%, from services by 9%, from agriculture by 12.2%. From 1984-86 there was a short period of recovery followed by another plunge in 1987, with cocoa sales falling 33%, coffee exports 62% and GDP declining 5.8% overall. The trade surplus fell by 49%, exports by 35% – all that in one year alone!

The World Bank stepped in to ‘help’, but its ‘help’ was naturally conditional on demands for privatisations which led to further French acquisitions of all the most profitable enterprises whose profits had previously provided the wherewithal for the government to develop the economy.

All this information emanating from a US imperialist source is remarkably frank in its description of the devastating damage that is wreaked by imperialism on oppressed countries, but the frankness is explained by the fact that at this stage it was France which was very much the dominant imperialist power in the country, and US imperialism trying to create the impression that with the more advantageous terms that the US would be prepared to offer to the Ivory Coast, no doubt there could be a full recovery, although naturally no such point is explicitly made in the Report itself.

French imperialism in the Ivory Coast

The main French players in the Ivorian economy are the following:

Bolloré (the French market leader in 2003 in maritime transport). This company practically controls the port of Abidjan (the second largest African port after Durban in South Africa), as well as the Ivory Coast to Burkina Faso railway. It also hold major stakes in Ivorian tobacco and rubber, and has but recently given up its interests in cocoa.

Bouygues (a major French public works contractor) is also the largest public works contractor in the Ivory Coast. In addition it controls the Ivorian water and electricity utilities and is now dabbling in Ivorian oil.

Total owns a quarter of Ivory Coast refinery shares and owns 160 petrol stations in the country.

France Telecom owns 85% of the now privatised land-line and mobile phone telecoms providers.

Group Compagnie Française de l’Afrique de l’Ouest de Côte d’Ivoire has major interests in the export and retail trades, as well as motor car distribution, pharmaceuticals and new technologies.

Société Générale (France’s sixth largest bank) has 55 branches in Ivory Coast. Crédit Lyonnais, BNP-Paribas, and AXA also have major interests there in banking and insurance.

Oil and gas

It goes without saying that there is no way that the mighty US imperialism could sit back quietly seeing its French rival gorging itself on the superprofits generated by the exploitation of Ivory Coast without wanting at least a part of the action for itself. Its greed will have been still further stimulated by the fact that Ivory Coast has now become a major oil producer. Between 2000-2003 Ivorian oil production tripled and has become the country’s second most important export. The French, however, will be as anxious to keep the benefit of this oil for themselves as the US will be to take its cut!

Imperialist interests reflected in the politics of the puppets

It is tempting to let the overwhelming similarities between all those who are contending for comprador political power and the access to the plunder that this facilitates blind one to the fact that there are real political differences between them (albeit they are not differences as to the treatment of the exploited classes). What there is in Ivory Coast is a ‘conservative’ establishment with close ties to French imperialism, and ‘rebels’ in favour of breaking the French monopoly by ‘liberalising’ the Ivorian economy – a breach which until recently could benefit only US imperialism, whose economic strength gave it enormous advantage at the game of competition. The principal contending puppets are: in the French corner Alassane Dramarce Ouattara, prime minister under Houphouët-Boigny and one-time African director of the IMF in charge of distribution of Structural Adjustment Programs!. While in the liberalisation corner, we have Henri Konan Bédié, a close confidant of Houphouët-Boigny and, like Ouattara, a member of the PDCI, and Laurent Gbagbo, former Ambassador of the Ivory Coast in the United States.

As has been mentioned above, the Ivory Coast was set up on the basis of one-party rule, and the one party was Houphouët-Boigny’s PDCI. Elections took place periodically, but there was only one candidate. However, in response to the discontent arising from the economic downturn, multi-party democracy was conceded with effect from the elections which took place in 1990, in which Houphouët-Boigny’s PDCI beat Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front.

In 1992 Houphouët-Boigny died, and internecine conflict immediately arose within his Party to take over the leadership. The lethal weapon unleashed in this fight was the ethnicity issue, with Bédié branding his rival Ouattara as a ‘foreigner’, alleging that his mother was from Burkina Faso, which allegedly explained his subservience to foreign powers, in particular the French. As part of his anti-Ouattara offensive within the PDCI Bédié blocked the privatisation of Côte d’Ivoire Telecom (CIT), which Bouygues, an old beneficiary of Ouattara’s bargain basement deals, had been lined up to acquire. Anyway, this tactic was effective in landing Bédié with the leadership of the PDCI and thus becoming head of state. Once in power, however, Bédié happily conceded CIT to France Telecom. However, he also established his ‘liberalisation’ credentials by facilitating the entry of US cocoa multinational Archer Daniel Midland into the Ivory Coast with a purchase of a minoirty share in SIFCOM, a major Ivorian cocoa producer in which Bédié himself owned nearly 12% of the shares. So much for Bédié’s implied ‘patriotism’. Throughout his period in office, Bédié busied himself with privatisations and concessions he was prepared to grant to the highest bidder.

In 1995 elections were again held, which Bédié sought to ‘win’ by placing restrictions on opposition party candidates, leading to an opposition boycott. Racial tensions were brought to a new height with race riots leading to deaths of people of Burkina Faso origin in Tabou that year. Bédié managed to hang on to power but again went on a racist offensive in connection with elections scheduled for 2000 and in November 1999, 12,000 Burkinabés were driven out of the Ivory Coast after a series of massacres. Moreoever it was declared that Ivorian citizenship (which Ouattara possesses) was insufficient to permit candidature in the forthcoming election. Candidates had also to show that they were born of an Ivorian father and mother.

However before the election could be held, on 24 December 1999, Bédié’s government was overthown in a coup led by Brigadier-General Robert Guéi, leading soldiers of the Ivory Coast army who had previously served under the command of the French army in the UN mission to the Central African Republican. It seems likely that French imperialism was behind this coup, being desirous of bringing to power a person who would restore their former privileges as compared to rival imperialists. The slogan which gained broad support for Guéi’s coup was opposition to Bédié’s corruption and opposition to the privatisations and liberalisation of markets he had put in train. This necessated the ‘suspension’ for form’s sake, of various deals that Bédié had arranged, to be re-negotiated following elections to legitimise the government.

Guéi, therefore, called elections for 2000 but immediately stepped (as a candidate himself) into Bédié’s political shoes to disqualify Ouattara, the strongest candidate to oppose Gbagbo, by insisting all candidates be of pure Ivorian origin. As the election results came in it became clear that Guéi was losing to Gbagbo, but before the result was declared, Guéi declared the election void. At this point Gbagbo, in loose alliance with Ouattara, rose up in arms, with the backing of the army, as a result of which Guéi was forced to flee. Gbagbo had himself declared President, but Ouattara’s RDR (Rassemblement des Républicains) obviously demanded that new elections be held because the 2000 one had obviously been undemocratic as a result of the unfair disqualification of opposition candidates such as himself. Unsurprisingly, however, it was now the turn of Gbagbo to use the race card to avoid being displaced by Ouattara.

When Ouattara responded by calling mass demonstrations in favour of a re-run of the elections, these demonstrations were suppressed by the armed force of the state. At Yopougon several Ouattara supporters were mowed down by police bullets.

Under Gbagbo the tide of investment turned significantly in favour of the US. In 2000, for example, Ivorian exports went 15.2% to France and 9.8% to the Netherlands, but in 2001 exports to France had dropped to 13.9% while to the Netherlands they had risen to 14.1%. This change is accounted for by the ability of US companies such as Cargill, ADM and Callebout to corner cocoa exports which they transport to Amsterdam where important US cocoa-processing subsidiaries are based. Of even greater importance to France, however is Ivorian oil, which Gbagbo insisted on offering to the highest bidder rather than easing it into French pockets.

Start of the civil war

As Gbagbo proved to be just as devoted to privatisation, liberalisation and general suppression of the working masses as was his most unpopular predecessor, Bédié, Ouattara became the focus of a strong opposition movement. By September 2002, Ivorian troops loyal to Ouattara mutinied, launching attacks on many cities including Abidjan. The northern part of the country, where Ouattara’s support was strongest, came under Ouattara’s control, and the country was effectively partitioned. For whatever reason, however, the French stepped in to prevent Ouattara from taking advantage of his great popularity to march south and capture the rest of the country. Perhaps they calculated that Ouattara could not beat the combined forces of the southern tribes and it was best not to let him try but to force him to sue for peace through reconciliation. Perhaps they felt that their interests were best served by ensuring that neither puppet should have too much strength. Perhaps they believed their interests in the southern part of the country would be well enough served by Gbagbo so long as they were in a position through Ouattara to continue to put severe pressure on him (as they had succeeded in doing in the past). Perhaps they were able to reach a behind-the-scenes arrangement with their US imperialist rivals whose implementation by a government of national unity was preferable from their point of view to the risks of further civil war. Whatever the reason, French troops intervened to prevent Ouattara marching on Abidjan in September 2002.

On 26 January 2003, under French auspices, Gbagbo and Ouattara and other rebels signed a compromise agreement at Linas-Marcoussis (the LMA) which conceded that while Gbagbo would remain Head of State, his opponents would participate in a government of reconciliation in which they would be given the Ministries of Defence and the Interior. However, this government of reconciliation soon fell apart as a result of squabbles over the distribution of lucrative posts. Gbagbo then blocked implementation of the LMA, which then led on March 25 to mass demonstrations that were violently repressed by government forces (effectively Gbagbo). By May 6, as opposition parties withdrew in protest from the LMA, only 19 of the original 44 government members were left, at which point 3 more ministers, including Guillaume Soro, the political leader of the rebels were dismissed, and the government of reconciliation clearly ceased to be able to fulfil its functions.

As far as French imperialism was concerned, however, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Thus on 4 July 2003 yet another agreement was cobbled together between government (Gbagbo) and the New Forces (the army led by Ouattara) theoretically putting an end to the war. Various deadlines were set, both at that time and later (on 30 July 2004 at Accra in Ghana) for legislative reform (on questions of nationality and land tenure) to be matched by rebel disarmament, but these deadlines were not met.

Matters come to a head

Throughout all this time both French and UN troops were deployed in Ivory Coast being supposedly neutral concerned only to keep the peace. However in October 2004 matters came to a head when UN soldiers fired on a demonstration that had been called to oppose rebel disarmament in the light of the fact that Gbagbo’s army (FANCI) had been intercepted in the course of brining army trucks full of heavy weaponry up to the demarcation line between north and south, leaving very little doubt as to what would be the effect on Ouattara’s forces were disarmament to be implemented.

In November 2004 FANCI bombed Bouake in the north, and on the 6th their bombing hit a French base there, killing 9 French soldiers, a US aid worker and injuring 39 others. The French responded by destroying two FANCI planes and 5 helicopters as well as seizing control of Abidjan airport, which led to wholesale attacks by enraged mobs on French citizens resident in the country, who had to be evacuated in a hurry from the rooftops of their houses by French helicopters.

Following these events, French mediation as between Ouattara and Gbagbo was obviously out of the question, but an end to the division of the country and to hostilities was still obviously very much on the agenda of all parties, as a result of which South Africa was pressed into service to host a meeting that gave rise to the Pretoria Agreement of April 2005, envisaging elections for October 2005. These were delayed over the question of African Union proposals to keep Gbagbo in office for a further 12 months beyond the end of his mandate. Negotiations continued, however, and a new date of October 2007 was eventually set.

On the 4th of March this year a peace agreement was signed in Ougadougou under which Guillaume Soro was appointed prime minister, taking office with effect from this April. This has in fact enabled a process of disarmament to begin, and government and New Forces soldiers have paraded together for the first time.


It is impossible to say to what extent the reactionary forces unleashed in the country by those seeking for their own selfish purposes to divide workers against each other have developed a life of their own which could deny the country the peace its people desperately require. In the short term, however, conditions are ripe in the imperialist world for an Ivory Coast at peace to improve its situation as commodity prices have risen, principally because of the high demand for these emanating from China. Therefore, even the reactionary classes in the Ivory Coast would now gain from the implementation of a peace agreement – which would even benefit the various interested imperialist powers. However, it is no longer mainly US imperialism which benefits from liberalisation of African markets, as China steps in with offers of non-exploitative trading relations, offering the possibility of putting an end to the super-exploitation that Ivory Coast and other African countries have suffered since their very creation. Nevertheless to secure real economic independence, it is necessary for the exploited masses to stand up against their exploiters who sell their country in order to enrich themselves. It is clearly essential to settle the questions of ‘Ivority’ and land ownership in a way which accords to all workers in Ivory Coast regardless of nationality, tribe or ethnicity, equal rights, in order to deprive all reactionary elements of their ability to turn workers against each other. Unity is required for the fight to win for Ivory Coast at last its true independence that will enable all workers of all nationalities, tribes and ethnicities to benefit themselves from the fruits of their labour rather than being forced, as at present, to pay exorbitant tribute to imperialist exploiters and their local kleptocratic representatives.