The violent overthrow of Ivory Coast’s government by French imperialism, in cahoots with northern rebel militia and with the hypocritical blessing of the UN, signals not the end but the beginning of yet another round of cruel civil strife inflicted on the Ivorian people by imperialism. Yet this desperate stab at recolonising Africa by brute force will also come to be seen as having hammered another giant nail into the coffin of monopoly capitalism.
UN, France provoke civil war
The rabble soldiery mustered behind the West’s golden boy, one-time IMF director Alassane Ouattara, were in no doubt to whom they were indebted for the success of their coup at the beginning of April. Le Monde on 12th April cited this fulsome tribute from one of those involved in the kidnap of the president: “It’s all thanks to France what happened. Because without French advice we couldn’t have done it. And the French gave us lots of advice!” (Jean-Philippe Rémy, ‘Soudain, Gbagbo est la’).
It is easy to believe this, given the chaotic and undisciplined performance of the rebels detailed in the same newspaper report. Even after the French had helpfully fired a missile into the presidential residence on Sunday night, setting fire to the building, Ouattara’s rabble proved unable to stage their kidnap exploit until the following morning. A French soldier seemed to find it hard to hide his contempt, telling the paper: “Despite all our volleys, they didn’t manage it. We had to blast open a breach in the wall before they could get in.”
However, such timidity in the field of battle was more than made up for by the bravery with which these heroes proceeded to brutalise those whom the French military had delivered into their clutches.
Le Monde described how Laurent Gbagbo’s wife had her clothes torn to shreds and her hair pulled out in hanks by the mob. Prisoners were made to run the gauntlet under a rain of blows from rifle butts. Many were unrecognisable, so badly bruised and swollen were their faces from being punched and kicked. Another report (Africa Review, 15th April) notes that one of the captives, former interior minister Desire Tagro, died in custody “in circumstances that remained unclear”, alleged by some to have been shot. Having vented their spleen on their prisoners of war, Ouattara’s finest then repaired to loot the palace, downing bottles of Dom Perignon as the presidential library burned.
French imperialism held the ring whilst this edifying spectacle unfolded. It could have no illusions about the real character of the Ouattara’s forces or of the horrendous consequences of pitch forking the country back into civil war.
Already by 3rd April the confirmed death toll had mounted to 1,300, since which this figure has undoubtedly vaulted yet higher. A spokesman for the charity Caritas reported that “There were very heavy killings in the wake of the advance of Ouattara’s forces last week, and many people may have fled. We think the total of dead and missing there is about 1,000.”
Despite strenuous efforts to portray the violence as all originating from the government side, this line proved difficult to hold when aid workers found a thousand civilians massacred in the town of Duekoue, an area under the control of Ouattara’s advancing forces. So great was the fear that another pogrom might be on the way that 10,000 people took refuge in a Catholic church under UN protection.
The UN, so gung ho a few days earlier in their partisan support for Ouattara’s rebel forces, started to mutter nervously about needing to deplore human rights abuses “from whatever side”. A pity that these humanitarian considerations had not surfaced a little sooner, before UN-legitimised imperialist meddling had plunged the country back into internecine strife, with all too predictable human consequences.
The “international community” have all along posed as “honest brokers”, seeking to heal divisions in the country. Meanwhile the real game has been to play one section of the people off against another with the aim of maintaining and expanding the neo-colonial grip upon the nation and its resources. This is a game that has been played by more than one imperialist power. The former colonial power, France, has reinforced its economic grip on the coffee and cocoa markets with a permanent garrison of troops in place ever since formal political independence was secured in 1960. More recently, with the growing importance of deepwater oil reserves off the coast of West Africa, US imperialism has started jamming its foot in the door. However, with Washington discomfited by failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by an unexpected level of resistance in Libya, it has been left to the French to attempt the recolonisation of Africa.
The story that is retailed in the West is that Laurent Gbagbo agreed to elections and then kept putting them off, fearful of losing power. The truth is that the agreement all parties signed up to was to move forward to elections in the context of a UN-supervised disarming of Ouattara’s northern mutiny. No such disarmament was carried out, yet without such disarmament, fair elections remained an impossibility. Undeterred by these obvious facts the West continued its clamour for immediate elections, finally resulting in the travesty of democracy which went ahead last November.
With widespread evidence of ballot-rigging in the north and rebel fighters wandering around with rocket launchers, it became obvious to Ivory Coast’s constitutional court that the results as they stood could not be accepted at face value. Despite this judgement by the country’s own highest electoral authority, the “international community” then vented a collective cry of outrage on behalf of the “internationally recognised winner” of the poll-farce, Ouattara. The government’s accounts were frozen, sanctions were slapped on, the Ivorian army was incited to mutiny and French troops kitted out in UN regalia and working in concert with Ouattara’s militia established a rebel enclave in Abidjan within which Ouattara could lash together a shadow “government”. Efforts to get the African Union to grease the wheels for Gbagbo’s departure backfired when Ivory Coast’s neighbours opted for diplomacy rather than recolonisation, obliging France at last to shed all pretence of even-handedness and put its armed forces directly at the disposal of the rebellion, with the consequences now in plain view.
How did Ivory Coast come to this pass?
Once upon a time Ivory Coast was seen as a prime example of how former colonies could flourish under the new conditions of national independence. This was well explained in an article this journal published in 2007:
“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.
“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 dictatorial rule of Houphouët-Boigny was of no more concern to the West at that time than is the dictatorial rule of the corrupt feudal relics in Saudi Arabia now. Whilst patriots like Laurent Gbagbo languished in detention for standing up to this comprador stooge, the Bourse beamed with gratitude on this supposed miracle of stable capitalist development under neo-colonial control. But even in this neo-colonial honeymoon period, the seeds of future disaster were being sown, with national economic development always subordinated to imperialist interests when push came to shove, and with the manipulation of ethnic and confessional divisions already undermining national unity. (French imperialism has not been slow to exploit tensions between the largely Muslim north and the mostly Christian south in the current conflict.)
Naturally the West is more accustomed these days to shake its head over such “failed states” as Ivory Coast, weeping crocodile tears over their supposed “bad governance” and “tribal backwardness”. Yet it is the crisis of imperialism which has put these nations on the rack, not the implied racial inferiority denoted by black skins. As an article in the [most recent] February issue of Proletarian noted:
“with the collapse of commodity prices in the 1970s. Ivory Coast descended into a spiral of indebtedness, structural adjustment, privatisation and intensified looting of its resources, not least its oil reserves. Since then, the civil-war tensions that have dominated the suffering country in the first decade of this century, manipulated primarily by French imperialism in its drive to strengthen its neo-colonial grip upon the Francophone countries of the region, have continued to undermine the country’s economic and social development, leaving its people mired in an internecine conflict from which none but the bloodsuckers of the West can profit.
“By its behaviour in recent years, especially since the presidency of Laurent Gbagbo commenced in 2000, French imperialism has made it clear that, if it can no longer secure its neo-colonial grip on a united Ivory Coast through the good offices of another trusted comprador stooge like Houphouët-Boigny, then it would rather risk breaking the country in two than losing hold of it altogether.
“Whereas formerly, in the time of post-war boom, the neo-colonial master was content to allow Ivory Coast to retain enough control over some public services and agriculture to permit a degree of national economic development (so long as neither the imperialist looting of the country nor the nest-feathering of the local plutocrats was seriously impeded), this game ended once the crash in commodity prices threw the country onto the tender mercies of the World Bank and the IMF. Whole sectors of the economy were then sold into private hands in the scramble to meet crucifying debt repayments.”
Oppression breeds resistance
France should cast her mind back to 6th November 2004, when imperialist meddling was met with a firm rebuff from the Ivorian armed forces. On that day President Gbagbo’s forces bombed a French base in the northern town of Bouake, killing nine French soldiers. The reprisals which followed, destroying government planes and helicopters and seizing control of Abidjan airport, in turn sparked a massive wave of patriotic anger. French expats found themselves forced to flee from summary justice, evacuated from their rooftops by helicopter.
For now, blitzkrieg has achieved in Abidjan the regime-change which in Tripoli (at time of writing) remains beyond imperialist grasp. But how many bridges has France had to burn in order to dictate the results of one African election? How many carefully cultivated neo-colonial illusions have had to be shattered to buy the president they wanted? How many millions more anti-imperialist gravediggers have been brought into action? And given the bumpy ride imperialism is already getting in Somalia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, how cocky does Sarkozy really feel about the chances of crisis-ridden France single-handedly turning back the clock, wiping out October 1917 and recolonising the African continent?
October 1917 cannot be undone and Africa cannot be reduced to colonial slavery. The attempt to revert to old-fashioned gunboat colonialism is not a sign of imperialist strength but of its desperation. By its fulsome support for Britain’s role in Ivory Coast, the Labour party has once again demonstrated its unblushing allegiance to imperialism. This underlines that the most pressing task confronting the working class in Britain, faced as it is with a direct class war assault on its conditions of life by that same imperialism, is to break with the Labour party and throw in its lot with all those who struggle against the common imperialist foe.
Down with imperialist meddling in Africa!