Ivory Coast violence: new “great game” for West Africa?

The international community has been attempting to restore peace to West Africa, long torn by multiple inter-related ethnic and civil conflicts. Now, just as Liberia is hailed as a success story—with the country’s first post-war president, and Africa’s first woman president, taking office Jan. 16—neighboring Ivory Coast is once again descending into war. Behind the new bloodshed is a continuing Anglo-American-versus-French struggle for control of the region and its precious resources—including significant and virtually untapped oil reserves.

The inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia is claimed as an acheivement of the 2003 peace accord, which called for the restructuring of the armed forces, in disarray since the outbreak of civil war in December 1989. In 2003, the US government pledged $35 million to recruit and train the new military force of 2,000 troops—to be recruited and trained by Dyncorp, a US-based company with contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia.

During the civil war there were a number of failed attempts to remake the armed forces. Under the Abuja peace accord, which led to a break in fighting in 1996 and general elections in 1997, the (Nigerian-led) West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG was to train a new national army based on fair ethnic and regional representation. But Charles Taylor, who won the 1997 elections, quashed the proposal. When conflict erupted again in 1999, Taylor turned to in his onetime guerilla fighters, who formed militia groups that battled rebel insurgents until 2003 when Taylor fled into exile. (IRIN, Jan. 18)

Liberia’s civil war began in 1989, when Taylor launched a military campaign against President Samuel K. Doe‘s government. More than 500,000 people are now reported to have died in the war. Taylor was also alleged to have sent fighters from his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to aid Today Sankor‘s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerillas in Sierra Leone, where the former Liberian leader now faces war crimes charges for his involvement in the civil war there. In an interview with Star Radio Jan. 16 in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the US government supports having Taylor appear at the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for War Crimes in Sierra Leone. (The Analyst, Monorovia, via AllAfrica.com, Jan. 18)

Taylor was ousted in August 2003, when a 32-member US military team was deployed as a liaison with regional troops from ECOMOG, led by Nigeria. The US also brought three warships with 2,300 Marines into view of the coast. Taylor flew to exile in Nigeria. He harshly criticized the United States in his farewell address.

In November 2003, the US Congress passed a bill offering a reward offer of two million dollars for Taylor’s capture. While the peace agreement had guaranteed Taylor safe exile in Nigeria, it also required that he not attempt to influence Liberian politics—a requirement his critics claim he has not honored. Taylor is now on Interpol’s Most Wanted list for “crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention.” However, Nigeria has stated that it will not submit to Interpol’s demands, unless Liberia wants to try him. (Wikipedia)

Taylor launched his 1989 revolution from Ivory Coast, where his good friend Felix Houphouet-Boigny was then serving as president-for-life. Following Houphouet-Boigny’s death in 1993, a series of contested elections and military coups led to the outbreak of violence in 2000, with President Laurent Gbagbo claiming the support of the mainly Christian south, and the opposition solidifying a base among Muslims from the north. It came to civil war in 2002, when government troops mutinied and joined the northern opposition in open rebellion. A ceasefire and power-sharing agreement were brokered in 2003, with a new government to include nine members from rebel ranks. The following year, UN peacekeepers were sent in. (BBC Country Profile)

The ceasefire was briefly broken in November 2004, when protesters and pro-government militias clashed with French peacekeepers in Abidjan, the capital. The fighting began after Ivory Coast warplanes bombed a French position near Bouake in the north—killing nine French peacekeepers and a US citizen. French troops retaliated by destroying five Ivorian aircraft, sparking battles with government supporters in Abidjan, who fought to wrest control of the airport from the French military. (CNN, Nov. 7, 2004)

In the new violence, four people have been killed as UN peacekeepers clashed with government supporters for a third day Jan. 18. About 300 Bangladeshi peackeepers and UN employees fled their compound in the western town of Guiglo after supporters of President Gbagbo overran the camp. The new protests began after UN mediators recommended that the mandate of the Gbagbo-controlled parliament not be renewed. Gbagbo has demanded UN forces leave the country and said his ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) would no longer co-operate with a plans for a transitional government to reunite the country and hold peaceful elections by October.

Young supporters of the president are rallying in Abidjan, gathering outside UN offices and the French Embassy. Known as the Young Patriots, the young activists are stopping cars and checking identity papers. In the western city of San Pedro, demonstrators threw firebombs at a UN office.

France’s chief of defense staff has called for UN sanctions against the former colony. France has about 4,000 peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, working with an additional 7,000 UN troops. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for an end to “orchestrated violence directed against the United Nations.” (CBC, Jan. 18)

The rebel New Forces movement that took control of the north in September 2002 is largely made up of Dioulas and Senoufos, the two major ethnic groups in the north, who rallied to the rebel cause because they feel northerners have been discriminated against in Ivorian politics. They are related to the Bambara, the dominant ethnicity in Mali, and Malinke. (BBC, July 17, 2004)

An overview of the regional media coverage from WorldPress.org sheds light on which outside powers are backing which factions:

“Without France, we would find ourselves in a second Rwanda,” claimed Ibrahim Coulibaly, one of the rebels who took control of the north in September 2002, in an interview with Courrier International (Nov 17). He accuses Ivorian President Gbagbo of wanting to “internationalize the crisis and attract neighboring countries into his destructive adventure.”

By sharp contrast, Cameroon’s privately owned newspaper, Le Messager (Nov 17), insists that the French and UN peacekeeping forces are the problem, not the solution: “The more time that passes, the more the efforts of the former colonial power and the international community turn manifestly in favor of the rebels, the more radical the militias become. We know what has happened: it’s become unbearable.”

Michèle Alliot-Marie, France’s minister of Defense, evoked Rwanda to justify the presence of French soldiers in West Africa during a recent press conference with foreign journalists, reported Nouvel Observateur (Nov 17): “It is clear that, by intervening in September of 2002 and in the following months, we avoided the kind of massacres that took place in Rwanda…” (World Press Review, Nov. 30, 2004)

That last statement is certainly something of an irony given growing evidence of French complicity in the Rwanda genocide.

The New York Times of Jan. 25, 1998 noted: “International rivalries have existed in the area since colonial times, But they accelerated sharply in 1989, when Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, reportedly with French encouragement, helped Charles G. Taylor launch an invasion of Liberia to topple the United States-backed Government of Samuel K. Doe. With the United States evacuating its citizens from Liberia because of the intensifying violence, Nigeria, whose [then] military Government had strong business ties Mr. Doe, rallied several other West African nationals behind a regional military intervention. The action relied heavily at first on Nigerian jets and gunboats to stop Mr. Taylor’s advance. Mr. Taylor, furious to see his offensive foiled, then began arming a guerilla movement, the Revolutionary United Front, to punish Sierra Leone for joining the Nigerian drive against him. Sierra Leone’s Government initially relied on Nigerian help for its defense, ceding control of several diamond-rich mining zones to the Nigerians in return.” (WW4 REPORT #86)

We have also noted some of the resource-exploitation interests that drive the West African wars. When sanctions were imposed on West African “conflict diamonds” which supported the activities of the brutal guerillas in Sierra Leone, France brought pressure to assure that Liberian timber would not be included in the embargo–even though this timber is a key source of revenue for Liberia’s Taylor, who supported the Sierra Leone rebels. Meanwhile, as Taylor established de-facto control over neighboring Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast through proxy forces, French interests reaped timber profits throughout the region. As Anthony Lewis wrote for the Liberian electronic journal The Perspective: “French companies invaded ‘Greater Liberia.’ They were well aware of the unstable conditions in Liberia, so the port of San Pedro, in the southwest of Ivory Coast became the port of exit of Liberian timber towards Europe. From a dying coastal town, San Pedro boomed during the war and was the market place for Liberian diamonds, timber and gold.” (WW4 REPORT #90)

Also at issue is Ivory Coast’s embroilment in the oil wars shaking the Niger Delta, with the Nigerian government accusing local rebel militias of selling pirated oil to Ivory Coast.

The West African coast itself is slated by global planners to follow Nigeria into massive oil development. On Oct. 14, 2004, Richard Wilcox, a member of the US National Security Council under President Clinton, had a New York Times op-ed piece calling for the Pentagon to establish an African Command. Noting that Africa is currently divided between the European, Central and Pacific commands, he argues that military planners have underestimated the continent’s strategic importance. While posing the possibility of “a humanitarian mission to help the people of Darfur”, Wilcox did not fail to mention oil: “The Navy has conducted major exercises off West Africa, an area that, according to a recent study by the National Intelligence Council, may surpass the Persian Gulf as a source of oil for the United States in a decade.” (WW4 REPORT #104)

See our last post on West Africa.

  1. The Religion Angle
    I wonder what ever happened about the accusation made by Cardinal Bernard Agre back in 2004 that French soldiers had decapitated some girls in the Ivory Coast. By the way, I once wrote a piece on how this conflict was playing out in the Western religious media – it’s here, for anyone who’s interested.

  2. The Israeli angle
    French media reported the nine French troops were actually killed by an UAV piloted by Israeli mercs —

    25 November – 1 December 2004
    Issue No. 718

    Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

    Ivorians bite the bullet

    Foreign powers continue to meddle in Africa as civil conflict erupts again in Ivory Coast, writes Gamal Nkrumah Emotions are running high in Ivory Coast, as the country, once West Africa’s wealthiest and most economically dynamic nation, is plunged back into a bitter civil war pitting southerners against northerners, and Christians against Muslims.

    As the conflict revives, so neighbouring nations are finding themselves drawn in against their will. Ivory Coast’s northern neighbours, in particular, are sympathetic to the cause of the armed opposition groups based in the north of the country with whom they have close ethnic, cultural and religious affinities.

    Foreign powers, most notably France and Israel, are also being drawn in. Despite decades of independence, Paris is still able to deploy overwhelming political as well as military force in its former African colonies. However, whereas in the past many francophone African leaders have been only too happy to be saved by French troops when the knife was at their throat, today most of them look to the United States for their salvation.

    France has been given a clear mandate by the United Nations to secure peace in its former — and most lucrative — African colony, a role which has drawn fierce criticism from the Ivorian government. President Laurent Gbagbo has openly accused the French of siding with the rebels and turned, in desperation, to Israel for help.

    With Israeli military and intelligence assistance, the Ivorian government forces were beginning to gain the upper hand, when the tide turned against them earlier this month.

    On 4 November, Ivorian government aircraft began to bombard northern territory held by the rebels. On 6 November, however, a government air strike hit a French military base near the demarcation line, leaving nine French soldiers dead. The French retaliation was swift and devastating: in the space of a few minutes, they destroyed the entire Ivorian airforce.

    French policy-makers justified their action by arguing that the Ivorian government forces would not have staged such a daring attack on the armed insurrectionists alone, thus risking open conflict with the French. Only the Israelis could therefore have been behind the offensive.

    No sooner had the world’s leading producer of cocoa vowed to rebuild its air force, than the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a French-drafted resolution imposing an arms embargo on the Ivory Coast.

    Meanwhile, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz conceded that Israeli digital recording and monitoring systems for military intelligence were being extensively used by the Ivory Coast government forces.

    According to the French media, Israeli mercenaries have directed much of the recent fighting, and the unmanned aircraft that killed nine French soldiers was an Israeli drone. French daily Le Monde reported that 46 Israeli advisers are currently operating an eavesdropping and intelligence gathering centre in the country.

    Beside these mercenaries, the prime beneficiaries of the war in Ivory Coast include a number of top Israeli arms firms. SIBAT, the Foreign Defence Assistance and Export Department of the Israeli Ministry of Defence, has sold the Ivorian government arms and military equipment. Elbit Systems, based in Haifa, has provided four upgraded Puma helicopters, one of which was destroyed last week during the French bombardment of Ivorian air force bases. Another Israeli company, Aeronautics Defence Systems, also sold Ivory Coast two Aerostar drones.

    But this supply chain should not be interpreted as one-sided support. The notorious Israeli arms dealer Moshe Rothschild is purportedly making a killing in the Ivory Coast selling both sides in the conflict arms and ammunition.

    Without the recent French military intervention, the Israeli drones seemed set to change the course of the war. With the Ivorian government forces now in retreat, a week of anti-French riots ensued in the country’s largest city and principal port, Abidjan.

    Supporters of president Gbagbo took to the streets, assaulting foreigners on sight and destroying their property. Some 4,000 out of 5,500 inmates in the main prison in Abidjan took advantage of the chaos to escape. These hardened criminals soon joined the so-called “Young Patriots” militiamen, who are allied with the ruling party. Together they spearheaded the widespread looting and destruction of mainly French property across the city. The Red Cross estimates that the clashes in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan, left at least 1,000 people wounded.

    On Saturday, Gbagbo dismissed the head of his armed forces and replaced him with Colonel Philippe Mangou who led the latest offensive in the north of the country.

    Gbagbo blames France for the current Ivorian crisis. “At the start of the crisis I asked for two helicopters,” Gbagbo said. “If they had given them to me, the war would have been over in two days.”

    Gbagbo claims that the armed opposition groups are backed by France and working in tandem with Ivory Coast’s northern neighbours to siphon off the country’s wealth. “Since they occupied part of the national territory, the rebels have opened offices for the sale of Ivorian diamonds in neighbouring countries. For two years now, the rebels have been looting and selling our harvests of cocoa, coffee and cotton in neighbouring countries,” Gbagbo stressed.

    French President Jacques Chirac promptly refuted Gbagbo’s claims. He explained the French decision to intervene militarily as prompted by the desire to save the country from devastation and dissolution. “We do not want to allow a system to develop that would only lead to anarchy, or a regime of a fascist nature,” the French president warned. Chirac went on to refer to Gbagbo’s government as a “questionable regime”.

    In sharp contrast, African leaders are trying to adopt a more conciliatory method to diffuse the tensions. In a flurry of diplomatic activity, South African President Thabo Mbeki flew to Ivory Coast last Tuesday for talks with his Ivorian counterpart. Gbagbo then flew back with Mbeki last Thursday to meet Ivorian opposition leaders now assembled in South Africa.

    Not to be outdone by the South African mediation efforts, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo summoned six African heads of state to an emergency summit to discuss the Ivorian crisis. Gbagbo declined to go to Abuja, but dispatched instead Speaker Mamadou Koulibaly, widely regarded as a hardliner, to represent the Ivorian government at the Abuja summit.

    Once a show piece of African political stability and economic prosperity, Ivory Coast has fast been sliding into political chaos and economic collapse. In 2003, France brokered a deal between the Ivorian government and the New Forces, commonly referred to as the Marcoussis power-sharing accords.

    But the Marcoussis accords are now in shambles. On 29 September, the Ivorian parliament failed to meet a deadline for the political reforms it had promised to enact. On 15 October, the New Forces retaliated by ignoring the deadline set for their disarmament, and on 28 October, they withdrew their ministers from the Ivorian government of national unity.

    The main demand of the New Forces is the amendment of Article 35 of the Ivorian constitution. This article stipulates that all presidential candidates must be not only of Ivorian nationality, but also of “pure Ivorian stock” — that is born to Ivorian mothers. Introduced as part of a constitutional revision in 2000, this rule effectively eliminates 40 per cent of the population from standing for the highest office.

    However, at the time, the move was interpreted as specifically intended to block the presidential ambitions of the popular former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara.

    It was Henri-Konan Bédié, who succeeded Houphouet-Boigny as president in 1993, who first launched the concept of “Ivority”, or Ivorian ethnic purity, as a means of dividing his opponents and thus consolidating his hold on power. Successive regimes, most of whom came to power through a coup d’etat, have continued to use xenophobic rhetoric and discriminatory legal measures to mask the country’s true economic problems.