A month ago, it looked like peace might be around the corner for Cote d’Ivoire. Government soldiers and rebels had stopped shooting at one another, and were playing soccer, refereed by a French peacekeeper: government forces won 5-0, but a good time was had by all.
Things can change very quickly in Cote d’Ivoire. The pride of West Africa only a decade ago, the country has gone steadily downhill since the death of founding president (or “colorful dictator”, if you prefer) Flix Houphouet-Boigny in 1993. And a tense peace can disappear over the weekend.
On Saturday, Ivorian government forces bombed French peacekeepers near Bouake, a rebel stronghold in the north of the country. Nine French soldiers and an American aid worker died – dozens more were injured. The government claims that it made a mistake, and had been targeting a rebel encampment, not UN peacekeepers. Chirac responded by deploying soldiers to destroy the four airplanes and three helicopters that comprised the Ivoirian air force.
Ivoirian government officials took to the airwaves in Abidjan, the commercial capital, and urged Ivoirians to chase the French out of the country. Riots ensued, including widespread looting of French-owned businesses. French troops were deployed from peacekeeping positions in the north to retake the international airport in Abidjan and protect French citizens from machete attacks. At least 400 people were injured; at least 2000 French citizens are seeking shelter in UN or French military bases in the country.
France is now pushing a resultion through the UN security council, calling for an arms embargo and travel restrictions on Ivoirian diplomants – China, Africa’s new best friend, is threatening a veto.
How does a north/south ethnic and religious civil war turn into a colony/colonizer conflict overnight? Evidently, the Gbagbo government has concluded that France is not a neutral party in the conflict, but an active supporter of the northern rebels:
“France has declared war on the Ivory Coast, that’s how it looks to us,” says Sery Bahi, a senior adviser to President Laurent Gbagbo, speaking by phone from Abidjan. He says Mr. Gbagbo is willing to have direct talks with French President Jacques Chirac. “We now know the real problem we have is not with the rebels but with France. We want to understand what is it the French government wants from us.” (from Mike Crawley’s article in Christian Science Monitor.)
Why the French government would choose to support the Muslim north against the Christian south – or to support either party in the conflict – is unclear. It’s well established that France supported Houphouet-Boigny from independence in 1960 to his death, allowing him to spend lavishly (and stupidly – his lasting memorial is the world’s largest basilica, Our Lady of Peace, in
Yamousoukro, his home town – which he later declared the capital. Adequately describing the absurdity of the basilica would require a much longer blog post. But one irresistable detail: the hundreds of stained glass windows feature innumerable white faces, and a single black one, which bears a striking resemblance to the late President… Here’s a lovely photo panorama of the basilica. )
When Houphouet-Boigny died in 1993, France’s “special relationship” with Cote d’Ivoire ended. In 1994, the French government devalued – by half – the Communaut franaise d’Afrique (CFA) franc – the intent was to make African products more competitive on world markets, but many in the middle and upper-classes in Cote d’Ivoire saw the move as a conspiracy to make it harder for them to purchase international goods – the shock of 26% inflation in a country previously inflation-free increased this resentment. More than 20,000 French citizens were living in the country at the time of the 1999 coup – French citiziens hold anywhere from 40-50% of the total capital in Ivoirian firms.
So perhaps the French are an easy target for Gbagbo to pick on, much as Amin expelled Indian shopkeepers in Uganda as he consolidated his power. Or perhaps France really is up to no good, as sites like La Neocolinisation Continue and blogger Watch France often speculate. (Watch France felt compelled to make clear: “France Watcher does not support nor condone racial violence of any sort. The targeting of French civilians by mobs is clearly unfortunate.”)
What’s clear is that it’s going to be hard for France to maintain a peacekeeping force in Cote d’Ivoire if they’re seen as neo-colonial invaders. This is a real problem – French peacekeepers make up almost half the troops currently deployed to the country; the rest are from neighboring West African nations (including a large contingent from Ghana, a country that deserves more recognition for its regular and reliable contribution to international peacekeeping efforts.) With UN presences in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and AU peacekeepers in Darfur, African armies are getting stretched pretty thin. It’s admirable that the French have been willing to put troops on the line in their former colony – it’s unlikely that uninvolved nations like the US or the UK will pick up the slack in Cote d’Ivoire if France is forced to pull out to reduce tensions.