West Africa is changing. Population growth is the clearest indicator of this. Between 2000 and 2050 Côte d'Ivoire’s population is projected to rise by 192.33%, increasing from 16.69 million to 48.79 million (www.populationpyramid.net). As the Francophone economic powerhouse of West Africa there is much that can be learned from Côte d'Ivoire, and yet regrettably many English-medium media outlets neglect it in favour of the likes of Nigeria or Ghana. For all that, Côte d'Ivoire remains a thought leader in many respects, as well as being the world’s number one producer of cocoa beans according to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization.
Politically the country has experienced considerable turbulence in recent years, including two major armed conflicts. The first of these began in September 2002 when a rebellion headed by former student leader, Guillaume Kigbafori Soro emerged in the north of the country following a failed attempt to overturn the regime of former President Laurent Koudou Gbagbo (4th President of Côte d'Ivoire from 26th October 2000 until 11th April 2011). The second ending in April 2011 was the final chapter of the struggle between the four major political figures, Guillaume Kigbafori Soro, Henri Konan Bédié, Laurent Koudou Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara during the Presidential Elections that took place some months before. During these conflicts various parties used mercenaries and militias. The rebels of Guillaume Kigbafori Soro were heavily supported by the former President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore. Support came in the form of weapons, logistics, finance, soldiers and military instructors. These instructors and fighters largely came from the Burkina Faso, as well as neighbouring countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Mali.
In Liberia efforts were made to seek the support of fighters of the former Liberian President Charles Taylor as these were invariably Yacouba, and thus ethnically linked with their Ivorian cousins. In many respects it could be said that they were serving the cause of the current President, Alassane Ouattara (5th President of Côte d'Ivoire – Assumed office 4th December 2010). His had been a troubled route to the Presidency, especially as there were questions over his right of citizenship, something which caused Ouattara to back away from seeking the Presidency in October 2000. Alassane Ouattara was reputed to be a Burkinabe citizen, who only came to Côte d'Ivoire when well into his forties. He served as Prime Minister during time of Felix Houphouet Boigny, the father of post-independent Côte d'Ivoire. President Alassane Ouattara has long been suspected of helping to finance the rebellion of Soro, something that he has always strenously denied.
Former President Gbagbo also used mercenaries these coming from Angola (Gbagbo being a good friend of Former Angolan president Jose Eduaro Dos Santos who appreciated him for his anti-imperialist views). Furthermore, there were soldiers from Liberia, ethnic Gueres, fighters and supporters of the erstwhile Liberian President Samuel Doe (opponent of another former Liberian President Charles Taylor) who are ethnically related to their Ivorian cousins Gueres, who like the Yacouba live in the west of Ivory Coast, the former ethnic group are well known for their historic support for Gbagbo. Eastern Europeans were also hired to fly the military planes acquired by Gbagbo during the conflict. Finally, a militia of volunteers stemming from the powerful organization of Young Patriots headed by the charismatic leader and Gbagbo’s ally, Charles Blé Goudé, entered the fray.
In the Côte d'Ivoire, a civil conflict came into being with an influx of mercenaries on both sides. To exacerbate things further aspects of the Liberian Civil War were imported in the Ivorian conflict. Add to this the interminable meddling by France, then it is possible to appreciate something of the complexity of the situation. France, as the former colonial power views Côte d'Ivoire as the linchpin of much of its policy in West Africa. Many believe that France played an active part is seeking to weaken and end the Presidency of Laurent Koudou Gbagbo, a man the French came to believe was endeavouring to reduce French influence, both in Côte d'Ivoire in particular, and across Africa in general. For all France’s rhetoric it is evident that the European power has yet to reconcile itself to the independence of its former colonies.
Whilst there is outward calm in the main, for those prepared to look as well as see there are a number of factors fuelling instability across Côte d'Ivoire at the present time:
1) The struggle for succession
There is an atmosphere of change and renewal in the Ivorian political scene. This has been heightened by the fact that President Ouattara’s term in office ends in 2020. Various pretenders and would be kingmakers are emerging in all political parties, and this risks unsettling the current uneasy peace.
2) Poverty, social inequality and the dissatisfaction of youth
For all the best endeavours of the current President serious social inequalities remain. The country’s impressive economic growth seems to benefit a minority while the ordinary citizens eke out a modest existence, with many youths out of work, under-employed and often resentful of their lot.
3) Persistent persecution of the opposition
Supporters of former President Gbagbo are still persecuted by the current regime. Some supporters are in exile in neighbouring states, some live a clandestine existence inside the country, whilst others remain in prison still awaiting trial after six years. As things stand there has been little effective national reconciliation, and thus there remains a possible cause of future instability. Government sensitivity is such that one Ivorian MP was recently arrested whilst walking from Noé to Abidjan to highlight the plight of political prisoners. The Government claimed that it was fearful that the MP’s action might provoke riots. The ongoing trial at the International Criminal Court of Laurent Koudou Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé for crimes against humanity remains a source of tension.
4) Simmering tensions between President Ouattara and his former rebel allies
Tensions between the allies of the President are very real. Outtara is accused of having betrayed Guillaume Soro, a fact that has led to dissatisfaction amongst certain military commanders leading to mutinies at the beginning of 2017. Equally there is suspicion that the President has done a deal with Henri Konan Bédié of the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d'Ivoire in respect of the elections in 2020, a fact that has further incensed supporters of Guillaume Soro.
5) Ethnic tensions over land
The pressure over land, especially fertile land, is a perennial source of conflict. Add to this that fact that during both the Colonial Era and the Presidency of Houphouet Boigny many thousands of foreign nationals, primarily citizens from Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and other neighbouring countries were relocated to serve as manpower on large construction projects, then it is possible to appreciate something of the root cause of tensions. Currently the Guéré and Yacouba (who were enemies in both the Liberian and Ivorian civil wars) are joining forces in clashes over land issues against foreigners (predominantly migrants from Burkina Faso) and local migrant workers (mainly the Baoulé from the centre and east of the country). It is estimated that there over five million non-Ivorians living in Côte d'Ivoire. Land is at a premium and with population pressures set to grow this looks like being one of the greatest challenges facing successive governments.
Whether the fragile peace can be maintained remains to be seen. For all its undoubted challenges Côte d'Ivoire looks set to remain a key regional power, one whose internal dynamic deserves to stimulate rather more interest than it does at present.