The Story of Laurent Gbagbo

Stephen W. Smith

On 11 April, four and a half months after he had been defeated in a UN-supervised election, Laurent Gbagbo, the former leader of Ivory Coast, was forced out of his presidential bunker by a motley and, some would say, unholy alliance of rebels turned Forces républicaines, UN blue helmets and French soldiers. What does this mean? That Gbagbo is somewhere between Mugabe to the south and Gaddafi to the north, in the eyes of the international community? Or that the international community’s latter-day mission to civilise Africa has led to its fighting a war in Libya and a successful battle in Ivory Coast, with a little help from France, the former colonial master of Ivory Coast?

Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the ‘father of independence’, decreed the name of his country, Côte d’Ivoire, untranslatable and prevailed on the United Nations to agree. Diplomats responded with more enthusiasm than they would have shown had Milosevic insisted on the same for Republika Srbija. This is more than just an anecdote. Ivory Coast is at once a very self-enclosed place and the most pan-African country on a continent where the political dream of integration remains elusive. Houphouët-Boigny wasn’t a dreamer in the mould of Kwame Nkrumah or Sékou Touré, two of his radical pan-African neighbours. A traditional chief and a wealthy planter, also a doctor and a fully-fledged minister in several French cabinets of the late 1950s, he was sufficiently self-confident to make a deal with France at independence in 1960. He agreed, as did other Francophone leaders in his wake, to form a Franco-African shadow federation, a political entity as ‘informal’ as many African economies, and later coined a term for this arrangement: la Françafrique. It could be seen as a Faustian bargain offering the African soul for sale, or, as Houphouët-Boigny argued, as a feat of realpolitik that could put food on ‘the empty plate of independence’. In the meantime, a string of financial scandals, a long bout of French postcolonial remorse and the denial of any genuine ‘African’ component in la Françafrique gave the term its negative associations.

Until the mid-1980s, Ivory Coast was a French showpiece, a uniquely prosperous African country. It was also a land of discreet apartheid, where diverse groups – Ivorians, Lebanese, French, other ‘whites’ and an impressive array of African immigrant communities – worked together and, mostly, lived apart. The cours communes – the inner courtyards of Abidjan where Africans of all origins mingled – remained the cosmopolitan exception. Under the (mildly) authoritarian rule of Houphouët-Boigny, an ‘economic miracle’ was accomplished, yet the process, and hence the result, was not miraculous. They were underwritten by a common currency in the former French colonies: the CFA franc, originally the legal tender of the French colonies in Africa (Colonies Françaises d’Afrique) and, after their independence in 1960, of the Communauté Financière Africaine. To this day, the currency’s value is vouched for by the Banque de France.

France didn’t unite the vast expanses of Africa under its control: both colonial rule and the postcolonial presence were like the lead beading holding together the panes of a stained-glass window. The French have always obeyed a supranational logic in Africa: Paris might intervene, for example, in the Central African Republic, known as the ‘Cinderella of the French empire’, to boost its own credibility as a tutelary power in Gabon or Congo-Brazzaville, two oil-rich countries of strategic importance. But Ivory Coast? Roughly 10,000 French lived in the country at independence. Yet there were 50,000 in the mid-1980s. Today there are no more than 12,000, including 8000 Franco-Ivorians, Franco-Lebanese and others with dual citizenship. The heyday of the cash-crop bonanza is over and although Ivory Coast is still the number one exporter of cocoa in the world, and number three for coffee, no French company holds a major stake in the coffee and cocoa sector. SIFCA, the last important Franco-Ivorian player, sold off its operations in 2001.

The two pillars of the Ivorian economy are cocoa and petroleum; cash crops benefit the nation, while oil lines the state coffers. Annual state receipts amount to roughly $3.5 billion, out of which petrol royalties ($1.3 billion) represent nearly 40 per cent and cocoa and coffee exports 30 per cent. No French company has a significant stake in the oil sector. The French, however, run the water and electricity supplies, the main private phone company and TV network as well as the biggest construction companies. So, even if the retail sector has been taken over by Lebanese, Mauritanians and, lately, Chinese, and few small and medium-size French companies remain (most went out of business after a looting spree in 2004), Ivory Coast still has the appearance of a ‘colonised economy’. This, for France, is the worst of both worlds: a bad neocolonial image but no real power.

Behind the façade of postcolonial grandeur, little is left. Fifty years ago, at independence, France supplied more than half of Ivorian imports (52 per cent) and received almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of its exports. Since then, the colonial pact – exclusive trading rights, once summarised as ‘all for the metropolis, all from the metropolis’ – has run its course. Today, Nigeria is the leading supplier of imports, with 31 per cent of market share; France trails behind with 15 per cent. Most of Ivory Coast’s exports go to Germany, Nigeria and the Netherlands, with France and the US sharing fourth position (7 per cent). A similar decline has affected cultural and other exchanges – fewer French TV shows and movies are seen in Ivory Coast, there are fewer Ivorian students in France, and fewer foreign visitors to Ivory Coast. Since the Berlin Wall crumbled, a new burst of globalisation has transformed sub-Saharan Africa. In the absence of an overhaul of French policy in Africa, a comprehensive Paristroika, the Franco-African bloc has been reconfigured by a wave of democratisation in the early 1990s, by neoliberal state reform and, most important, by runaway population growth south of the Sahara.

At independence, 3.5 million people lived in Ivory Coast. Today their number is estimated at 21 million. According to the last reliable census, carried out in 1998, 26 per cent of the population is foreign. That is a world record (Australia comes a close second at 24 per cent). Between 1960 and 2000, Abidjan grew by a factor of 19, from 180,000 inhabitants to 3.5 million; today its population is estimated at between four and five million. Had France experienced comparable growth, Greater Paris would have 126 million inhabitants instead of 12 million, and the French population would have surged from 45 million to 270 million, including 68 million Maghrebi non-citizens.

Clearly the question is not why Ivory Coast has been suffering an identity crisis since the mid-1990s but why the crisis didn’t occur much earlier and why it hasn’t brought about complete devastation. The short and simplistic answer is that Houphouët-Boigny held the country together until his death in 1993, at the age of 88. The war of succession began as an internecine competition among the elite. In 2002, after an attempted coup against Gbagbo, it developed into all-out civil strife: in other words, it was democratised. Since Houphouët-Boigny’s death and the end of the one-party system, the population has been harnessed to the political projects of a fractious nomenklatura. Houphouët-Boigny’s anointed successor, Henri Konan Bédié, championed ivoirité in an attempt to marginalise his main rival, the former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, whose family fiefdom is in the north of the country, whose father had immigrated from neighbouring Burkina Faso, and who had started his brilliant career as an international banker using his Burkinabé passport.

In a country like Ivory Coast, which combines large-scale immigration and ill-defined citizenship, identity issues are deeply dangerous. Bédié’s ivoirité was a path to self-destruction: in search of its true and immutable self, Ivory Coast could only discover otherness. The country went mad and the outside world began moralising about Ivorian xenophobia. You have to be Senegalese to drive a taxi in Dakar; you have to be Togolese, or French, to own real estate in Lomé. Ivory Coast, an ultra-liberal country, wide open to the outside, until 1994 the only African country where foreigners were allowed to vote, and where they have consistently held senior positions, including ministerial posts, eventually had second thoughts about the virtues of reciprocity and pan-African sharing. Its citizens felt that they were doing all the giving or else being taken advantage of. I think they were wrong, but people have similar feelings in Holland, where foreigners account for 12.2 per cent of the population, in the US (12.5 per cent), in France (8.1 per cent) and even in the UK (6.5 per cent). How would they feel in a country where one person in every four isn’t a citizen?

The concept of ivoirité was elaborated by a group of academics and literati who belonged to the University Cell for the Study and Diffusion of the Ideas and Political Actions of President Henri Konan Bédié and were associated with the review Racines. Ivoirité allowed southerners to express their pent-up unease about the ‘influx’ from the north and set off a witch-hunt (plus robbery and extortion) for ‘illegal aliens’ at police roadblocks, in the public administration and the informal sector of the economy. Because it favoured their corrupt practices, or because they genuinely felt threatened by Muslim migrants, many Ivorians in the predominantly Christian coastal regions tended to conflate foreigners from Sahel states and Ivorians from the north. In their eyes, Ouattara’s citizenship was dubious. The former prime minister was barred from running for president in 1995 by Bédié and in 2000 by a military junta that had seized power a year earlier. A popular uprising against the junta’s attempt to hijack the elections of October 2000 swept Gbagbo to power.

Given his recent humiliation (and his local nickname of ‘the baker’: one who rolls his enemies and former allies in flour before consigning them to the oven), it’s worth recalling that Gbagbo was once regarded as a prophet of democracy in Ivory Coast. A history teacher by profession and a socialist by persuasion, he single-handedly defied the Ivorian establishment and one-party rule; he went to prison more than once and, in 1982, began a six-year exile in Paris. After his return to Abidjan, the then French ambassador, Michel Dupuch, later President Chirac’s point man for Africa, dismissed him as a ‘political non-entity, a meaningless cipher’. Yet in October 1990, Gbagbo became the only post-independence politician to challenge Houphouët-Boigny in an election; he was defeated, but not without carving 18 per cent of the popular vote out of the routine unanimity. He was also the first politician to grasp that in a country where two-thirds of the population (and three-quarters of city dwellers) were under 30, the future – and even the present – belonged to the young.

On the one hand, a ‘youth bulge’ and political pluralism; on the other, elite co-optation by the former metropolitan master. The two are incompatible. The number of ‘black French’ whom the lycée in Abidjan and the Sorbonne or the Ecole de guerre in Paris can churn out each year is limited. Under heavy demographic pressure, the system breaks down. Mentoring doesn’t work, especially when rival mentors – America, China, oil-rich Arab countries – are taking care of elements of the elite who didn’t make it to France, or didn’t want to. In the old days, support in Paris was the best ticket to high office in the French ex-colonies or, as many would say, neo-colonies. Today, France’s backing of one leader or group instantly unites all others in their rejection of la Françafrique. Gbagbo rehabilitated ‘patriotism’ and assigned it a noble if elusive goal: Ivory Coast’s ‘second independence’. In 1960, like most other French colonies in Africa, the country gained sovereignty overnight. Wasn’t it time, a half-century later, for it to become ‘really’, i.e. economically, independent? The answer is obvious only if one sets aside the fact that most sub-Saharan countries do not yet produce their own ballpoint pens, let alone cars, mobile phones or computers.

Laurent Gbagbo was born in 1945 in the so-called ‘cocoa loop’ in the south-west. ‘When I went to school, rural Ivory Coast was still subdivided into military “circles” which were administered by French officers,’ he told me when I interviewed him in June 2009. ‘The economy was entirely in French hands: agriculture, trade, everything. Lawyers and even notaries were exclusively French. Throughout my secondary education, all but two of my teachers were French. It was against this overbearing reality that my generation rose in revolt. And yet it wouldn’t have occurred to me, once the time came to move on to college, to think of going to any place other than Paris. One of my daughters deliberately chose Germany and the other the United States. For me that would have been unthinkable. France was too much part of us.’ On the spur of the moment, the president started singing one of the hymns to France he’d learned in school. ‘La France est belle/ Ses destins sont bénis/Vivons pour elle/Vivons, vivons unis.’

He rounded it off with a burst of laughter and went on to talk about Charles Blé Goudé, the self-styled ‘general’ who’d been leading the pro-Gbagbo youth militia, the ‘young patriots’, since 2002. Blé Goudé, he explained, met his first white teacher when he went to study in England. ‘To England and not to France. It’s this generational shift that I call Africa’s quiet liberation. It’s natural, a gentle slope that will eventually set us free. As a politician I need to be in lockstep with the Ivorian youth because they’re the majority in our country. Nowadays, the better educated among them all learn English. Of course, they also speak French. But, to some extent, if I really want to be “in sync” with them, as they’d say, I need to forget a little of my French. Do you understand?’ It all made perfect sense. But in the summer of 2009, it was already clear that the gentle slope had become a sheer drop, and ‘the French’ a convenient excuse for the free fall of Gbagbo’s regime.

Gbagbo had acceded to power in 2000 ‘in calamitous conditions’, as he put it, as a result of Ouattara’s exclusion from the presidential race and his own refusal to countenance a rerun. It soon came back to haunt him. Two years later, an armed insurrection in the north, Ouattara’s power base, split Ivory Coast across the middle. The French army intervened to impose a ceasefire and a buffer zone which, de facto, reinforced the partition. Gbagbo continued to wage a ‘dirty war’ – his words – in the south; the rebels did the same in the north. On both sides, dissidents were killed. The French press exposed the crimes committed by ‘presidential hit squads’, allegedly led by Gbagbo’s personal security guards and those of his wife Simone, also a former history professor and a political heavyweight in her own right. The presidential couple filed a libel suit in Paris. My reporting in Le Monde was called into question and I submitted evidence in the form of a report by the French secret service, which named and blamed the death squads and their commanders. The Ivorian presidency lost the case, appealed and lost again. Thereafter, Simone Gbagbo refused to meet me, even at press conferences, when I was gently but firmly escorted out. Behind her back, Laurent Gbagbo continued to see me, unperturbed.

‘Gbagbo was born before shame,’ ordinary people in Abidjan used to say. It didn’t necessarily mean they disapproved of him. It was more a case of stating the obvious. The way he looked at it, history was the victors’ account of a merciless fight. ‘It’s difficult for us to make history,’ he once explained to me. ‘We have to carry out our own French Revolution with Amnesty International peering over our shoulder.’ Murder, intrigue, corruption, bare-faced lies, betrayal, ethnic cleansing: all means would be justifiable provided the end was attained. In Gbagbo’s home region, where Ivory Coast’s main cash crops are grown, the sons of the soil, the Bété, turned against migrant workers from poor Sahel states and against fellow Ivorians from other parts of the country.

In 1996, Laurent and Simone Gbagbo miraculously survived a car accident and a fearsome God became part of the power equation. Both fervently embraced a born-again Christianity (they were both Catholics) and under the influence of their evangelical pastor Moïse Koré, a former telecoms engineer and basketball player who had prophesied Gbagbo’s ascent to power, they turned the presidency into a temple on the way to a New Jerusalem. A life-size painting behind Gbagbo’s desk in his office showed him on bended knee in front of a wooden chair with an open Bible. Eventually, the president came to see himself as chosen by God rather than elected by the people. No one, least of all a Muslim from the north like Ouattara, would unseat him. Any attempt to do so, including a democratic election, was called an ‘international conspiracy’ in public, and a ‘satanic enterprise’ in private.

For Gbagbo, ivoirité was also an anti-colonial credo. Whenever in difficulty, Gbagbo blamed the French in general or their president in particular, first Chirac and then Sarkozy. In 2004, as a reprisal for the bombardment of a French position that had resulted in the deaths of nine soldiers, Chirac ordered the destruction of the Ivorian air force – two bombers, two small fighter jets and three combat helicopters. During the mass protests that followed in Abidjan – fanned by Gbagbo’s partisans – beleaguered French military opened fire, killing 16 civilians and injuring many more. Gbagbo made much of ‘our unarmed martyrs assassinated by the French’, while Chirac publicly accused him of presiding over a ‘fascist regime’. Gbagbo gave the incoming Sarkozy the benefit of the doubt. But when Sarkozy insisted on free and fair elections as the precondition for better relations, the pro-Gbagbo press in Ivory Coast were quick to portray him as ‘Ouattara’s master’.

In power, Gbagbo was France’s postcolonial nemesis, playing a role very similar to the one Mugabe has played in relation to Britain in the past decade or so. It would have been useless to point out that in the 1990s Mugabe’s government allocated a paltry 0.16 per cent of the state budget to land reform, or that 79 per cent of the white farmers in Zimbabwe bought their property after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, and then only once the authorities had renounced their pre-emptive right as first buyers. To many, the violent dispossession of land under British rule was reason enough to justify violent repossession (even if for the benefit of Mugabe’s cronies) and tirades against the British. By the same token, France’s presence in Ivory Coast occasioned anti-French resentment under Gbagbo, no matter what France was doing.

Why then, at the risk of yet more opprobrium, did the French intervene in Ivory Coast in April? Some of the reasons are as difficult to understand as colonialism in hindsight, or the current attempt to bomb a Bedouin state into democracy. It requires an unshakable faith in one’s own, better way of life and the wish to share it with others, even against their will. When people in need are involved, the mission takes on a humanitarian character. Young volunteers from more developed parts of the world routinely teach grown-up Africans better hygiene, farming techniques or irrigation methods, advanced science or birth control. When people are ‘victims’ of their own government, military means may be used (if the risk of retaliation is low). Gbagbo’s violent rejection of majority rule, like Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya, is a case in point. In Zimbabwe, however, no intervention. The international community intervenes à la carte.

Other reasons are more tangible. Nothing makes a military mission more likely than a previous military mission. France – with more than 40 interventions in independent Africa south of the Sahara – has more than an edge over Britain with only three or four, the latest in 2000 in Sierra Leone, after decades of postcolonial abstinence. The mere fact of already having boots on the ground often makes the difference. France had pledged in 2004 to lend its own local firepower to the UN peacekeeping mission that would ultimately replace its forces in Ivory Coast (following the British and American examples in Sierra Leone and Liberia). How then could they stand idly by in 2011 when Gbagbo’s army used artillery in a megalopolis under the guard of 11,000 blue helmets? A terrible end seemed better than endless terror. Even more so as France, which still sees itself as an African power, needed to reassert its credibility on the continent – and seized the opportunity to rid itself of Gbagbo.

Gbagbo made more than one mistake. Having usurped a second five-year term (by failing to hold an election in 2005), he called the voters to the ballot boxes last November, when success seemed assured. By then, he had appointed a rebel leader as prime minister and was counting on state patronage to pave the way to victory. Nadiana Bamba, his second and far younger wife, was charged with winning over her home region in the north, but not only did ‘Nady’ fail to make inroads into Ouattara’s fiefdom, she spent more than a billion euros, two thirds of it unaccounted for. When the results of the first round came in, Gbagbo realised he couldn’t win the run-off, dismissed Nady, reinstated Simone with full conjugal and political rights, and signed an oil deal with Gunvor, a company controlled by the Russian Gennady Timchenko – the only trader who could raise a ‘pre-payment’ of $90 million. The state was already bankrupt, having tried to buy loyalties that were not for sale, and the money was destined for Gbagbo’s post-election war chest, and a fight to the death.

The debacle of ‘patriotism’ in Ivory Coast has been full of ironies. Gunvor – the Old Norse name means ‘circumspect in fighting’ – took the oil deal straight to Ouattara. Attempts to acquire illegal weapons in the struggle for the soul of the nation merely enriched greedy middlemen, in particular Gbagbo’s pastor and one of his uncles. A French arms dealer in Togo failed to secure an eleventh-hour shipment from Belarus and, as a result, the Ivorian army had no ammunition; only its special units, acting directly under presidential orders, put up a fight in Abidjan. But the crowning irony was the Great Liberator’s faith in a group of French gangsters who had been his invisible helpers since 2002: at the end, holed up in his bunker, Gbagbo lived on a combination of prayer and cellphone calls to his earthly keepers. He never suspected they were busy offering their services to Ouattara.

Democracy, unlike war, doesn’t break out. It didn’t break out in sub-Saharan Africa after the Cold War and it has not broken out in the ‘Arab world’. But a good principle – that the voice of the people should prevail – has been defended in an unlikely place. Much derided, much loathed, the international community has managed to stand its ground in Abidjan. Ouattara, the man who defeated Gbagbo last November with 54 per cent of the popular vote, has become president after all. Will he lead his country into a plausible future? Will he reconcile Ivorians with themselves and their neighbours? The chances looked better late last year when, after the first round of elections, the father of ivoirité, former president Bédié, rallied to his one-time arch-enemy Ouattara. For as long as Bédié and Ouattara were prepared to bury the past and march hand in hand, national reconciliation and economic reconstruction seemed possible. But the odds began to lengthen, as Ouattara, deprived of his victory, was forced to call on the rebels in the north. Without their weaponry, on the one hand, and the interventionist French, on the other, the new regime in Abidjan would have been a very long shot.

The Ivorian crisis continues to evolve. The main ingredients so far are obvious: confiscation of power, nativism as a rallying cry, millenarian politics; a rent-based economy and its usual bedfellow, corruption; a youthful population and postcolonial caterwauling. All these are characteristically modern and connect Ivory Coast to the rest of the world, which is precisely what Gbagbo fought so hard to prevent. It took four and a half months to remove him from office. To fade out the ideas that led to his defiance of the Ivorian electorate and the international community will take much longer.