No true African, not least one in whose veins nationalist blood flows, could have resisted the charms of Laurent Gbagbo’s oratory, until perhaps a little while ago. With his intense eyes, trenchant voice and energetic gesticulations, there is a certain spark – well, charisma may sound too patronising - about this old teacher of History.
This, at least, was the impression this writer had within moments of being ushered on a certain night of December 2004 into the formidable presence of – it now seems inevitable to say disgraced - Ivory Coast’s third elected president inside the high-ceilinged lounge of the Cocody Presidential Villa, Abidjan.
One was privileged to be among a select team of Nigerian journalists embedded in a United Nation fact-finding mission in the French-speaking country following the outbreak of hostilities a couple of weeks earlier between government troops and the rebel forces backed by France.
The Ivorian armed forces, apparently emboldened by new weaponry reportedly supplied by the Chinese, had begun to push northward against the rebels, only to be scattered midway by the French who brought the full weight of their military to bear under the guise of avenging an ‘attack’ on their base by government troops. With a savage precision, the entire Air Force of Ivory Coast in Abidjan and Yamaussoukro was blown apart. Not even the Gbagbo’s presidential jet was spared.
Before approaching Gbagbo to hear the official angle to the riveting Ivorian story, we had spent the preceding five days touring the various theatres of war in Bouake, Yamaussoukro and Abidjan, chaperoned by blue-bereted UN troops, listening to leaders of all the various tendencies of the conflict.
Indeed, in that epic voyage of discovery, what we had found was both shattering and despairing. In the rebel-held territory of Bouake, for instance, we would come face-to-face with combatants, eyes made dim by a dark gleam, fielding questions in a tone suggesting they were past the province of dialogue, let alone reconciliation. Elsewhere in Yamaussoukro, we saw the wounded, the vulnerable in various conditions of distress: some waiting to die, others nursing wounds whose severity offered little or no hope. In one more moving instance, a nursing mother was bombed in Yamaussoukro allegedly by a rampaging French fighter jet.
And coming from the Anglophone part of West Africa where physical reminders of colonialism have become a rarity, the visiting journalists were certainly not amused by one other thing the Ivorians daily live with: the spectacle of a French military base near the Abidjan international airport. Added to that ‘novelty’ was the ubiquity of armed French soldiers guarding French business outfits all over the country. A defence pact the country had signed with its colonial master in 1962 provides a legal protection for French military occupation of Abidjan and Yamaussoukro.
So, asked how it felt presiding over a fractured country, French-speaking Gbagbo first cast a contemplative look at the ceiling before attempting a reply through an English interpreter. He narrowed it down to demographics, counting on his finger-tips. More than seventy percent of the Ivorian population today consists of under-30 who had become accustomed to taking things for granted, unfamiliar with the hard road their parents or grannies had travelled, the big sacrifices made, to attain freedom from colonial France in 1960.
So, his historic duty was making this youthful population, indeed the leaders of tomorrow, realize that the nation’s independence meant nothing until Ivorians themselves truly began to exercise sovereignty over their land, unencumbered by a domineering former colonial master.
On account of its status as world’s biggest cocoa producer and No. 3 largest producer of coffee, Ivory Coast accounts for 45 percent of the economic size of West Africa, second to Nigeria. But by the old order, for instance, out of every dollar earned by Ivory Coast from the cash crops, 75 cent was banked in Paris to ‘secure’ CFA, the common currency in Franco-phone West Africa. Of course, such arrangement, cemented by France’s policy of assimilation, only guarantees Paris’ continued prosperity at the expense of the West African nation.
After inauguration in 2000, Gbagbo set out to reverse some of the exclusive concessions enjoyed by the colonial master. Meaning that France had, in reality, continued to exercise total control over the economy of a supposedly ‘independent’ Ivorian nation. All the big contracts were reserved for French companies as ‘birthright’. Though this systematic exploitation predated Ivory Coast’s independence in 1960, the post-independence leadership of Houghet-Boigny did little or nothing to reverse the arrangement out of what could, at best, be described as political naivety, if not outright imbecility. But Gbagbo now insisted on competitive bids for such jobs, so much that other world powers like China began to have a foothold in the Ivorian economy.
All said, much as Gbagbo’s depiction of Ivory Coast’s continued destitution under France’s culture of predation would appear unassailable, this writer has always maintained that his tragic flaw remains his inability to rally a broad national coalition behind what would ordinarily appear a patriotic vision in what perhaps again illustrates so graphically the oft-lamented Africa’s post-colonial crisis. In most cases, the imperialists only succeeded in birthing nation states, but not the nationals that will co-habit peacefully.
But if at all Gbagbo was indeed deserving of any sympathy on account of his brilliance at historicising the Ivorian condition so coherently, he surely squandered all with the way he chose to conduct himself during and after the presidential polls of November 2010. By opting to cling on to power for another five months after his legal limit even against the consensus of the international community, this radical who once went to prison for his political belief only exhibited a naked desperation for power, quite unbecoming of a true progressive.
Now reduced to a political rodent hiding inside a bunker in the Presidential Palace in the last few days, Gbagbo himself should by now have realized the folly in seeking to fight a powerful colonial power without first forging a broad national lobby. Hard as he may continue to fight today in an extravagant hope that he could still succeed in shaking off the French-backed assailants at the door, the truth is that Gbagbo’s days are now really numbered. Alas, the old teacher of History himself has failed to learn the basic lesson of history.
Again, for a man who rode to national limelight on the crest of a combative progressivism in the 70s/80s, who went to jail protesting Houghet-Boigny’s flatulence, how tragic that Gbagbo himself later turned a fierce defender of patently reactionary concepts like the ‘nationality clause’ which seeks to enforce an aborigine/settler dichotomy, thereby excluding rivals from political competition. Of course, whipping such bogey was intended to raise the bar against Alassane Quattara whose parents are believed to be settlers in the north. To compound matters, the latter is also married to a French lady!
No doubt, Gbagbo’s recourse to the promotion of the ‘nationality clause’ was a ploy to consolidate power. But in the process, he only ended up aliening a sizeable population in the northern part of the country (with headquarters in Boauke), thereby accentuating the country’s delicate fault-lines vis-à-vis ethnicity and religion. As the years rolled by, the conflict inevitably morphed into Quattara’s ‘Muslim north’ versus Gbagbo’s ‘Christian south’. Such cleavage was quite evident in the outcome of the now landmark November 2010 polls. The nation’s electoral umpire scored the vote 54 percent in favour of Quattara against Gbagbo’s 46 percent.
That ratio clearly mirrors the sharp division that truly exists in Ivory Coast today. If Quattara’s troops were told to capture Gbagbo alive, it is only out of a mortal fear that doing otherwise could enrage his supporters who are in the majority in the South, with unpredictable consequences for Ivory Coast’s current fragility.
Meanwhile, as the undertakers now keep vigil outside the Cocody fortress earnestly awaiting Gbagbo’s political remains, it is quite easy to situate France’s perfidious hyperactivity lately. With facts now in the public domain, it then becomes easier to appreciate why the French are acting this way. It is borne out of the desperate and carnal desire of a colonial master unwilling to let go, contrary to Paris’ current affectation of selflessness or a nobility to defend the ‘defenceless civilian population’ in Ivory Coast.
In the last few days, Paris has spearheaded the military assault on Ivory Coast, under the guise of ‘enforcing’ the UN resolution seeking the validation of the results of the November 2010 polls. All the aircraft used in bombing targets in Abidjan and the Presidential Villa belonged to France. But what Paris won’t admit is that she has always nursed a deep grudge against Gbagbo over the milking of the Ivorian cow.
This perhaps also explains the propaganda ‘mishap’ of Tuesday. Nigerian media mostly reported Wednesday morning that Gbagbo had ‘surrendered’ to Quattara’s forces. Of course, the lead was picked from AFP, a French-owned international wire service never to be outdone in propagating the interests of its home government. (Over the years, AFP has proved a veritable tool for propagating French perspective to the African reality, skillfully slanted to serve Paris’ interest and perpetuate the French hegemony. Of course, the captive audience in the Francophone West Africa will, in turn, swallow hook, line and sinker.)
Later that Wednesday, it took the accounts of a few independent international media for us to realize that Gbagbo hadn’t surrendered after all; only insisting on a one-on-one with Quattara. Really, the Big Brother in Paris can’t wait to see Gbagbo’s back, perhaps in anticipation of a return to business-as-usual in Abidjan.
In the final analysis, mindful of the ethno-religious genie already let out of the bottle in the last decade of civil war, it will indeed be naïve to assume that the Ivorian debacle ends with Gbagbo. Someday, the hard question the old History teacher has helped raise will certainly resurrect: how sustainable is the neo-colonial architecture bequeathed by France? While Gbagbo’s exit may present a fresh opportunity to address the festering national sore, the first real test thereafter is winning back the confidence of all and sundry. Unless Quattara rises to the historic moment, he may soon find that dislodging Gbagbo from the Cocody Villa is far easier than managing a terminally fractured country.