As the world gauges France’s pull on the U.N. Security Council, the press considered how France’s influence on one continent is being tested in Ivory Coast, one of its former African colonies. France’s current role in the now-fractured nation has become the focus of a violent division between the Ivorian government and a rebel group whose failed coup last September threw the long-stable nation into chaos.
Last year’s rebellion was rooted in the split between Ivory Coast’s Muslim north and the Christian south. President Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian southerner, came to power in 2000 after a tainted process that was less an open, fair election than a collective “non”to Ivory Coast’s first military ruler, Robert Guei. Guei took power in a 1999 coup, promising to “sweep up the house” and then step aside. He later stood for election, but when it appeared Gbagbo was going to win, Guei called off the vote and declared victory. The people took to the streets in anger, and Guei fled, leaving Gbagbo in charge. Several politicians, including the prominent northern Muslim Alassane Ouattara, were barred from contesting the election, which angered their constituents. The resentments festered and morphed into the September 2002 armed rebellion. More than a thousand have died in fierce ethnic fighting, and tens of thousands have fled the country. France has hosted peace talks aimed at bringing Ivory Coast back from the brink of war, and its troops are currently stationed there to push back rebels threatening the government.
The question today is whether the rebels will hold their fire and be satisfied with lesser posts in a national unity government. The Ivorian daily Soir Info reports today that some rebels are threatening new attacks if the peace accord—which would hand the defense and interior ministries to the rebel side—is not followed to the letter. President Gbagbo appears willing—barely—to accept Seydou Diarra, a neutral northerner, as prime minister, mandated by the peace accord to assemble a unity government. Gbagbo signed the Paris treaty, but quickly backtracking on his return to Ivory Coast, labeled it merely a “framework.” Meanwhile, word of the power-sharing agreement sent the president’s supporters into the streets of the commercial capital, Abidjan, ransacking all things French. Britain’s Independent said that with his comportment since signing the Paris peace accord, “Gbagbo has proved himself to be an ungrateful protégé” of the former colonial power.
The fate of Ivory Coast—perhaps of all West Africa since Ivory Coast is historically the economic powerhouse and an oasis of stability in the war-torn region—hangs on the controversial agreement. The Financial Times said the pact “now stands as a litmus test of French influence in much of Africa.” The paper said France’s assumption that Africa covets close ties with the former colonizer “has been tested more severely [in the current Ivorian conflict] than at any other time since the mid 1990s.” Le Figaro of Paris called Ivory Coast the “laboratory” for a new plan by France to revive relations with its African partners, but the paper says France’s diplomatic efforts have foundered in the sheer depth of the Ivorian crisis.
Three thousand French troops are in Ivory Coast to monitor the cease-fire and to protect the 16,000 French citizens remaining in the country. Notre Voie, the ruling party’s daily, portrayed the French presence as part of a scheme to oust President Gbagbo. Notre Voie dubbed the Paris accord, “a constitutional coup d’état.” It claimed France is “shamelessly arming rebels” against a legitimate government, “intending to protect and accompany them to the ends of their sinister plan.” The paper declared, “Chirac is saying no to war in Iraq … but paradoxically supports politically and militarily an armed rebellion to set Ivory Coast ablaze.” An op-ed in France’s Libération said Chirac’s declaration at last week’s Franco-African summit that “the time of impunity is over” in Africa was “seen as a warning aimed at the one conspicuously absent from the summit, President Laurent Gbagbo.” Chirac pledged that death squads that have recently terrorized Abidjan, linked in a U.N. report to Gbagbo, would be brought to justice.
Neighboring countries are deeply anxious about fallout from Ivory Coast’s abrupt descent, and regional leaders have struggled to help find a solution. Burkina Faso’s L’Observateur lamented the plight of Ivory Coast’s Burkina population, which has long been the agricultural engine of Ivory Coast, the world’s leading producer of cocoa. Anti-Burkina violence spun out of control last year when Gbagbo suggested Burkina Faso’s leader was supporting the rebels.