The Tragedies of African Democracies:(Part VI)

Sat, 22 Oct 2011 Source: Tsikata, Prosper Yao

The Tragedies of African Democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good (Part VI)

Stories from the frontline: Cote d’Ivoire and the others “La Cote d’Ivoire is not only the end of a miracle,” as summed up by a former World Bank executive, Robert Calderisi, in his parting gift to the continent: “The Trouble with Africa,” but it also presents a policy test to regional and sub-regional political groupings such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as highlights how postcolonial leaders in many African countries, instead of initiating development policies that unite their countries, have themselves rather become obstacles to the political and economic development discourses in some of these countries.

One country two presidents

La Cote d’Ivoire got off to a good start. Prosperous and stable, it was a magnet for private investment from 1960 to 1990. It had been a haven for job-seekers from nearby countries. Because of its economic success, Cote d’Ivoire was considered as the showcase of African capitalism. And, for most of the nation’s life, enlightened immigration policies and a relative open economy kept living conditions ahead of increases in population. A 1991 survey at the main hospital in the capital found people of 24 nationalities receiving care. This implies that its first president had avoided the xenophobic effusions that erupted in other African countries after independence. For the records, when Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was toppled in a coup d’état in 19966, his message of African unity could not save other Africans, particularly Nigerians who were domiciled in Ghana. They were expelled from Ghana under the aegis of the Alien Act. About two decades later, Nigeria was to repeat same, expelling Ghanaians from that country in 1983. But Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the country’s first president avoided this phenomenon and rather attracted foreigners from neighboring countries to work on his farm and other sectors of the country’s economy. The miracle ended on December 24, 1999, when the army overthrew the government. Although a common event elsewhere in Africa, this was a high drama for that country – its first coup d’état since independence in 1960. In fact, it must be pointed out that either all the ingredients that prepared the ground for a coup were ever present in the Cote d’Ivoire, or what could have prevented a coup was lacking in spite of its celebrated peaceful history since independence. Houphouet-Boigny had kept his country’s centrifugal forces under control for more than 30 years. He had used force to repress secessionist movements – sending the army to massacre 6 000 people in several villages in the Western region in 1970 – and applied his considerable charm and wealth to cajole opponents into submission. Like many post-independence African leaders, Houphouet-Boigny did not create political space for participation. He stifled opposition and ran the government single-handedly. As seen in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, the departure of the president left a vacuum difficult to fill. Although it had introduced multi-party elections in 1990, La Cote d’Ivoire was still largely a one-party state and there were limited opportunities for public debate. There was irreverent opposition press, and political demonstrations were forbidden after February 1992. Human rights activists were often intercepted at the airport on their way to conferences overseas, and sent home. In May 1993, the government cancelled a “Rule of Law” conference organized by the Center of Legal Studies as being “too dangerous.” These limitations on political expression did not help to build a vibrant political culture or political opposition which could have kept the government in check and also in readiness for the vacuum that was created after Houphouet-Boigny’s demise. In December 1993, it was Houphouet-Boigny’s personal entourage who switched off the lights on his life. The president had been ailing for two years, and was brought back from a Geneva hospital on a stretcher. Few people outside his immediate family had seen him, and it was widely assumed that he was being kept alive artificially. In a wink to history, those close to him pulled the plug on his life support on the 33rd anniversary of independence, while letting the country think that his death was natural.

The death of Houphouet-Boigny signal the beginning of a power struggle between members of his own government, with the Prime Minister, Ahassane Outarra, scheming to assume the leadership of that country and Mr. Konan-Bedie, the speaker of the country’s legislative assembly, seen as the illegitimate son of the former president and heir to the presidency, demanding to be legitimately installed as president.

In the final analysis, Konan Bedie forced himself into the national television stations and replaced the anchorman unexpectedly. With a handful of soldiers he announced he was assuming office immediately. Instead of waiting for a few days or a few hours for the Supreme Court to act, Bedie made himself a president through a television announcement, setting the stage for a long political stalemate that was to hinder the progress of the country, destroyed infrastructure and set the stage for a long civil war. In mid-1994, Outtara established his own party and won a number of seats in the new parliament, mainly from the north. But, because the new electoral code excluded him from the contest, the only serious challenger to Bedie in the 1995 elections was the socialist candidate, Laurent Gbagbo, whose support was confined mainly to the West and Abidjan. As a result, Bedie won easily. Yet, the new president was so greedy and egoistical that, before long, tongues started wagging within his own party. Referring to corruption, some murmured, “Houphouet had a large appetite, but at least he let some crumbs fall off the table.” People resented his lavish and selfish nature to such a pitch that even democrats cheered when General Guei overthrew the government in December 1999. This is some of the moments when even democrats begin to see coups as necessary evils. The next elections were schedule for October 2000 and within weeks, despite his assuring words, the new president was taking positions similar to those of his predecessors. The general who had taken power developed a strong taste for high office and tried to consolidate himself in power by using legitimate means to legalize an illegality. He, therefore, organized a general election as he promised. The elections were held on October 22, 2000, but that was a subterfuge to consolidate power. Like many African military rulers before him, Guei stopped the counting of ballots and declared himself winner with 52 percent of the vote. In a remarkable popular uprising, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to oust Guei, an estimated 200 lost their lives. The army shifted allegiance and supported the real winner of the election, Laurent Gbagbo and Guei fled only to be killed in suspected coup with 19 bullet holes in his body. Gbagbo succeeded Guei. Several political parties boycotted the elections after 14 of the 19 candidates were barred from running. In 2002, an uprising by the New Forces rebels resulted in a state of conflict and eventually, a tenuous ceasefire. In 2005, Gbagbo’s continued position of an interim head of state caused tensions with the opposition. However, in 2007, a peace deal was reached which set the country on a more peaceful path with the appointment of Prime Minister Soro Guillaume as part of the peace agreement. Fresh elections were set for 2009 but postponed repeatedly until November 2010. Certainly, one is tempted to think that the country was better off under a benevolent dictator (Houphouet-Boigny) than under his supposedly elected successors. In fact, the suppression of political debate through the first 30 years of the country’s history built up the passions and jealousies that erupted with such ugliness at the end of the century. At the heart of Cote d’Ivoire’s stability problem laid a leadership crisis. The late Boigny was not a democrat. He did not promote the diversity of political parties, and consequently the Cote d’Ivoire he left behind lack political cohesion. Boigny was an adept autocrat who used his oppressive power to bridge the ethnic, regional, and economic cleavages. By contrast both Bedie and Guei and later Gbagbo have tried to rule by intimidating their opponents, breeding more resentment than resolve. As the country moved towards November parliamentary elections, the constitutional crisis and associated north-south divide became a significant issue. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the lower courts that Ouattara could not run for president under the new constitution. The National Electoral Commission authorized his candidacy in the parliamentary elections, but that was overturned by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. He was barred from the parliamentary elections as well, igniting clashes between Ouattarra’s supporters and Gbagbo’s, which took a regional dimension, raising the specter of a crisis of nationalism in what was once Sub-Sahara Africa’s most politically stable country. Although the constitutional provisions which barred Alhassane Quattara from contesting in both the parliamentary and the Presidential elections have since been removed as a part of series of peace agreements heralding the November 2010 general elections, obviously in just a decade, the inordinate quest for power among four stubborn men – three politicians and a general – had brought a once-proud country to its knees. Some, like Ouattara and Gbagbo, had shown real promise, but both had been blinded by power and put expediency ahead of principle.

The poisonous concept of “Ivorite” After the death of its first president, relations between different communities in the country, and between nationals and foreigners had turned poisonous. The former shelter for immigrants had become obsessed with something called “Ivorite” – a concept of nationalism that implied that anyone born outside the country’s borders was a suspect. In a country once proud of its religious tolerance, this new doctrine also suggested that Muslims, the largest single group in the country were inferior to Christians and should have fewer civil rights. Thousands of immigrants from neighboring countries such as Mali and Burkina-Faso were repatriated. This was only a harbinger to what lies ahead. On November 1, 1993, the city of Abidjan exploded in an orgy of soccer violence. Disappointed at losing a key match in neighboring Ghana, and hearing rumors that Ivoirians were being attacked on the other side of the border, mobs prowled the city in search of Ghanaians, about 200, 000 of whom lived in the country. Altogether, about 500 people perished in the massacre. For decades, Ivoirians had relished their relatively peaceful history. Now, there was mounting discontent not just with immigrant workers but also with elite trying to protect their standard of living while asking others to make “sacrifices,” just as anywhere else on the African continent, setting the tone for a long drawn political stalemate. As happens in many African countries, a change of government implies that a new regime must purge all spheres of the political environment. In Ghana, the mantra was “proceed on leave” by which hardworking civil servants perceived to either be sympathizers of the previous regime or to have the wrong political views were exorcised from the civil service. Instead of government of national unity, the country had to suffer through a government of national division. During the next year, the new president (who, formally speaking, was completing his predecessor’s five-year term), did everything he could to exclude Alassane Outtara from the upcoming elections in October 1995. Outtarra’s father had been born in Burkina-Fasso, which at the time was part of a much larger colonial entity, French West Africa. Outtara himself was born in La Cote d’Ivoire, but had dual citizenship. He had studied in the United States and worked at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, as a Burkinabe national; but when Houphouet appointed him governor of the West African Central Bank, a position reserved for nationals of La Cote d’Ivoire, Outtara was issued the country’s passport. No one had question his citizenship when he served as Prime Minister and, quite frequently, as acting president from 1991-1993. Bedie altered the electoral code to nock his rival out of the political contest in three ways. All candidates for political office would have to have both parents born in the country. They could never have held a foreign passport. And they needed to have lived in the country continuously for the previous ten years. When it was learned that 20 sitting members of parliament, most of them from the ruling party, would also be disqualified under the new rules, they were promptly changed to apply only to the presidential elections. But the harm hard already been done to the political stability of the country through these maneuvers and that ultimately cost La Cote D’Ivoire its political stability. This was followed by the systematic witch hunt of Quatarra’s associates. With the witch hunt for associates of the former prime minister almost complete, the state moved to unseat civil servants who were sympathetic to the opposition or refused to contribute money to the ruling party. Increasingly, exclusion took on a regional dimension as well as an ideological tinge. Northerners, who were mostly Muslims, were out of favor and their lives, not just their careers, were increasingly at risk. Southerners with the “wrong” views were also in danger. Martial Ahipeaud, a former leader of the National Students’ Union, considered a “firebrand” because of his oratory had been imprisoned in 1992 for running an illegal organization. Now, the Minister of Security called him to his office and warned him that he would be jailed again if he did not temper his criticism of the government. In the place of the departing civil servants, Bedie filled the positions with his associates and party apparatchiks. Top government posts, including the media and judiciary, were all manipulated with dissenting voices eliminated in these institutions. For some in politics, the slogan is: anything goes. Whatever can get them power is absolutely welcomed. How could a foreign national rise through the ranks to become a prime minister in a country that lays emphasis on nationality for political office? If it were the case, that Outtara was ineligible for the highest office of the land, why did the contestant not contest this when his expertise were tapped even as a Prime Minister? One gets similar tomfoolery from some section of the Republican Party of the United States and Donald Trump has become a symbol of this contest between his Republican Party and the US president Barack Obama. Nationality and birthplace have become the final refuge of the political scoundrel to hinder a process in which his message has failed to resonate with the people. A similar outburst came from the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) in Ghana in 1992 to block the candidacy of the then chairman of the PNDC, Jerry John Rawlings, when he was scheming, like a chameleon, to shed his military uniform in order to contest Ghana’s presidential elections as a civilian. Being a military leader who was popular with the masses, the NPP opposition to his candidacy could not fly. He was not protected by the constitution but the masses and the fear of the army. But in the case of Outtara, things degenerated and the dragnet was extended to cover everyone who was perceived as an immigrant living in the Ivory Coast. The term “Ivoirite”, a concept of nationalism which implied that anyone born outside the country’s borders was suspect became the watchword. In the ensuing melee, an army General Robert Guei staged a successful coup which set the stage for more instability to follow. Many observers predicted the Kenya style power-sharing deal as the stalemate after its November elections degenerated into two of the contestant laying claim to the presidency. Even though that was finally avoided, it was not without the intervention of French troops, an issue which will be discussed in the next sub-section.

He sided with those wanting to exclude “foreigners” from the political process and shut out Outarra as a candidate for the second time. He also excluded the former ruling party’s candidate from the race on the grounds that he had been charged with corruption. This left him and the neophyte Gbagbo, the leader of the progressive Ivorian Popular Front in the race. As a democrat, Gbagbo could have been expected to oppose the rigging of the rules, but he knew that his chance of winning a proper race were limited.

On Election Day, when early returns showed that Gbagbo was winning his gamble, the general ordered the counting of the vote to be interrupted, and all hell broke loose. For six days, Gbagbo’s supporters filled the streets of Abidjan. Troops tried to control the situation, but Guei was not prepared for a bloodbath, so he retreated to the countryside with a few hundred soldiers. Laurent Gbagbo became the country’s fourth president. Although Gbagbo’s supporters were ecstatic and many people were brought into the government who had been excluded from the political process all their lives, his government now opened another ugly chapter in the country’s history. Once an internationalist, the new president pushed the idea of “Ivorite” to new extremes. The government’s accusation of foreign involvement prompted renewed wave of violence against foreigners. Gangs of youths took to the streets, harassing or beating foreigners and destroying their properties. Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade declared that a Burkinabe could face more discrimination in Cote d’Ivoire than in Europe. This prompted the Ivorian to protest outside the Senegalese Embassy and called for Senegalese nationals to leave the country. The BBC reported that thousands of West African nationals leaving in that country had fled the country to avoid harassment. This is an African country where more than 40% of the population is non-nationals. The country went steadily downhill after that. Despite efforts to achieve “national reconciliation” with his rivals (Bedie, Outarra, and Guei) Gbagbo presided over a harshly repressive regime. Mysterious murders and mass graves became an almost normal part of life. There were recurrent army mutinies, and on September 19, 2002, an attempted coup detat against the government degenerated into civil war. Guei, supposedly the instigator of the coup, was dragged from his home and killed in the street with nine members of his family. The northern half of the country essentially seceded, as the retreating rebels set up strongholds in the city of Bouke and Korhogo. Negotiations between the factions took place under various auspices, including, rather obscenely, the doyen of African tyrants, General Eyadema of Togo. The French sent a peace keeping force, essentially to keep the rebels from sweeping into Abidjan and taking power. But Gbagbo and his supporters were hardly grateful. Anti-French rhetoric and demonstrations prevailed, along with harassment of life-long French residents. In 2003, the rebels entered a coalition government, but soon threw up their hands at the lack of real cooperation and left the government to return to their northern strongholds. The UN and human rights groups denounced the government’s “death squads,” but Gbagbo and his people ignored the international outcry. On March 25, 2004, 120 people were killed in an anti-government demonstration in Abidjan. The absence of checks and balances, including a free press and independent judiciary, had allowed personal ambitions to weaken the foundations of the nation, rather than serve as rushing water at a mill of national debate and growth. By late 2004, like a macrocosm of Africa, Abidjan had become a backwater. Ivorians now have to seek refuge in neighboring countries. It should be mentioned that xenophobia is a relatively new aspect of the Ivorian political and social crisis. Houphouet-Boigny welcomed immigrants from neighboring countries to work in Cote d’Ivoire from which the economy drew much of its strength. It was Bedie’s political rhetoric: “Ivorite” as the true inheritors of political power that brought ethnic tensions to the surface and led to such deadly clashes within the past few years. This was further exploited by his successor, Gbagbo, and not the imperialist scheming this time to divide and rule the West African country. Events leading to the killing of the Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, reinforce my belief that foreign intervention in African countries is a necessary evil and we must learn to accept that home truth. I only sympathize with the African Union (AU) for being orphaned, as it has lost a benevolent donor. The release of this article is premeditated by the killing of the Libyan leader and dedicated to his memory, but warns of dire consequences for the remaining military dictators and their civilian counterparts. Make a date to read its continuation which addresses the AU and ECOWAS. Keep tuned in… Bibliography: Excerpts from: Calderisi, R. (2006). The Trouble with Africa: why foreign aid isn’t working. Pelgrave Macmillan.

Collier, P. (2007). The bottom billion: why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it. Oxford: Oxford University Press

The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, immigration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.

By: Prosper Yao Tsikata

Email: pytsikata@yahoo.com

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao