France's Balancing Act. (Cote D'Ivoire)

By Michaud, Paul | African Business, November 2002 | Go to article overview

France's Balancing Act. (Cote D'Ivoire)


Michaud, Paul, African Business


France is walking a political tightrope in one of west Africa's biggest economies - faced on one side by a growing rebellion by young Ivorian army officers and on the other by the arrival of US troops. Paul Michaud reports from Paris.

Three hundred thousand demonstrators marched in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Cote d'Ivoire, on Saturday October 5, proclaiming their support for President Laurent Gbagbo and their displeasure with France. France, they claimed, was behind a recent army mutiny and coup attempt that has already resulted in more than 400 deaths, including that of General Robert Guei.

Guei is the man many suspected of conspiring with the French to instigate the rebellion. He had previously led a coup and taken power on Christmas Eve 1999, when he overthrew Henri Bedie.

Meanwhile, a smaller but just as vigorous demonstration was taking place at Bouake, in central Cote d'Ivoire, which had fallen to the rebels. Again it was the old colonial power France that was criticised, but here it was for preventing the rebel faction (regrouped around a new political party, the Mouvement Patriotique de la Cote d'Ivoire from continuing their march south and taking control of Abidjan. That move would undoubtedly have resulted in even more death and destruction and led to the overthrow of President Gbagbo.

As all of these developments were taking place, a delegation of Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) Ministers were waiting impatiently at Yamoussoukro - Cote d'Ivoire's political capital. They were waiting for the arrival from Abidjan of a document with Gbagbo's signature accepting the ceasefire conditions as dictated by Ecowas.

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Gbagbo, the legally-elected president of the country, had been determined to dictate the terms of any cease-fire agreement with the rebels, "in complete disregard," said one French diplomatic source, "of the true situation in which he finds himself".

Gbagbo's main problem is that the country's regular military, the Forces Armees Nationales de la Cote d'Ivoire (FANCI), are - in the opinion of the French intelligence services - "completely demoralised".

Meanwhile, the young army officers leading the rebellion that now has taken control of the northern half of the country realise they have nothing to lose, and every chance of success if they wait before resuming their march on Abidjan.

Said one of the ECOWAS Ministers at Yamoussoukro airport increasingly irritated as the night-time curfew approached on October 5 - "Gbagbo and his government are obviously behaving in bad faith, and we've evidently come here for nothing."

But Gbagbo knew that his signature could easily be interpreted as an acceptance of the virtual partition of the country and a situation much like that of Sierra Leone or Liberia where central government loses control of substantial portions of its sovereign territory to armed rebels.

Gbagbo had accepted the presence of the ECOWAS delegation, but that acceptance had been more or less imposed on him. He would have much preferred the assistance of France under the 1960 mutual defence treaty. That would have obliged the old colonial power to send troops to prop up his increasingly unpopular government.

The French defence treaty should have - at least in the eyes of Gbagbo - been automatically triggered by the arrival of the forces of an outside power in the conflict.

Gbabgo lost no time in letting it be known that the rebels were in effect being supported by Burkina Faso, the mother country of at least 3m of Cote d'Ivoire's population of 16.4m. Most of those are Muslim, whereas the southern part of the country, under the control of Gbagbo and his ethnic 'Ivoiriens' tends to be either animist or Christian.

That's largely exaggerated, retorted the French military who were sent to Cote d'Ivoire, ostensibly to evacuate the 30,000 French, US and other Westerners in Bouake and Korhogo, the two principal rebel strongholds.

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