Sat, Nov 13, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Strife in Ivory Coast a product of political ambition run amok

By Cameron Duodu  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Ivory Coast in West Africa has not been blessed with sagacious leadership. Its first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, ruled for thirty-three years. So egotistic was he that during all that time, he never installed a vice-president. So when his fantasies of immortality were shattered in 1993, his Parti Democratique de Cote d'iVoire (PDCI) immediately disintegrated into ethnic factions, with politics in the Ivory Coast going downhill ever since.

However, responsibility for the civil war now raging there rests squarely on the shoulders of the current president, Laurent Gbagbo.

For before Gbagbo assumed power in October 2000, the country's ethnic fault-line had been widely exposed and it was up to Gbagbo to tread in a careful manner. Instead, he drove a coach and horses into rift, triggering the political earthquake that now threatens to destroy the country.

Gbagbo shares a good deal with his predecessors. Houphpouet-Boigny was succeeded in 1993 by the president of the National Assembly, Henri-Konan Bedie. Bedie, like Houphouet-Boigny, was a southerner, and he ignored the fear of northerners that the south was dominating them by barring the prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, a northerner, from the contest to succeed Houphouet. He claimed that Ouattara was not an Ivorian at all but a national of neighboring Burkina Faso.

This astonished northerners, who asked: "Where was Bedie when Ouattara was exercising the highest functions of government as prime minister? If Ouattara was fit to be prime minister, how can he not be fit for president?"

These were dangerous questions, for apart from being a northerner, Ouattara is also a Muslim, which makes him the favorite candidate of the country's largest single bloc of voters. Worse, by depriving Ouattara of his nationality, Bedie had signaled that most northerners could just as easily be robbed of their nationality. This would subject them to harassment by the police and the possible loss of their property.

Having prevented Ouattara from running against him, Bedie won the presidency. But within six years, his nemesis had caught up with him.

On Christmas Eve 1999, a military faction believed to be sympathetic to Ouattara, seized power and sent Bedie into exile.

To mask their northern sympathies, the soldiers chose a southerner, General Robert Guei, to be their leader. But unknown to them, Guei had his own personal ambitions. After he had consolidated power into his own hands, he dismissed the two most important northerners in his junta and accused them of plotting against him. He then declared himself a candidate for the election through which, he said, the county would be handed over to a democratically-elected government.

To achieve his objectives, Guei resurrected Bedie's claim that Ouattara was a foreigner. So, once again, Ouattara, was barred from contesting the country's top job.

But even with Ouattara excluded, Guei could not win the election, despite his best efforts, and the followers of the candidate who did win -- another southern-er, Laurent Gbagbo -- took to the streets and chased Guei out of power.

Having triumphed, by popular will, against Guei, Gbagbo has not, however, worked to unite the nation. Instead, he has embraced the concept whereby "full Ivorian nationality" or "Ivoirite" is required for certain jobs, which had been enunciated by both Bedie and Guei.

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