Problem tests africa’s resolve
For the umpteen time, the West African sub-region and Africa as a whole have been called to duty to halt the continuing bloodbath and carnage that often plaques the continent. Cote d’Ivoire the latest in the long list of African countries beset with military adventures is still reeling under a mutiny that has led to the death of hundreds of people including a former Head of State, General Robert Guei.
Although African leaders failed miserably in their bid to resolve the conflict that emerged after the Madagascar elections early this year, the current interest and resolve to come to grips with the Ivorian situation becomes therefore very heartwarming.
What makes the present circumstance so stimulating is the resolve of both Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union to push ahead with their new-found desire of ridding the continent of poor governance, coups and corruption among others. It also falls in line with their aversion for undemocratic institutions and governments and to champion their commitment to the defence of democracy, good governance and the rule of law. These concerns are explicitly enshrined in the vision of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) being forged by African leaders in collaboration with their development partners.
The West African region remains despicably volatile. It is already swirling with hundreds of thousands of refugees from earlier wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Even within the otherwise nominal peaceful states, internal conflicts as well as ethnic and religious sentiments are fanning a trend with the potential of tearing these nations apart.
Until recently, Cote d’Ivoire used to be a peace haven, stability and prosperity in the sub-region. It showcased how stability could lead to prosperity, but this has now been gravely undermined due largely to military insurgency which began in 1999. That was the first time that country tasted the bitter pill associated with the removal of many governments in the sub-region.
The recent conflict which began on September 19 has thrown the country into a bloodbath with ethnic clashes between the people in the south and northerners. It has also pitted political activists against their perceived foes. General Guei, military ruler from December 1999 to October 2000 was killed during the action by government forces to suppress the uprising. Guei, had earlier been accused of involvement in the uprising which has brought death to the streets of Abidjan, Bouake and the northern town of Korhogo.
Guei staged the first and only successful coup d’etat in the country's history in 1999. Until then it had never experienced military rule. The coup has since changed Ivorian politics by politicising soldiers, who got a taste for power. Since then each year, Cote d’Ivoire has experienced an uprising or attempted coup of some sort.
The uprising, which started in Ivory Coast on 19 September, has been called both a coup and a mutiny. The soldiers who took up arms against the government deny it is a coup. They claim they are fighting against ‘dictatorship’ and ill-treatment. More than 750 soldiers started the conflict in protest against the decision of the government, headed by Laurent Gbagbo, to demobilise them from the Ivorian army.
Following emergency talks held in Accra on September 29 by ECOWAS members and the Africa Union Chairman, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, a six-nation mediation group has since been formed by ECOWAS to mediate in the conflict in order to help find a peaceful solution to the crisis. The group has since prevailed upon the rebels to immediately cease all hostilities in order to restore normalcy to the occupied towns. The emergency meeting provided ECOWAS with an opportunity to protect constitutional governments and help advance democracy in the sub-region.
The opening statements by ECOWAS Chairman, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, who advocated the recourse to dialogue in the bid to resolve the problem, and those of President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria who preferred the use of collective military force to crush the rebels were very contrasting. But collectively, it showed that the resort to unconstitutional means to stake a claim to political power on the African continent is outmoded, unjustifiable and therefore unacceptable now.
Indeed, such disruptions to the constitutional order, many believe, must be rejected because it is in the supreme interest of the continent and its peoples to do so, particularly within the context of the globalisation that Africa is functioning.
Ghana’s President, John Kufuor says “it is a matter of great distress to leaders in ECOWAS that Cote d’Ivoire is being dragged into what may be unhappily described as the ‘West African disease’ of coups, mutinies and instability.” Kufour is emphatic that Africa cannot hope to develop and join the rest of the advanced world unless and until there is peace in all the component nations.
Like Kufuor, the Executive Secretary of ECOWAS, Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas, says events in Cote d’Ivoire if uncontrolled, will be a major setback for the implementation of the NEPAD in the sub-region.
NEPAD advocates the building of a culture of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law as essential conditions for creating stable conditions for sustainable development.
“Today, all our lofty objectives of building peace, stability, democracy, and integration in the sub-region so as to better fight poverty and improve the lives of our peoples stand threatened by the escalating violence and the disloyal activities of certain elements of the Ivorian army. These rebellious troops are in breach of their sacred oath to protect and defend the constitution of Cote d’Ivoire,” says Dr Chambas.
Both the Algiers Declaration of the African Union which was affirmed at the Lome Summit of 1999 and the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance are emphatic that there will be no recognition for any government which comes to power by unconstitutional means.
Dr Chambas advocates for zero tolerance for coups and military interventions saying, “Africa must remain steadfast in defending the principle as a demonstration of commitment to build democracy and good governance in the respective countries. “We must send a clear and unambiguous message out, not only to the rebellious troops, but also, to all the armed forces of our sub-region that the days of coup d’etats are gone,” he stresses.
Ghana’s role in bringing peace to the sub-region is recognisable. So far, it is the only country within West Africa with a strong basis for relative peace. Liberia is still embroiled in civil war. Sierra Leone is not yet better off. The rest have serious internal problems that becloud their democracies. In the case of Nigeria, extra-judicial killings and religious sentiments are causing mayhem whilst Togo still denounces political dissent.
West Africa has, since the last 15 years, witnessed wanton destruction of precious lives and properties occasioned by the senseless fratricidal civil and ethic conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Guinea and the Cote d’Ivoire itself. In Sierra Leone, many innocent citizens are right now reeling from the trauma of the savage wounds of maiming, tortures and amputations coupled with daylight rapes of women and the force recruitment of child soldiers into an ethnic conflict.
Admittedly, it is the duty of the collective ECOWAS entity to protect constitutional governments and help advance democracy in the sub-region, but the real difficulty is how to carry it through in very intricate situations such as is happening now in Cote d’Ivoire.
Cote d’Ivoire has one of the most cosmopolitan populations in Africa with more than a third of those living there, hailing from neighbouring states. They moved there because successive Ivorian governments needed foreign labour to work in the cocoa and tropical fruit plantations. In recent years, the immigrants have got caught up in the north-south divide in Ivorian politics; the main opposition party is strongest in the Muslim north, while the government has most support in the south.
The main Ivorian opposition politician, Alassane Ouattara, who is a Muslim, has sought refuge. Although there is no indication he was involved with the rebel soldiers, he feared for his life. It seems that political and religious scores are being settled in the wake of the uprising. This is indicative of the political divisions which have been translated into periodic coups or coup attempts and popular uprisings, since the military first intervened directly in Ivorian politics on 1999 to overthrow the elected government of Henri Konan Bedie. The coup, which came six years after the president's death, marked the start of the descent into political conflict marked by divisions between northerners and southerners, Muslims and Christians.
Ivorians brought the brief period of military rule to an end in October and early November 2000, following a popular uprising against the military ruler, Guei who dubiously claimed victory in the general elections. The uprising brought to power, Laurent Gbagbo, who was widely believed to have won the elections. But the election had generated political violence between supporters of Gbagbo and supporters of the other main political leader, Ouattara. Ouattara had been excluded from standing in the elections after it was declared that he had not been born a citizen of Cote d’Ivoire - in June this year, his citizenship was finally restored.
Throughout the year, there was high political tension and accusations by Ouattara's supporters that the government was using ethnic and regional tensions to strengthen its own position and harass opponents. This year, there were attempts by the Gbagbo, Ouattara and the late military leader, Guei to calm things down but this had little effect. Guei still commanded the loyalty of some sections of the army, particularly those recruited during his period in power - some of whom are said to be involved in the current fighting.
Tension was high during district elections in July - won by Gbagbo’s party - and the latest fighting by disgruntled troops, is another indication that little has been done to heal the wounds inflicted on the country by years of regional and political conflict.
“The belief that those targeted for the demobilisation were mostly Guei’s men and other related factors give the current political struggle in Cote d’Ivoire an unmistakable ethnic character and orientation with international implications across that country's borders,” says Michael Barnes, a Ghanaian political analyst.
For now, West African leaders have agreed to send a buffer force to Ivory Coast if mediation between the government and rebel troops fails. The ECOWAS Chairman, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal said at the Accra summit that if negotiations failed, the regional bloc would send in a buffer force, adding that up to 4,000 peacekeeping troops could be mobilised for the mission. Leaders in the West African sub-region have meanwhile expressed their support and solidarity for President Gbagbo and his constitutionally elected government.
The situation in Cote d’Ivoire certainly calls for African governments to be more embracing and to eschew politics of exclusion, vindictiveness and intolerance of political opposition, much of which has torn the continent. The solution to calls for a concerted co-operation of not only West African States, but also the continent as a whole.
Indeed, Africa would have been able to satisfy the aspirations of the world if an amicable solution is found to the problem.