Ivory Coast - After the coup

Mar 2000

The Ivory Coast president Henri Konan Bedie was ousted by General Robert Guei on 24 December 1999, after a two-day mutiny by an army regiment (who had not been paid an allowance they considered themselves entitled to) followed by a wave of mass looting by the population. The military coup occurred without a confrontation between the army's different elements and without bloodshed. The French army, present on the outskirts of Abidjan, did not intervene, except to ensure the personal security of the fallen president, transporting him to Lome, Togo's capital, and then supplying him, his family and a few of his ministers, with visas for France.

Bedie now joins a long list of former dictators and heads of state offered shelter by imperialist France, after years of services rendered.

Bedie had been French imperialism's "chosen" agent in Ivory Coast, a country that has long been the flagship of France's former colonial empire in Africa. Despite the crisis which has hit the country so hard - due as much to the squandering of state funds as to the fall in the price of cocoa (it is the world's most important producer of cocoa) - it has remained French big business' favourite country in Africa. Moreover, Ivory Coast is French capital's chief outpost in the region, through which it exerts its influence over its other ex-colonies, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and also the former British colony of Ghana.

For the past ten years or so, the Ivory Coast has been held up as an example of "democracy" in Africa. But even before the military coup, this required a strong imagination. The country was run as a dictatorship by Houphouet-Boigny and his party, which now calls itself the PDCI (Democratic Party of Ivory Coast), from the time of independence in 1960 until Houphouet- Boigny's death. He was an old hand at French politics even before decolonisation, having been minister in several governments of the French Fourth Republic.

"Democratisation", which coincided with the end of Houphouet's rule, amounted to his permitting a few other political parties to come into existence. But the PDCI retained a monopoly over all the positions of power, from municipal to state level.

Beyond the small world of politicians, this "democracy" remained the kingdom of the truncheon, of powerful repressive forces, of the unwritten law of large-scale racketeering by the police and army, but most of all, of the tyranny of poverty over the majority of the population. If the Abidjan of businessmen has banks and sky-scrapers comparable to a rich Western city, poverty is present in their shadow. It is even worse in the outlying districts, where 2-3m poor live in slums and only a tiny number have regular, low-paid work.

After Houphouet-Boigny's death, in 1993, the constitution provided that the temporary presidency should go to the president of the parliament, who was Henri Konan Bedie. Once in place, the new head of state ensured that the presidential election of 1995 was a total sham, boycotted by the two main opposition parties: Laurent Gbagbo's "Front Populaire Ivoirien" (FPI), supposedly a left-wing party, and Alassane Ouattara's "Rassemblement Republicain" - Ouattara being Houphouet-Boigny's last Prime Minister, who left the PDCI because of his rivalry with Bedie.

Thus, president Bedie was duly "elected", but as a result of a charade which could pass for a genuine election only for those, most notably in Paris, who wanted Ivory Coast, under France's protection, to appear "democratic" at all costs.

What follows is an account of the military coup and its consequences by our comrades of the UATCI (African Union of Internationalist Communist Workers). The two texts translated below are excerpts from Pouvoir aux travailleurs (Power to the Workers), the UATCI's publication in Abidjan, dating from the immediate aftermath of the coup.

Since then, General Guei seems to have consolidated his power. All parties, including the PDCI, with whom he is negotiating to form a mixed government of military and civilian personnel, are engaged in bargaining to gain places in a future government. But they all recognise Guei's military regime and are purely concerned with maintaining or improving their own access to positions of power. At the same time, and despite the coup, the ethnic demagogy used by Bedie against his rival Ouattara, is now being used by Laurent Gbagbo with the same aim. As might have been expected, the threats against the poor masses which existed under Bedie survived his downfall.

5 January 2000

Editorial: The downfall of a scoundrel

Nobody in the working class will regret Bedie's departure.

The enrichment of his family and his clique, through looting the coffers of the state, scheming and bribery, is even more scandalous given that the vast majority of the Ivory Coast's population lives in utter poverty. He, who, in order to win the presidential elections against Ouattara, has fuelled ethnic tensions and xenophobia, bears a major responsibility for the rise in such ideas, which are a lethal threat to the whole of society. But the fatal blow for Bedie did not come from the elections. The military coup is a reminder that the question of power is not decided at the polls.

But Bedie was not just the thief denounced by those who demonstrated their joy when he fell. (Though he is a thief and a big one at that.) He was not just the leader of a regime which ignored basic civil rights; a regime whose attitude towards a respectful and cowardly opposition has shown that the Ivory Coast's democracy' has always been a mockery, even in the sense that the bourgeoisie use the word. He was, above all, the head of a state totally devoted to the rich and powerful.

Thanks to the 233 mutineers from the army, who allowed Guei to take power, the state has changed leaders. But the state itself has not changed.

This is why those who, in the poorer classes, rejoiced at the arrival of a new man and perhaps a new state, who cheered Robert Guei, and see in him a liberator, will soon be very disappointed. The army has not brought Guei to power in order to take measures in favour of the working class and the poor. On the contrary, it did so in order to contain them.

It does not matter if Guei himself was responsible for the coup or if he only took advantage of the situation created by the mutiny. The main purpose of the army mutineers, who were ex-members of the commandos sent to Central Africa by the UN, was to obtain the special payments that Bedie's clique was about to steal from them. But if the whole military hierarchy got so rapidly involved, including the gendarmerie', which was Bedie's own praetorian guard, it is because its leaders believed Guei capable of controlling the mutiny and of maintaining the army's unity. And Bedie's calls for resistance' fell all the more flat as the last thing the ruling class wanted was a divided army in which units would fight one another according to their political inclination thereby creating a power vacuum.

Yes, the few hours of chaos created by the mutineers on Thursday 23 December were enough for the military high ranks and the wealthy to catch a glimpse of the potential for an uncontrollable social explosion.

The first to profit from the apparent absence of any authority were undoubtedly the petty crooks, more used to robbing poor people, but who could now exploit far more lucrative areas. But once the floodgates were open, many people from the poor quarters followed, seeing this as a chance to take what is usually denied to them. From many individual acts, the looting became a collective act.

The poor majority, normally deprived of even the most basic necessities, could finally take from the rich.

Unfortunately though, not from the richest - those who stash their fortunes in the big Western Banks. The main victims of the looting were small and medium-size shopkeepers, and a few big ones. It was the foot soldiers of the bourgeoisie, their sub- lieutenants and other underlings who ply their trade in the poor quarters, who paid for the misery that the big bourgeoisie imposes on the vast majority

What's more, the poor only helped themselves to goods, they did not attack the rich capitalists, nor their hold on the economy, far from it. But the wealthy must have trembled in fear at the threat represented by these poor masses who no longer respected their property.

Those are used to taking from the poor cannot accept that the poor take from them. Order had to be restored. Konan Bedie, discredited, could not do it. Guei has done it, for the moment at least. The French army, close by, reinforced its troops to make its presence felt, just in case Guei was not able to restore order'. As for Bedie, they only ensured that he could leave the country. For France, Bedie is just a puppet, despite his boasting last week. Once used, he could be thrown away.

But the order now restored is the same order as before Bedie's fall. Guei intends to govern with the same people, the same prefects, even perhaps the same discredited politicians, and of course the same army, as is shown by the fact that he is currently meeting with them, one after the other. What is more, the bourgeois from France and Ivory Coast are still there, those who dominate an economy where workers are meant to consider it a privilege to have a badly paid job and where peasants literally die from poverty.

So, let's not lull ourselves with false hopes: the poor will not change their destiny by proxy. Illusions will not fill their pots, will not increase salaries nor lower prices. Even less so if these illusions concern the army, the forces of repression trained to keep the poor in their place.

And it would be even more dangerous for the working class and the poor to rejoice the coup, or for some to lament it, on the basis of ethnic feelings. Guei will do as little good for the Yacoubas or the Western peoples as Bedie did for the Baoules. For the working class and the poor who, no matter which ethnic group they belong to, have received only severe blows from the bosses, the wealthy and their state, there is only one possible way: unity of all workers in order to defend their common class interests.

To build this unity, the working class and the poor must consciously refuse all ethnic divisions. Only their alliance can give them the strength to resist the permanent increase in exploitation for those who work and the permanent misery for those who don't. It is also the only way to fight back against the rise of ethnic feelings before it turns into war as in Liberia or Rwanda.

"The emancipation of the working class will be the task of the working class itself" - this saying is still true. Real change will occur when the poor go beyond the stage of looting; when workers state their rights consciously and proudly. Not just their right to a few groceries in the shops which belong to the wealthy, but the right to expropriate all the capitalists and take hold of the economy so that it can be at the service of the entire population and not of a minority of scandalously rich parasites.

The military regime settles down

Guei might have been preparing the coup for a long time, or he might simply have been asked by the original mutineers or by his military superiors to take over the putsch. Whatever the case may be, it is Bedie who created the political situation which led to the coup.

First, the internal affairs: the insults against Ouattara, the arrest of the leaders of the RDR, and the ethnic demagogy of the president's circle was even starting to worry the wealthy. They might have allowed Bedie the right to be a demagogic scoundrel, but not to the point of disrupting business. What is more, the wealthy knew they did not need to fear Alassane Ouattara, and a fraction actually believed that he, Houphouet's ex-minister, was more able to manage the affairs of the bourgeoisie than Bedie. Ouattara still had many supporters, in the state administration itself and even in the army, as the composition of the National Public Safety Council (CNSP) set up by Guei was to show later. This does not mean that Ouattara was responsible in any way for the coup, nor that those who hold the power today will yield it to him tomorrow. Nonetheless, Ouattara, practically eliminated by Bedie from the presidential race, will now be in a good position to gain out of the coup, as long as Guei and the army keep their promise to leave the political scene and allow politicians to run the government.

In any case, the political and legal battle that Bedie had been conducting for several months against a rival who was not seen as a particularly worse option than himself by the wealthy, and the bitter speech he made against him on the eve of his downfall allowed Ouattara to appear as dictator in-waiting and the army to appear as "liberators".

Bedie and his associates had obviously been mistaken about their own strength in the state apparatus. They had also overestimated the protection that France would provide.

Konan Bedie had certainly, and for a long time, been the man French imperialism could count on. But the rivalry between Bedie and Ouattara hid a very discreet rivalry between France, clinging to the most crucial country of its sphere of influence in Africa, and the US, who inclined towards Alassane Ouattara, someone they know well as the ex-associate general director of the IMF. If Guei's reign turns out to be temporary, with Ouattara coming to power democratically', this will probably be a sign that French imperialism is losing some of its influence to the benefit of American imperialism.

But perhaps French imperialism had already distanced itself from Bedie before he fell. It knew that the regime was worn-out and corrupt. Not that corruption bothers imperialist powers, on the contrary, it is a habit of theirs and moreover, it is one of the ingredients, along with military force, of their system of domination. But the plundering by the Bedie regime has emptied the state coffers of Ivory Coast. The international bourgeois institutions, from the IMF to the European Commission, have started to freeze credits and aid. The fall in prices of raw materials, a catastrophe for farmers, also affects the state coffers. The government was on the brink of bankruptcy. It was one thing for Bedie to be unable to pay teachers, but not paying the army was dangerous. Stealing their special allowance was even worse. Bedie thought he could swindle everybody, including the forces of repression, without which he was nothing.

Even supposing that the political leaders of French imperialism were surprised when Guei proposed himself as candidate for president while Bedie was still in office, they chose not to interfere during the two crucial days of the 24 and 25 December when, with the gendarmerie still hesitating, the outcome of the fighting between the two camps was still uncertain. They had no reason to exacerbate further an already explosive situation, simply in order to save their henchman. After all, he was disposable. What is more, they knew Guei well, since he had been a student in the French military school, Saint-Cyr-Coetquidan, and Houphouet's former head of staff. Although Guei's sacking by Bedie had earned Guei the reputation of being a "liberal" and a "republican" and mostly, had earned him the flattery of Laurent Gbagbo, always a boot- licker, and of the "left" FPI, the French knew that the head of the Conseil National du Salut Public was not a softy. The protestors of 1990-91 know that too. Paris had no reason to block Guei's path since the French expatriate bourgeoisie seemed to have chosen Guei from the start, and dreaded an ill-inspired intervention from the French army, posted at Port Bouet, a few miles from the centres of power.

So, the French army only moved a few troops in the direction of Ivory Coast to show that it was there, just in case... From then on, Bedie's fate was sealed. And Ivory Coast, presented as a model of democracy in Africa, turned into a military regime overnight. It is true that Bedie's conduct had amply demonstrated that in this "democracy", the purpose of the presidential election was to comfort those in power, and not to allow a change in leaders. Even if the army was to retire in order to allow elections, it is now clear that in this democracy, weapons ensure political change, not ballots; even when elections oppose two parties as similar as the PDCI and the RDR.

For the moment, apart from the actual person occupying the presidential palace, there is little difference between the military regime and the regime of the PDCI, because the forces of repression were already omnipresent. Guei has not forbidden political parties, but then all of them have pledged him their allegiance. The head of the CNSP takes advantage of a sort of consensus of the political forces: a confused PDCI joins the FPI and the RDR in their allegiance to the military regime. The new president's ethnic group, the Yacouba, has also contributed to a kind of consensus between North and South.

But all this does not fill the state's coffers and the public safety' side of the new council might manifest itself by asking the population for yet more sacrifices. What is more, the military, who could already freely racketeer the population, might feel even freer with their boss now in the presidential palace. As the regime settles down, capitalist investors might feel reassured. But nothing good will come out of it for the working classes.