Liberty and slavery in Côte d’Ivoire

THE International Criminal Court (ICC) recently acquitted former Ivoirian President Laurent Gbagbo and former Youth Minister Blé Goudé on charges of crimes against humanity. The two had been in detention for seven years while standing trial at The Hague. The acquittal is conditional upon a third country willing to accept them, pending a possible appeal by the international prosecutor.

The current president of the ICC is Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji, a Nigerian national. As we understand it, Belgium has accepted to host the former president on condition that he does not attempt to influence potential witnesses back in Côte d’Ivoire; refrains from public statements; hands over his travel documents to the government and makes himself available to appear in court when needed.

More than 3,000 people perished in the Ivoirian political crisis, following Gbagbo’s refusal to concede defeat to his arch rival Alassane Ouattara.

Gbagbo, his wife, Simone, Blé Goudé and several others were accused of murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts following the collapse of the rule of law in Côte d’Ivoire.

Born on May 31, 1945 in Gagnoa, Koudou Laurent Gbagbo trained as a historian, earning a doctorate at Paris Diderot University.

He and his wife, both lecturers at the National University in Abidjan, had been activists since their student days. They were often in and out of prison together.

The story goes that Félix Houghpouët-Boigny, the country’s founding-father and long-term president, once sent for the young man; asking him to choose any ministerial cabinet position of his liking.

Gbagbo was said to have replied that he wanted nothing other than the old man’s royal stool itself. The old fox looked at the young man and prophesied to him thus: “young man, you will probably get what you want one day, but there is no doubt that, with the way you are carrying on, you will plunge our country into civil war.” It was, alas, a prophecy that was to come true.

Laurent Gbagbo was the founder of the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) in 1982, running unsuccessfully for the presidency when the political space was open for multi-party politics in 1990. He, however, won a seat in the National Assembly that same year.

General Robert Guéï, a graduate of the elite French military academy of St. Cyr, had been head of the army and a staunch Houphouët loyalist.

After the old man’s death in 1993, the General fell out of grace with Houphouët’s successor and political godson Henry Konan Bédié.

During the fight between Bédié and his rival Alassane Ouattara, Robert Guéï was said to have refused to mobilise the army in support of the incumbent.

Henry Konan Bédié himself was overthrown in a military coup d’état on Christmas Eve 1999.

The military recalled Guéï from retirement to lead the new junta. As events turned out, Guéï himself stood as an independent candidate in a new round of elections in which all the older politicians were barred except Laurent Gbagbo.

When Gbagbo emerged the winner, Guéï refused to surrender power to him. The General was brutally killed in a bloody popular insurrection along with his wife, First Lady Rose Doudou Guéï and their children on 19 September 2002.

That day remains etched in my memory. I was an official of the African Development Bank in Abidjan in those years. On that fateful day, I arrived Abidjan airport from a mission in Addis Ababa. We were stranded for several hours at the airport; eventually escorted home with the help of well-armed soldiers.

The naked bodies of General Guéï and his wife were found the following day on a dirt road. Rumours had it that stray dogs were already helping themselves to the cadavers. It was a signal warning about the vanity of power – what the ancient Hindu-Sanskrit sages term “Maya.”

Gbagbo came to power on a maelstrom of triumphalism. Alas, he became a populist who succumbed to the familiar traps that befall Third World populists: dollars, goons, guns and girls.

Much of his time in office was marked by rebellion, violence and strife. He had made overtures to the Chinese, the Americans, Canadians and others. He signalled that he no longer believed in France-Afrique. It was to be his waterloo.

The French were not going to sit back and watch over the dissolution of their crown jewel in Africa. They rallied behind Ouattara and the rebels; arming them to the teeth and using them to wage a war against the defenceless people of Côte d’Ivoire.

Ouattara was brought in during 1990-1993 as a Burkinabe to serve as Prime Minister under Houghpouët-Boigny. The old fox had famously declared that Baoulé kings do not know who will succeed them. He never trusted his own people; preferring foreign technocrats with no real social base in the country. The irony is that it was Ouattara who began implementing the policy of Ivoirité which denied national identity cards to emigrant settlers, most of them of Burkinabe origin. Gbagbo and his followers often dangled the sword of Ivoirite against their perceived enemies.

The French had sponsored a fake peace and reconciliation conference at Linas-Marcoussis in January 2003. But their real aim was to buy time and to seek opportunity to destroy Gbagbo and the regime. The country was effectively divided into two. The French staunchly defended their economic interests while ravaging the rest of the country.

A coup was orchestrated while Gbagbo was away in Rome. Millions of Ivoirians made a massive human shield with their own bodies to usher in their president.

Things came to a head during the 2010 elections when the Independent Electoral Commission and international observers such as ECOWAS and the UN had agreed that Ouattara was the winner. Thousands died.

The French came out in full force and the Gbagbos were dislodged and arrested after five months of fierce fighting on 11 April, 2011. Everything was done to destroy the regime and to render the country ungovernable.

The director of the Société Ivoirienne de Raffinage ( S.I.R.), the country’s leading refinery, had emptied the oil reserves and fled to France in what was clearly an act of economic sabotage.

With no fuel and no money, the representative of Total-Elf visited Gbagbo’s office in company of the French ambassador. They said they had two ships standing by off the ports. They were offering oil in exchange for the country’s only oil refinery which they would purchase for a token 1 franc. The French would operate the refinery as they wished, using the high-priced oil Total would supply. They also brought a bag full of money.

Gbagbo was said to have ordered them out of his office; reminding them not to forget to carry away their filthy lucre. The same iniquitous demands were made on the cocoa-coffee sector and for further concessions on the Compagnie Eléctricité Ivoirienne, the national power company, whose contract was due for renewal.

Earlier, the French construction firm Bouygues had agreed with President Bédié in 1999 to build a new bridge in Abidjan for N120 billion CFA francs (183€ million) or N200 billion. After Gbagbo consulted the Chinese they agreed to do it at half the price. Clearly, Gbagbo’s days were numbered.

Over the last half-century, France’s mission is apparently to destroy every prospect of autonomous economic development in Africa.

The weapons that were used by the murderous rebels in Sierra Leone and Liberia came mainly from Libya and France. The same is true of the weapons being used by Boko Haram and the militia herdsmen in Nigeria.

France would be of no consequence in the world were it not for its shadowy networks of informal empire that enable them to commit rape and rapine across our continent.

The French have reinvented themselves as the parasites and vultures of history. When they cannot have their way they ignite coups and wars. The blood of our holy martyrs is in their hands.

I have nothing against the French as a people and have no axe to grind with Alassane Ouattara; a brilliant economist who was No. 2 at the IMF.

He is a better economic manager than Gbagbo Laurent. But we cannot run away from the fact that he is perceived at home and abroad as an agent of the French.

His wife is a Bouygues. Under his leadership the economy has attained a GDP growth averaging seven per cent annually. The economic fundamentals are looking far better than ever before. But there is a lot of unease in the country.

I asked a politically well-connected Ivoirian friend what she thought of the release of Gbagbo Laurent. She replied ominously: “Let him come, we shall kill him!”

I was in Abidjan a few months ago. It seemed clear to me that what we have there is a Carthaginian Peace — a peace of the graveyard.

The legitimacy of the government remains in grave doubt. Ivoirians, like people everywhere, would always prefer freedom in regal poverty to slavery amidst the fleshpots of Egypt.