Archive article from The Socialist Issue 371
Imperialism in new occupation
DURING THE US preparations for the invasion of Iraq many in the anti-war movement, including some influential voices on the liberal left, were taken in by the opposition of the French government and its diplomatic efforts to avoid a war. Can the French government act as a progressive counterweight to US and British imperialism? Recent events in Ivory Coast have given the answer.
The former French colony of Ivory Coast was once held up as a shining example of economic growth and political stability. Based on phenomenal growth rates throughout the 1960s and 1970s the wealthiest economy in West Africa could be transformed into a modern Western-style democracy according to capitalist pundits. Yet now the break down of the ceasefire and descent into chaos threatens the very existence of Ivory Coast as an integral state.
This situation will also have serious repercussions for its neighbours. Burkina Faso to the north and Liberia to the west are especially vulnerable as refugees stream across the borders.
Most capitalist commentators trace the trouble back to the military coup in 1999, but the seeds of ethnic conflict go back much further than this.
The country's prosperity was fuelled by cocoa exports, accounting for 40% of world production. But Western commodities markets determine prices, while the currency is tied to the French franc.
These two factors meant that genuine economic independence or industrial development was impossible. Nor did the indigenous neo-colonial capitalists have any incentive to invest in developing a domestic market as long as the cocoa profits were pouring in. Falling prices and the devaluation of the franc in the mid-1990s meant severe economic crisis and political turmoil.
Ivory Coast had been a one party state until 1990 when the ruling Ivory Coast Democratic Party (DPCI) was forced to concede multi-party elections.
Since independence the state had been dominated by the southern Christian political elite represented by the DPCI, but as the economy shrank, the mainly Muslim northern elite began demanding more influence and power.
When Alassane Ouattara (a former International Monetary Fund official from the north) announced his intention to run for President in 2000, sitting President Robert Guei, who had just taken power in a military coup, played the 'race card' by claiming Ouattara was a not a genuine Ivorian as his parents came from Burkina Faso.
Guei's predecessor, Bedie had introduced the concept of 'Ivoirite' in an attempt to shore up his support. This limited political office to people of Ivorian descent, thereby excluding many northerners from standing for election. The race was restricted to Guei, of the DPCI and Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI). Gbagbo's supporters refused to accept the results and widespread rioting forced Guei to flee. Gbagbo was then proclaimed President and the IPF became the biggest parliamentary bloc.
But the seeds of civil war were already sown. Despite a power-sharing agreement between three main parties the following years were marked by a series of uprisings and army rebellions, and full scale civil war.
The peace accord reached in early 2003 saw the deployment of 4,000 French peacekeeping troops augmented by United Nations and African Union forces. But as the socialist said at the time, this was in effect a recolonisation by French imperialism. Capitalist powers intervene to protect their own national interests and it was inevitable that the French would come to be seen as an army of occupation.
The fragile peace settlement was bound to break down and when the conflict re-ignited in March, Gbagbo's government launched a series of air strikes on the north. The UN troops as usual were powerless to prevent this. But the French army did respond when nine of its troops were killed, probably unintentionally in one of the raids. President Chirac ordered the Ivorian air force to be destroyed. Gbagbo claimed it was an act of war and Ivorian retaliated by attacking French businesses in the commercial capital Abidjan.
So far 200 people mostly Ivorians have been killed and there is no end to the crisis in sight, despite the intervention of South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki and the African union.
French and other European citizens are being airlifted out of the country, while the African Union has called for sanctions to be imposed. This rapid response when imperialist interests are threatened is in stark contrast to the West's and African Union's lethargic approach to the carnage in the Sudan and Congo.
The main concern of the West is to contain the violence and prevent it spilling over to destabilise neighbouring states. But the centuries of imperialist exploitation and divide and rule guarantee that there can be no long-lasting peace in the region.
All of the existing political parties represent this or that faction of the wealthy elite. None of them are concerned with the well-being of the masses.
Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone, show the future for the whole of West Africa unless the working class intervenes under its own banner. Only they can show a way forward by uniting the myriad ethnic groups under the banner of class unity against the imperialists and their local agents.
Workers and poor peasants should look for inspiration to their brothers and sisters in Nigeria, where militant action by workers has shown the potential power for such united action.