Blog » The Côte d’Ivoire conundrum

28 Mar 2005

The Côte d’Ivoire conundrum

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 1:15 am

What does a country do when it’s soldiers are the only thing stopping another country collapsing into civil war, but the country concerned doesn’t really want them there? And in contrast to what you might be thinking, the civil war is domestic in origin, and oil isn’t part of the picture.

A little history

Côte d’Ivoire (or the Ivory Coast) was until recently one of the richest West African nations, exporting a substantial part of world’s cocoa, coffee, pineapples, and various other crops. The country gained independence from France in 1960, under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny (who had previously been the first African cabinet minister in France). Market-friendly economic policies and French assitance led to rapid growth until the 1980’s, when collapsing world crop prices and increasing government waste led to recession.

Houphouët-Boigny ruled rather dictatorially, until growing protests in the 1990’s and his death in 1993. His chosen successor, Henri Konan-Bédié, won the newly-instituted multiparty elections in 1995, and the economy recovered somewhat. But generals staged a coup in 1999, campaigning for government austerity and decreased waste.

The 2000 elections were not successful, and Laurent Gbagbo was put into power after an uprising in protest to his opponent’s attempts to fix the election — 180 died. Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim leader from the north, was disqualified from running on the basis of his foreign birth. Roughly 20% of the country’s population are foreign workers, drawn by the country’s economic strength. Most of these, as well as a fair part of the northern part of the country, are Muslim, and are sometimes (as above) excluded from the political process.

These tensions led, in 2002, to a mutiny of some northern troops. With the support of the northern population, they now control about half the country. Opportunistic fighters from Liberia and Sierra Leone control small parts of the country.

French intervention

France sent peacekeepers, later joined by UN troops, to enforce some early ceasefires and support a “government of national unity” (modelled on South Africa’s succesful transitional government). However, the ceasefires have not held well, and now it is only the presence of the French soldiers which stops the war resuming.

I have vast respect for French actions in Africa, compared to most other developed countries. Of the colonising powers, they left some of the better organised and functional countries upon decolonisation. They are one of the few developed nations willing to put peacekeepers on the ground in Africa, and the only one responding to the continuing tragedy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC must be the worst exploited country in the world, with death tolls in the tens of millions over the course of colonialism, US- and Belgium-imposed dictators, and subsequent post-Cold War abandonment.

But the French peacekeepers are not welcome in Côte d’Ivoire. Last November government jets, resuming attacks on the rebels, “accidentally” bombed a French base and killed nine soldiers. France retaliated by destroyoing the Ivorian airforce of two jets and nine helicopters. Massive street protests followed.

The conundrum

Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war is different to most other long-running African civil wars, in that it is not a desperate rebel group against an entrenched government. It is more similar to the US’s civil war, with two well-organised sides contesting political principles. As happens all to often, the populations of both sides believe they can win, and are all in favour of the war — compare, say, to the enthusiastic populations of Europe at the start of the First World War.

So the peacekeepers are perceived, not only by the armies, but the population as well, as the only thing standing between their side and victory. The current French mission ends on 4 April; the question is now whether they will stay, or leave and virtually guarantee the resumption of the war.

I hope they stay — the alternative is just too terrible. Hope for a settlement remains, as the leaders of the parties are in South Africa for talks mediated by the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who has been appointed by the African Union to lead mediation efforts. Further assistance from the rest of the developed world would be great — the UN appealed for a mere $61 million for humanitarian concerns in the country (that’s million, not billion), but by last November has received but 18% of that.

It’s a particular poignant issue after seeing the movie Hotel Rwanda last night, and in particular the arrival of intervention forces at the start of the genocide — but only to evacute the foreigners before they left the rest of the population to die.

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  1. Funnily, it wasn’t “in contrast to what I was thinking” to find out that you were talking about a non-oil-driven domestic civil war. Must have been my feminine intuition… or– and I know this is far-fetched– perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the post was titled “Côte d’Ivoire”, rather than “Iraq” [/”Iran”] ?

    Hehe ; )

    Comment by Laurel — 28 Mar 2005 @ 6:53 am

  2. Seriously though, what an awful situation. Recently the UN Commission on human rights put on a film festival, where I saw “Liberia, an uncivil war”, which also highlighted the lack of peacekeeping support from developed countries. There was a panel discussion after, which brought up the issue of there being an entire generation raised as ‘soldiers-for-hire’ because of all the trouble in the region, and how this creates a sort of self-propagating war-mentality that makes it difficult for disarmament programs to be effective in the long run.

    Then at one point a woman in the audience brought up a rather shocking viewpoint: “But what about the argument that these are ‘African problems’ and that therefore they should have ‘African solutions’?’ And then she added something along the lines of: “Shouldn’t they have to learn to be self-sufficient and take the responsibility for dealing with things on their own?”

    It was a really horrible thing to hear someone suggest, especially incomprehensible after we’d all just finished watching such an intense film; but at the same time I was glad it was brought up because otherwise the panel discussion would have come down to a bunch of self-congratulatory heated-agreement. The first response that was given, that problems like genocide [we’d also watched a very short clip on the situation in Sudan] are universal problems that should be of concern to all of humanity, was true but I don’t think concrete enough to satisfy someone who wanted a specific rationale for why developed country X should risk its soliders and resources for developing country Y’s problem.

    The second response was more effective: it’s a simplification to say that country X’s problem only concerns country X, because the chain of causation is usually much more complex than that. Unfortunately this answer didn’t get fleshed out by the panel as well as I would have liked, but I think it’s an important line of argument for establishing western responsibility in these types of issues. Even putting aside the moral obligations that come from past colonial involvement, the Liberia film highlighted how things like arms sales often directly implicate western nations in these conflicts.

    Ay. It’s so sad, that things like UN intervention come at such a comparatively small cost in relation to the resulting benefits, that are ultimately of benefit to everyone, yet we remain so persistently short-sighted and give so much less than we’re capable of.

    Comment by Laurel — 28 Mar 2005 @ 8:15 am

  3. So how is it that the French decided to commit to peacekeeping (originally)? What are the factors that create a climate where that kind of commitment is politically acceptable? I suppose that’s one of the things we need to be asking…

    Comment by Laurel — 28 Mar 2005 @ 8:23 am

  4. The most significant problem I find with such scenarios (outsiders being asked to provide assistance to conflicting parties) is the (sometimes explicit) religious motivations involved. Keeping peace keepers in the region is obviously a stop-gap solution; no amount of diplomacy in the world will allow the two sides to come together if it’s built into who they are as people that they must fight. I’m not sure that is the case in this particular situation, but many times it is.

    If the talks in South Africa are yielding promise of any sort, then yes, I implore the French to keep their forces in the region in the hopes of some peaceful solution being found. But, if the two sides involved in this conflict are bent on destroying each other (and anyone who gets between them), then I can find no moral objection to the French deciding it is not worth the risk to the lives of French citizens to keep their soldiers in place.

    If such conflicts can be traced directly back to the involvement of a third party, then yes, I find that third party to be morally obligated to do as much as possible to help the warring parties reach peaceful agreement. But, claiming some amorphous cloud of past colonialist actions somehow obligates all one-time colony holders to pledge the lives of their citizens to prevent conflict is quite misguided in my view.

    Paul obviously knows much more about this specific situation than I do, so I must admit that I am speaking out of a great deal of ignorance of the details of this conflict.

    Comment by jjk — 28 Mar 2005 @ 2:15 pm

  5. Laurel: Yes, the title could have given it away, but I couldn’t resist using the line anyway. Some other points:

    Liberia: Yes, another sad story, where the people on the streets were in this case begging for foreign (specifically US) intervention, at the same time that the Iraq war was starting. It’s an interesting place, founded as it was by American colonists with the support of the US government and NGO’s. The settlers happened to be black former slaves, but referred to themselves as American, and governed the rest of the population in typical colonial fashion. So yes, it’s America’s former African colony! But the good news is that it’s starting to come right after many years. The UN peacekeepers managed to bring peace to the civil war without shooting anyone, and are now busy rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.

    But I think you’re both right to talking about the related ideas of “African problems”, colonial culpability, and humanitarian concerns when developed countries need to decide what to do. My current thoughts on the issue (and perhaps I’ll expand on them, but I’d enjoy comments too!) are:

    1. African is not unusual to be having these problems at this stage in nation building — compare to the French Revolution, Oliver Cromwell in Britain, or Russia’s endless revolutions. These countries are new, and haven’t had centuries to achieve cultural homogeneity and national identity. France used sometimes brutual central authority to achieve it; Britain still hasn’t succeeded entirely in Scotland, and certianly not Northern Ireland.
    2. Africa’s circumstances make this situation far worse. Historical factors, such as the slave trade and colonialism, destroyed the pre-existing advanced kingdoms (such as those that had traded with the Romans), and left behind dubious institutions. Cold War meddling didn’t help. Today, I’d like to argue that the combination of cheap, powerful weaponry that can be used by anyone and not just a wealthy feudal nobility; as well as a global market for minerals, wood, etc. that rebel groups can gather, have “democratised” the ability to rebel — so that anyone can do it.
    3. Historical precedent should then suggest that Africa will reach the stability of modern Europe in some centuries, or more if the democratising of conflict by the rest of the world continues. I would claim that anyone, anywhere has the moral responsibility to help others achieve one’s own advantages — a responsibilty that is acknowledged everywhere from George Bush’s words to open source software support forums. Add the impact that the developed world has had on Africa, and that claim gets substantially strengthened.

    I tend to think that aid and intervention, in the end, is all about using the lessons that history and technology have taught, to help the entire human race leapfrog the darker parts of societal development. This makes it worthwhile, even after considerations of knock-on effects, developing new markets, and preventing terror.

    Comment by paulcook — 28 Mar 2005 @ 3:56 pm

  6. “I would claim that anyone, anywhere has the moral responsibility to help others achieve one’s own advantages — a responsibilty that is acknowledged everywhere from George Bush’s words to open source software support forums.”

    I could not disagree more. Any fan of capitalism (and you may or may not be) would immediately denounce such a claim. If I gain my advantages through hard work and ingenuity, why do I have a moral obligation to help others attain such advantages? I don’t. And I think this extends to the idea of there being some moral obligation of developed states to help developing states in conflict resolution. Note that I am speaking from a purely moral perspective here.

    Now, are there strategic advantages at stake for a developed country to aid a developing one? Certainly. Very few regions of the globe exist where a local conflict cannot somehow grow into a regional or continental concern, and for that reason alone close-by powers certainly have an interest in what happens. Where is the moral impetus for a developing country, after having decades of sovereignty and economic freedom, to demand the involvement of formerely interested developed countries?

    I do feel, however, that everyone has an interest in keeping the planet clean and the resources plentiful, and thus I think all developed countries have a crystal clear motivation for helping developing nations achieve energy independence and facilitate the research, development, and eventual adoption of more environmentally-friendly technologies. However, I don’t think an analog can be drawn for some compelling obligation for developed countries to engage themselves in conflicts across the globe that are rooted in religion and/or hatred, two things that are practically incurable over a negotating table.

    Comment by jjk — 28 Mar 2005 @ 5:23 pm

  7. Ah, brilliant! Now this topic is getting interesting — thanks for the comment, jjk.

    I agree entirely with you about the advantages that developed countries can realise in helping developing countries. I do, however, think there is a moral aspect as well.

    I’ve spoken about the historical aspects, and the evils of colonialism, etc. etc. But in many cases, as well, the countries haven’t had decades of freedom — many of Africa’s civil wars of past decades (post-1965) were fuelled by the Cold War and/or apartheid South Africa (some examples: Zaire/Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Sudan, and various West African states). In terms of the history of nation building, as well, a few decades are very short to rebuild after, say, the death of half the population in colonial Congo.

    But now is not the time for caution, so for the hell of it I’m going to argue that there is a moral responsibility even for countries that genuinely have no historical culpability. I am indeed a fan of capitalism, or at least believe that it’s better than any current alternative. However, domestic democracy/capitalism that is practised today implicitly acknowledges the moral need to assist others.

    Taxation and government expenditure is, even in the US, heavily skewed in favour of supporting and uplifting poor or historically disadvantaged groups. The Constitution builds in tons of protection for population groups that might otherwise suffer from the effects of “pure”/”unfettered” (depending on your perspective) capitalism — protection of minorities might even be called the Constitution’s purpose.

    One reason for this, I believe, is capitalism’s inherent belief in equality of opportunity, though not outcome. This is why we spend so much on cheap education for poorer people, unemployment benefits for those retrenched, development projects amongst disadvantaged groups (native Americans, for example, in the US’s case). The moral case for this is that we would not want to be on the losing end of the social class/parentage lottery, and since we aren’t due to no effort or achievement of our own, it’s only fair that we do something to assist those who are not as fortunate. Capitalism certainly doesn’t require one to pass on advantages arising from achievement, but does seem to require passing on advantages of birth/circumstance.

    I would argue that building this into the very heart of domestic capitalism, but not international relations, is an inconsistent morality. I’m not arguing that one provide the same outcome advantages to African nations; but rather the same opportunity advantages — such as functional democracy, a stable state, and access to world markets, such as agriculture.

    Now the Côte d’Ivoire problem is a little tricky here, because one could argue that the population is supportive of the war, so are “forfeiting their rights” to a peaceful country. That’s one of the reasons I titled this post a conundrum — I think the case for intervention in most countries is a “slam dunk” (to borrow a phrase), but here it’s a little more tricky. I’d still claim humanitarian concerns trump all else, and draw an analogy to the Marshall Plan assisting the German population after World War 2, when it could have been argued that their support for Hitler had resulted in them “forfeiting the right” to a developed nation. In this case, particularly, it requires a relatively small French troop commitment (on the order of 5000), with little chance of large loss of French life, to save vast numbers of Ivorians and years of development.

    Comment by paulcook — 29 Mar 2005 @ 12:12 am

  8. Ah, Paul it’s a pity you’re not running the world (democratically, of course).

    So much that could be responded to here. To begin arbitrarily from the beginning…

    1) jjk: About your “amorphous clouds of past colonialist actions” comment.
    I’d like to clarify that I wasn’t saying that having once had a colony automatically obligates the former colonizer to support a country in every way for all perpetuity. But it does create, I think, a greater presumption toward there being an obligation than for another developed country which hasn’t previously exerted control over (/rapaciously profited from) a particular country. It certainly does in cases where culpability can be traced back directly to some action the colonizer. You are right that at some point this line of reasoning becomes quite nebulous– and the situation starts bearing a resemblance to the Holocaust or slavery reparation controversies (ie, with some proportion of claims being quite justified, while others seem to call for arbitrary tithes from companies/
    institutions that really don’t bear any relation to the original perpetrators).
    But considering what Paul said about the length of time rebuilding takes, I’m not sure that “direct responsibility” is the yardstick that does the best justice, even if one is arguing from the “pragmatic” view of wanting a specific rationale for a particular country’s responsibility.

    2) As for what I’ll call Paul’s “universal egalitarian” position… the short-take is that I agree. The slightly longer version is: I think it’s an argument we should definitely be making, but some people will only be convinced by “show me the money” (or rather, direct responsibility/benefits) pragmatism that jjk advocates.
    Which, again, doesn’t mean we should beg-off the egalitarian perspective, otherwise we’d miss out the support that can be won that way. I think both arguments have a role to play (ie, “we should respond to this situation because it’s our moral obligation as humans AND because it’s in our best-interest”).

    3) jjk: To comment on the “conflicts being fuelled by religion/hatred issue”.
    First, I think it’s worth noting that even many conflicts involving religion/hatred can be driven primarily by other factors. The film on Liberia took pains to make it explicit that theirs was not a religiously-fuelled war– even though most muslims happened to be on one side and most christians on the other. The participants seemed pretty clear that the division was based on politics. Then they interviewed the country’s top religious advisor, who also stressed that the conflict was political in origin, and that what religious tension there was, had come after– that religion was being used, but it was not the driving force. (An important distinction; since it implied that if the political situation was resolved, religious differences would not be enough to keep the conflict going).

    Now, clearly, there are conflicts that *are* driven by religious differences or ethnic animosity. But I mention the above because it’s good to keep in mind that just because a conflict involves religious differences, that it’s unresolvable by negotiation. As I think was pointed out in Hotel Rwanda, developed countries have often slapped on those kind of single-factor labels as excuses not to help out (“oh, ethnic conflict, well that’s Africans being Africans, no use getting involved in those“) in situations where it seems likely the help actually would have made a difference.

    Okay, as for situations that are _definitely absolutely really_ driven by religious divisions/ ethnic animosity, and all reasonable evidence suggests that those factors alone will be enough to keep things going despite outside intervention.
    Yes, that is difficult. I think as a matter of principle, negotiation should always be tried when it’s possible to do so. But I’m not sure I could so glibly make the case for continued troop commitment as Paul seems to (in general, again deferral to Paul for speculation about this specific situation). There is a point at which politicians in a developed country have to be responsible to the parents/loved ones concerned about the well-being of the soldiers whose lives are at risk. The Bill Clinton era maxim of “even one American life is too much” was ridiculous and morally cheap, but I do think that there’s a limit to how far you can go with the utilitarian argument (“for 1 life, X-teenthousand lives _might_ be saved!… with um, merely Z probability…”) before the sacrifice is not justified.

    3a) Another point I’d like to make about religion/ethnic conflicts. Yes, they will always be around, and at a certain point some situations may become essentially unstoppable by means of outside intervention. However we have gained some knowledge, over the course of the eternal prevalence of these things, that really *does* make it possible to, as Paul says, “help the entire human race leapfrog the darker parts of societal development”. For example, there’s been some very interesting research done recently (in India) into comparing regions that are similar in make-up in terms of religious/ethnic disparities, etc. yet have had contrasting fates in terms of whether the region stays peaceful or whether it breaks out into war. As a result, people have been able to determine what factors and strategies make the most difference in promoting peaceful interactions between religious/ethnic groups. That provides significant guidance on the best prevention strategies, as well as some insight into how one might transition a country back towards peace after an outside intervention has temporarily cooled things down. So I think there *are* ways in which even purely religious/ethnic conflicts can be successfully addressed by peacemaking efforts.

    And even in cases where conflicts have escalated to the point where intervention can’t stop it from going on, that still leaves the question of responsibility of other nations to help out once things have simmered down
    (and I would say, of how to provide help for refugees, etc. in the mean time).

    4) Paul: So what’s your perspective on things like the Tony Blair initiative, where a country wants to give aid, but has to make a decision about requirements in terms of how well-governed the recipient country is? How do you escape this sort of vicious cycle where some of the countries most in trouble can’t qualify for aid because they’re in too much trouble?

    [And if you figure out the solution to that; you might want to CC a copy to Tony Blair, and thereby start the world on the path to realizing you should be running it…]

    Comment by Laurel — 29 Mar 2005 @ 2:01 pm

  9. The idea you mention, of aid being given only to countries with good government, is not new. In fact, it’s a cornerstone of the foreign aid part of the African Union’s (AU) development plan, the New Plan for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). One of the structures that has been set up is a review panel consisting of a number of prominent (non-government affiliated) Africans. They are now starting to review various governments. Only countries with the resulting NEPAD “stamp of approval” will receive aid channeled through NEPAD.

    I think this is a brilliant idea. Aid that goes to corrupt governments does, statistically, nothing — studies show this. So not only will this channel aid to where it can actually help, but will help greatly in the efforts of the AU to improve government, as critiscism of regimes can no longer be written off as “colonial meddling”.

    You’d think that this would be exactly what donors have been asking for, but despite a huge roadshow by the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria (I think) at a G8 meeting, there’s been very little money actually coming through. Ah well, we do what we can… But Tony Blair has been saying excellent things recently, so that’s exciting.

    And a side note: in these sorts of topics, I’m biased. I’m almost always going to argue for more to be done in Africa. I think the arguments, moral and pragmatic, are on my side, but I should at least state my position!

    Comment by paulcook — 1 Apr 2005 @ 1:49 am

  10. Oh I believe you, it makes sense to make good governance an incentive, and not give aid wastefully. But that still leaves the viscious cycle for the downtrodden places that are also corrupt.

    Comment by Laurel — 1 Apr 2005 @ 8:00 am

  11. My Clinton-AIDS friend passed along a link to this op-ed from a Ugandan paper, on the efforts of Rwandan President Kagame to fight corruption in anti-poverty projects… and some of the statistics are really quite shocking.

    Comment by Laurel — 14 Apr 2005 @ 4:34 pm

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