Gbagbo’s last stand

May 14, 2011

World in View

by Gerry Emmett

The arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo by NATO and Ivorian opposition forces will not solve the problems that plague Ivory Coast. Gbagbo’s rise and fall does represent, in microcosm, the long tragedy of Africa’s unfinished revolutions.

Gbagbo’s fall began in earnest when he falsely claimed victory in last year’s long-delayed presidential election (supposed to have been held in 2005). Despite losing the popular vote, Gbagbo had himself sworn in as president once again on Dec. 10. Since then, thousands have died and up to a million people have become refugees from violence as Gbagbo’s forces fought militias loyal to his challenger, Alassane Ouattara.

There has been vicious fighting with atrocities committed by Gbagbo’s forces, but also by Ouattara’s militias–the worst single massacre killed up to 900 residents of Duékoué, inhabited by Gbagbo’s ethnic group, the Bété. Despite new President Ouattara’s promises of reconciliation, the longstanding divisions between South and North, Catholic and Muslim, have again been exacerbated.


Gbagbo’s rise was of another order. He was a union activist with socialist sympathies opposed to the regime of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who was close to the former colonial power, France. With his wife Simone, also a union leader and “Marxist,” he founded the Ivorian Popular Front, with ties to the French Socialist Party. At that time, Alassane Ouattara was a part of Houphouet-Boigny’s right-wing government.

After Houphouet-Boigny’s death in 1993, Gbagbo rose to electoral prominence and won a disputed presidential election in 2000. A pro-Gbagbo revolt in the military allowed him to take office that October. In addition to his avowed “socialist” agenda, he adopted the utterly reactionary idea of Ivoirité that his predecessor had initiated: Muslims, members of certain tribes, and immigrants weren’t “true Ivorians,” thus watering with blood the roots of the current crisis. (An important aspect of the Muslim Ouattara’s electoral victory is its challenge to “Ivoirité.”)

His rule, however, did nothing to change the conditions of exploitation that Ivory Coast’s workers and farmers faced. Ivory Coast is a major world producer of cocoa, and its farmers are wildly exploited by huge agribusiness like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Barry Callebaut. In an important article in The Nation, James North describes the economic background to Ivory Coast’s tortured politics: Ivory Coast “has done just about everything mainstream Western economists suggested–and it remains trapped in poverty. The country concentrated on growing and exporting products it was ‘good’ at, cocoa and also coffee, instead of trying to industrialize. But the chronically low world prices for these products kept the country poor” (“The Roots of the Cote d’Ivoire Crisis,” April 25, 2011).

While Gbagbo had some issues with France, he did nothing to change Ivory Coast’s exploitative relations with world capitalism. He did, however, cultivate friendly relations with the fundamentalist Christian Right in the U.S., leaving Pat Robertson as one of his few prominent cheerleaders as state power slipped away. That Gbagbo’s last foreign supporters were a bizarre mixture of the Right and Left (Workers World Party, for example) shows the basic incoherence of much of the Left’s attitude to Africa and its revolutionary history. A good example of what Frantz Fanon called the laziness of intellectuals.


It is true that Gbagbo has traits in common with other African rulers who have abandoned their earlier ideals, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But Ivory Coast’s deep-rooted economic and social problems are also shared by countries like Nigeria, where the recent election of President Goodluck Jonathon saw fighting between North and South, Christian and Muslim, with tens of thousands rendered homeless.

The lesson of all the unfinished African revolutions is clear enough: African democracy will be revolutionary democracy, or it will not be. The Gbagbos or Mugabes who attempt to create halfway houses will only produce greater misery and chaos. Intervening in Ivory Coast’s chaos, NATO and France are only trying to empower new creators of halfway houses, in a vicious circle. What is needed is social revolution.

In this regard, it was truly strange to meet with Gbagbo’s stepdaughter Marie Antoinette passing out free books and CDs of her parents’ speeches at the Left Forum in New York in March, attempting to claim “anti-imperialist” credentials. In reality, she had only become the “poor stepchild” of reactionary state power, which knows no mercy either coming or going.

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