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By Clovis Atatah in Vienna

Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history would very easily make even a rabid believer in Africa’s bright prospects cynical. Just barely over a decade after General Robert Guei’s Christmas 1999 putsch against sit-tight Henri Konan Bédié sent many Africans to the bar for a chilled celebratory drink, the country that used to be described as the jewel of Francophone West Africa has become an unrecognisable mess.

Like many African states arbitrarily carved out by colonialists, the country’s pseudo-independence in 1960 has been compounded by comprador leaders whose disastrous stewardship – if that is not a misnomer – only accelerated the programmed descent into chaos that we are witnessing today.

And like many African countries, the political elite both in the governing circles and the opposition have been a curse, rather than a blessing, to their people. I will never forget that day, while the clock ticked inexorably towards a hopeful new century, when the late retired General Robert Guei pledged to rapidly “sweep” away the dirt in Côte d’Ivoire’s corridors of power and make haste to hand over to a democratically-elected leader. With hindsight I can hardly believe my naivety.

It did not take long before Gen Guei locked up the Ivorian national football team to teach them military discipline after their elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations following a 3-0 spanking by Cameroon. Before the world could come to terms with the retired soldier’s buffoonery, he had announced his candidacy for the 2000 presidential election.

Like his predecessor Henri Konan Bédié, Gen Guei barred former Ivoirian Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara from running on grounds that he was a foreigner. And then he sacked the chairperson of the elections commission just before the announcement of the results and declared himself winner. Demonstrations that followed saw people-power prevailing and the genuine winner, a certain Laurent Gbagbo, was installed president of Côte d’Ivoire.

Exactly a decade later, the wheel of history turned full circle. This time, it was Mr Gbagbo who prevented the chairperson of the electoral commission from announcing the winner, with his henchman tearing up election results in the full glare of TV cameras. His opponent was that “foreigner”, Alassane Ouattara, again.

What followed has been a bloody struggle between supporters of Messrs Gbagbo and Ouattara in which hundreds of Ivoirians have reportedly died and over a million people displaced. As I write this article, the bloody drama is still unfolding. In the background is the former xenophobic dictator, Henri Konan Bédié, who paradoxically supported his former “foreigner” enemy, Mr Ouattara, in the 2010 Ivoirian presidential run-off.

In-between the 2000 election and the 2010 polls was a devastating civil war, triggered by a foiled coup d’État in 2002. With the country practically divided into two, the devils of ethnic divide reared their cursed heads again, and Mr Gbagbo, who has been presenting himself as a nationalist, exploited this situation to hang on to power.

I’m not oblivious to the ongoing anti-imperialist discourse by many African nationalists who see the ongoing power struggle in Côte d’Ivoire as a battle between nationalists championed by Gbagbo and France’s marionettes represented by Ouattara. To some extent, they are right.
France quickly took sides in the conflict under the guise of humanitarian intervention.

And it would be naïve, if recent history is anything to go by, to believe that the French would do anything in Africa that is not in line with advancing their broader imperialist aims. Many of Gbagbo’s supporters, who represent about 46 percent of the Ivoirian electorate (I believe the results published by the election commission), are passionate nationalists who detest France’s grip on their country’s resources.

And Mr Gbagbo’s nationalist rhetoric has succeeded to create a core of fanatical supporters who are ready to die for their leader.  But Mr Gbagbo, in my view, is only masquerading as a nationalist to hang on to power. Like other leaders in Francophone Africa, Mr Gbagbo struggled to have a cosy romance with the Elysée. But his efforts flopped because the French did not trust him after his initial anti-French rhetoric.

If Mr Gbagbo was really serious about severing the master-slave cord between France and Côte d’Ivoire, he would have created a national currency and carried out many structural reforms to “defrenchify” his country’s administrative and political institutions. In addition, he would have worked towards a truly indigenous constitution, to replace the current one which is a disguised replica of an older version of the French constitution.

If Mr Gbagbo was a true nationalist, he would not exploit ethnic cleavages to exclude some of his compatriots, whose only crime is that they politically disagree with him. He would not have armed hungry youths to go on killing sprees, and would have tried to avoid the senseless deaths of hundreds of his compatriots.

On the other hand, Ouattara, like his ally Bédié, is just another power-hungry politician who has a track record of trying to unconstitutionally seize power. Like Mr Gbagbo’s militias, his Republican forces seem to have been carrying out reprisal killings.

The Gbagbos, Ouattaras and Bédiés, and other politicians of their ilk, are the vampires of Côte d’Ivoire, who have been sucking the blood of their people. They need to all step aside to give their country a chance to heal its deep wounds.

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