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Africa’s Winds of Change Return

DAKAR – How did Ivory Coast come to this? After gaining independence from France in 1960 with Felix Houphouet-Boigny as President, the country became the world’s largest exporter of cocoa beans and a significant exporter of coffee and palm oil. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, sizeable export earnings, combined with easy access to credit, fueled an economic surge dubbed the “Ivorian miracle.” But then, escalating debts and plummeting commodity prices started taking their toll. Africa’s El Dorado was lost.

In 1990, Houphouet-Boigny appointed Alassane Ouattara, the governor of the Central Bank of the West African States, as Prime Minister to fix Ivory Coast ’s growing economic problems. After Houphouet-Boigny’s death in 1993, Henri Konan Bédié assumed the presidency and revised the electoral code to bar Ouattara from entering the 1995 presidential contest on the grounds that he was not an Ivorian national. Bédié, not surprisingly, was re-elected unopposed. And, not surprisingly, he was soon accused of widespread corruption and toppled in a military coup in 1999.

It was in the midst of this militarization of Ivorian politics that Laurent Gbagbo emerged as the main opposition leader. When Robert Guéi, the military leader, organized a flawed presidential election in 2000, of which he declared himself to be the winner, a popular uprising ousted him and elevated Gbagbo to the post.

In 2002, Ivory Coast was rocked by a rebel uprising that partitioned the country, with the government led by Gbagbo controlling the south, pro-Ouattara rebels controlling the north, and a French army camped between the two.

After a peace conference in 2005, a government of national unity was established, followed by a presidential election in November 2010. The independent electoral commission endorsed by the international community declared Ouattara the winner. Gbagbo refused to acknowledge the result, claiming vote-rigging, and was declared re-elected by the Constitutional Court , which nullified 600,000 ballots in several northern constituencies. As a result, Ivory Coast was plunged in a deadly battle among four stakeholders.

The first stakeholder is Gbagbo, who sought to break away from French neo-colonial dominance. He had the support of Ivorians who aspired to install genuine Ivorian patriots in place of the French-backed elite. Gbagbo was suspicious of Ouattara, whom he believed to be actively plotting with French support to topple his government.

But Gbagbo refused to denounce the tribal/religious chauvinism that excluded Ouattara and millions of Ivoirian northerners from full citizenship rights. He also tried to avoid confrontation with France , awarding the management of the port of Abidjan , the capital, to a French company. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy maintained his visceral opposition to Gbagbo.

The second stakeholder is Ouattara. In his quest for authority, he drew on the Western ties that he had forged as a deputy-managing director of the International Monetary Fund. His claim to fame was his professional reputation as an economic manager, which arose from his implementation of structural adjustment programs that always included the same set of measures: currency devaluation, decontrol of exchange rates, tighter monetary policy, financial deregulation, trade liberalization, wage cuts, fiscal consolidation, and labor-market deregulation.

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Ivory Coast’s third key stakeholder is France, which under President Charles de Gaulle had granted independence to its former African colonies on the condition that French troops remain stationed on their territories, and that their economies remain tightly linked to France. Indeed, after a half-century of independence, France maintains a stranglehold on Ivorian commerce and holds its foreign-currency reserves.

French business, moreover, dominates most of the country’s infrastructure: Bolloré controls the port of Abidjan and the railway; Bouygues oversees Ivorian construction projects; Total holds one-quarter of the shares of the country’s oil refinery; France Telecom is the main shareholder of the landline and mobile telephone network; Société Générale and BNP-Paribas control the banking industry; and Air France controls the sky.

The convertibility of the country’s currency, the CFA franc, allows these companies to transfer freely all their earnings back to France . The CFA’s fixed exchange rate peg to the euro shields them from any risk of capital loss at a time when countries around the world are battling to maintain competitive exchange rates in order to export their way out of economic trouble. With such a currency regime in place, there is no prospect for proper industrialization in western Africa ’s francophone countries, whose economic woes stand in sharp contrast to other reviving African economies.

The fourth stakeholder is the Ivorian population, which is under siege, divided along ethnic and religious lines, and incited by venomous politics. Ivorians massacred each other in the 2002 civil war. In 2011, the post-election deadlock led to thousands of civilian deaths. A stream of refugees fled to neighboring countries, especially Liberia . The mayhem began to abate only when Gbagbo was removed from power and taken prisoner after French and UN ground troops, armored vehicles, and helicopters bombarded the presidential palace where he was guarded by forces that remained loyal to him.

Elite corruption and incompetence, a population vulnerable to demagogic manipulation, and the ruthlessness of French neo-colonialism have combined to plunge francophone Africa into a deadly cycle of violence, humiliation, and hopelessness. But the entry into Africa of fast-growing economies such as China , India , South Korea , Turkey , Brazil , and Malaysia reflects a shifting balance of power and the inception of a model of cooperation based on trade, investment, and technology transfer – in sharp contrast to French neo-colonial politics.

At the start of the era of decolonization, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan famously said that “the winds of change” were blowing across Africa . Another such wind is blowing today. Will Francophone Africa at last escape its French enthrallment?

Sanou Mbaye, a former senior official with the African Development Bank, is the author of L’Afrique au secours de l’Afrique (Africa to the rescue of Africa ).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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