- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

The collapse of peace and prosperity in the Ivory Coast, dramatized by a bloody three-month rebellion, is the culmination of a nine-year tug of war during which the successors of independence leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny abandoned his inclusive political system and sought to hold power by shutting out their rivals.

"It was the politics of exclusion at its fiercest," said Joe Sala, a former State Department Foreign Service officer who has watched the once peaceful and prosperous country disintegrate.

Mr. Houphouet-Boigny, known affectionately as "Papa," came to power in a new nation, freed from colonialism but divided into more than 60 tribes, geographically polarized, separated by religion and hosting a sizable immigrant population from newly created countries nearby.

"He ruled by playing one group against another, spreading out political favors and by making sure that the military did not miss a payday," Mr. Sala said.

Lacking the political stature of "Papa," the three men who have followed him since his death in 1993 Henri-Conan Bedie, Gen. Robert Guei and Laurent Gbagbo all sought to maintain power through smoke and mirrors, said one American source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A clear victim of the politics of exclusion is Alassane Ouattara, a political leader from the north and recognized as such by the Dioulla, a language group of associated tribes from that part of the country that makes up about 40 percent of the Ivorian population.

The Dioulla are part of the Mandingo people, who are spread across several West African countries.

"From the 13th century on, the Mandingo have gained a reputation as traders and warriors. They were the people who built the medieval empires of Africa," said Mamadi Diane, a U.S.-based trader with Africa.

Mr. Ouattara was brought into the government by Mr. Houphouet-Boigny as his premier in the 1990. Yet after the death of "Papa," when Mr. Ouattara tried to run for president, all three men who followed the independence leader blocked him, citing a provision in the constitution that makes Ivorian birth of a presidential candidate's parents a precondition for the office.

Mr. Houphouet-Boigny had ignored that constitutional clause. His successors, including the current president, seized on it to bar the door.

"The constitution is the constitution," said Mr. Gbagbo in an interview with The Washington Times.

"The president of Cote d'Ivoire and his predecessors have sought to shut out significant elements of the Ivorian population," said a key Ivory Coast leader reached in Paris and interviewed by telephone.

This person, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Gbagbo does not want an open election, because he knows that he is from an ethnic minority and cannot win."

Mr. Gbagbo is a Bete, a member of a western ethnic group that makes up about 10 percent of the Ivory Coast population.

Another problem for Mr. Gbagbo is the sizable immigrant population from neighboring West African countries, mainly Burkina Faso and Guinea.

A third and as it turned out, explosive problem for Mr. Gbagbo was that the country's armed forces were loyal to Gen. Guei. The general came to power through a coup in 1999 against Mr. Bedie, then sought to annul an election he lost, but was forced out a year later.

Faced with these difficulties, all it took was an approaching deadline for Gen. Guei's loyalists, a 750-member force, to be expelled from the army. This was the spark that set off the mutiny in September.

Just days after the revolt erupted, the Gbagbo government lost the key central city of Bouake and an ever-growing part of its hinterland stretching to the northern border with Burkina Faso.

Unable to crush the rebellion, Mr. Gbagbo agreed to negotiate with his armed opponents. The Economic Community of West African States chose Lome, the capital of nearby Togo, as the site for the talks and coaxed Togolese strongman Gnassingbe Eyadema to play host.

The talks have developed into a kind of Indonesian shadow play heavy on gesture and thin on content.

The rebels want Mr. Gbagbo to step down, followed by a free election and an end to the exclusion of northerners.

Mr. Gbagbo is willing to call a referendum on his rule, once a cease-fire is firmly in place and things return to normal.

While the talks drag on, the country writhes with reports of a massacre near the town of Man, a hub of cocoa production, at a small village called Monuko-Zohi. Homes of migrants also have been demolished.

"This reminds me of apartheid South Africa's assault on the black townships," said one source.

Gen. Guei became the first casualty of the revolt, cut down by an assassination squad. Mr. Ouattara's house was burned to the ground, and he was forced to flee the country.

Asked how Mr. Gbagbo intends to hold the country together under these circumstances, a source close to the president said, "Although he has not said as much openly, perhaps he is considering retirement."

The source said the president "has assembled a young, dynamic group of administrators" who carry the country's hopes for a bright future. But whether it is still possible for Mr. Gbagbo to exit gracefully is an open question.

For three decades, Mr. Houphouet-Boigny's policies of inclusive government and closeness to France served the nation handsomely. Cote d'Ivoire as he insisted that the country be called, instead of by the English or Spanish equivalents was an oasis of peace and prosperity in troubled West Africa.

The leading exporter of cocoa, it displayed its wealth lavishly. Giant hotels, such as the Sofitel, faced the lagoon in the center of its commercial hub, Abidjan. Dramatic African carvings lined shops and outdoor stalls. Outdoor cafes drew foreign tourists and well-heeled Ivorians.

In Yamoussoukro, the political capital and Mr. Houphouet-Boigny's boyhood home, the founding father built the world's largest cathedral in thanks to God and as testimony to the nation's wealth.

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