Is It Imperialism?

After almost six months, the saga of the Ivorian ill-fated election is finally over. Yesterday, April 11, Laurent Gbagbo was arrested and his decade-long reign is over. There is disagreement as to whether he was arrested by the forces supporting Ouattara or by French forces. The French, the UN and Ouattara deny it, the Gbagbo camp asserts it. In either case, there is no doubt that without French intervention, this phase of the conflict would not have come to an end so soon.

As for cocoa, it will flow again. The EU lifted its sanctions and at least one observer expects exports to resume by May 14. Some 500,000 tons of cocoa stuck at San Pedro port are still fit for export, according to the Financial Times. So the speculators will have to find another reason to bid prices up.

The larger question, however, is what happens next. The French/UN forces have taken an active role in the conflict, siding with Ouattara and forces supporting him. At a minimum, the Gbagbo followers will have sufficient reason to challenge the legitimacy of Ouattara’s rule. At worst, a persistent low-level civil war will continue to make the Côte d’Ivoire ungovernable. As I’ve outlined in pervious posts, once the ethnicity card has been played, it is very difficult to put it back into the deck.

Kaludi Seumaga highlights the problems of governing a country that is split in the middle in his essay published in the East African. The “status anxiety” he refers to is indeed at the root of the problem. And that status anxiety, in turn, was caused by the invitation of migrant farmers to boost cocoa production in the 1970s and 1980s.

The European state form–imposed during the colonial period and adopted without much debate by the post-colonial African leaders–with its territoriality, citizenship and inside/outside thinking is really not capable of dealing with the fluidity of migrants. Instead, the state hijacks a human need for belonging and shapes into an exclusionary nationalism/ethnicity to prop up state structures. When that method of creating consent fails, the state reverts to its coercive self. Basil Davidson’s book The Black Man’s Burden highlights that issue.

What matters now, Seumaga points out, is how Ouattara deals with the losers, not the winners of this conflict. The news of revenge killings and massacres in other parts of the Côte d’Ivoire are not reassuring in that regard. It is difficult to respect human rights if you don’t consider the other human. Richard Rorty pointed that out some time ago.

Was the French intervention imperialism? The official story simply labels it a humanitarian intervention at the request of the UN to protect civilians. But humanitarianism has become the new fig leaf for intervention. It was impossible to not notice the arrogance that only a former colonial power could exhibit. In the end, France made the state safe for cocoa exports, the fate of the people remain an open question.

What would have happened if France and the UN had not intervened? That’s the hard question. Despite the sabre-rattling of ECOWAS, I doubt there would have been any African led intervention. The stalemate would have continued. Gbagbo would have made the country more ungovernable. The lines would have hardened. Presumably, Ouattara’s forced would have succeeded eventually to face what they face now.

Can we say that the French intervention hastened the inevitable? That depends on how Ouattara approaches his new job. If he makes reconciliation his priority, if he tries to break the cycle started in the 1990s, if he begins country-wide conversations on citizenship and belonging, then maybe. But that’s a lot of ‘ifs.’

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