High stakes for Gbagbo loyalists in Côte d’Ivoire

By Jordanna Matlon
Posted on Monday, 13 December 2010 18:10

Côte d’Ivoire is a country with two presidents after disputed elections on 28 November. Those Ivorians who built their career hopes on the continued patronage of Laurent Gbagbo

may have difficulty in adapting to a life of change, says Jordanna Matlon.

To read more on the situation in Côte d’Ivoire read Monica Mark’s report from Abidjan.

In 2003, American journalist George Packer described a scene at the Place Laurent Gbagbo where youths assembled to celebrate the President, to denounce the French and migrants from neighbouring countries, and to lament their status as members of the sacrificed generation. He wrote, “For all the hostility in the slogans, the crowd was cheerful, like spectators awaiting the main act of a show they’d seen before. Almost everyone in the crowd was young; most of them clearly had nothing better to do.”

Five years later, my dissertation fieldwork on Abidjan’s unemployed population brought me regularly to the Sorbonne, a public space in Plateau, Abidjan’s city centre, where I sat among nationalist Ivorian men to hear how they framed contemporary social, economic and political issues. I chose the Sorbonne to understand unemployment because, well, if the men were working then chances were that they wouldn’t be there.

Open on weekdays between 10am and 6pm, the Sorbonne hosts hundreds of men who gather in the market atmosphere to listen to a predetermined line-up of speakers espouse the politics of President Gbagbo and the Front Populaire Ivoirien. Though it began as a space of free expression in the early days of multiparty politics, the Sorbonne became a street-level propaganda vehicle for the Gbagbo regime with the arrival of civil conflict. There are assigned speakers, weekly informational pamphlets and topical CDs and DVDs about national and regional issues, usually depicting Gbagbo as the protagonist and France and her purported allies – Burkina Faso and the northern rebels – as the antagonists in a David and Goliath-type struggle. With Orwellian logic, Gbagbo was no longer another African president who refused to give up power but instead a Sankara, a Lumumba, a noble leader of an anti-imperial ‘revolution’.

Gbagbo’s five-year term ended in 2005, but he succeeded in delaying elections until this past November, always citing reasons of national security. During the decade he was in power, his regime entrenched its hold over the Sorbonne and the Parlements, the former’s equivalents in outlying neighbourhoods.

A well-oiled machine with a president, treasurer, secretary and all the other appropriate positions, the Sorbonne has offices in an abandoned building adjacent to the speaking area where long lines of Abidjanais form to ask for money or work. It produces pamphlets and coordinates special events. It sells tickets for seats on the benches and chairs, and gathers feees from all the market vendors who set up their stalls around the speaking area. It makes sure the speakers have regular gigs at the Sorbonne and Parlements as well as occasional tours in the country’s interior. Though the speakers ardently deny it, others within the organisation readily state that they receive a small monthly stipend. The more successful speakers among them have political ambitions. With what could be called complicit nationalism, the speakers hinged their livelihoods, status and futures on their relationship to the Sorbonne, Gbagbo and the Front Populaire Ivoirien.

In a country of long-term and soaring unemployment, these men found that their political activities gave them slight leverage in an atmosphere of otherwise dwindled opportunities. As one of my respondents astutely remarked, in a crisis-ridden Côte d’Ivoire, “the one business that works is politics.”

Admittedly these men were far from gorging themselves off the fat of party politics. Instead, situated at the bottom of the hierarchy, they received little more than its crumbs. But crumbs – to appear as a guest speaker here, to get help to pay a medical bill or a child’s tuition there and to be relatively immune to the informalised state extraction in the form of the regular bribes – are all heavy incentives in the absence of gainful employment. Moreover, each speaker boasted of meeting warm congratulations after a speech, having his name called when walking down the street or being bought a beer from an admiring spectator he encountered when out on the town.

And for the future, hope springs eternal. These men overwhelmingly hinged their futures on the connections their Sorbonne alliance made for them in the worlds of business and politics. Aptly describing their complicit nationalist tendencies, one respondent said, “I concentrate now on the resolution of the crisis, all the relations that will allow me to take care of myself. So today there are ministers who are my friends, the directors of companies. At the same time when I pose my problem of work to [them, they say:], ‘For the moment my [son], we are at war, things are not going well, you must wait, you must wait…’ So I wait.”

Alassane Ouattara’s presidential victory last week is a severe menace to the entitlements these men have spent years carving out for themselves. Waiting for Gbabgo to “finance their projects” in a post-crisis Côte d’Ivoire, the possibility that they have hedged their bets in a losing camp will only be met with horror.

Further, the Gbagbo regime has cemented the association between the Ouattara name and French imperialism, so that they see him as a puppet to France’s will and continued monopoly over Ivorian natural resources and business. They believe this because of Ouattara’s association with the thirty-three year long and France-friendly Houphouët-Boigny regime under which he served as prime minister. Additionally, in his previous role as an International Monetary Fund official, they accuse him of inviting the structural adjustment and debt burden that tore such a hole through the ‘Ivorian miracle’.

To pour salt on already-raw sentiments, Ouattara was and continues to be accused of being not Ivorian but Burkinabé. Popular lore has it that Burkina Faso and France were the real orchestrators of the civil war, funding and arming the northern rebels. Ouattara is placed in the centre of this conspiracy. Many of these nationalist men grew up in families dependent on cocoa plantations, so they associate Ouattara’s supposed foreigner status with the migrants who worked on plantations and later came to own land. In Abidjan proper, they believe that migrants thrived as business entrepreneurs while Ivorians erroneously followed a Francophone model of dependency on the state bureaucracy, which now offers few jobs.

As the story of the Ivorian elections continue to unfold, I think of the Sorbonne and ask uneasily what role the men among whom I sat and listened to speak are playing. The election results are no short of a death sentence to their present means of survival and the futures they long constructed in their imaginations. And they blame their number one villain for threatening to upend this. Like Gbagbo’s insistence that the presidency is his, it is doubtful that they will allow their dreams to fade away so easily. I imagine I am not alone in wondering whether they will seek out violent measures to handle the election results that for them signals a political and intensely personal catastrophe.

Jordanna Matlon is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley

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