Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe have more similarities than seems obvious

Dec 29, 2010

Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo is hanging on to power tenaciously weeks after an election in which it seems widely considered that he lost to Allasane Ouattara, resulting in the unique impasse of both men declaring themselves president. It is not yet clear if having two presidents will mean a doubling of the country’s problem-solving capacity or a reduction of it by half.    

A Gbagbo cornered by the “international community” has expressed empathy for the plight of his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, over how he was similarly ostracized after the manner in which he continued to wear the cloak of president in the aftermath of the controversial Zimbabwean election of 2008.

Some observers were nevertheless surprised when Gbagbo recently sent an aide to reportedly brief the Zimbabwean government on the situation in the Ivory Coast. Quipped one writer,”Political commentators questioned why Gbagbo would find it necessary to brief (acting president John) Nkomo on the situation in his country, considering how divorced Zimbabwe is from Ivory Coast.”

Ah, but the two countries might have a lot more in common than would be immediately obvious.
Physical distance plays a part in why we might not be aware of this, but the greater distance between Africans as a result of very deep and thorough colonization probably accounts for more of the reason of why to us Zimbabweans Ivory Coast seems like another planet.

“After all, they don’t even speak English like we BritoZimbos do!” Sniff.

So we, the British-colonized Zimbabweans, are probably as much of the confused, walking-wounded (in other words, messed-up) as the French-colonized Ivorians are, looking at each other through lenses that are neither neutral, objective nor entirely our own.  

The two countries might be physically distant and have very different colonial histories but there are some interesting parallels between Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe that are relevant to the reasons they are so much in the news today:

As rousingly nationalistic and anti-colonialist as both Gbgabo and Mugabe claim to be, they are also both thoroughly, deeply steeped in the cultures of their respective colonizers. Mugabe loves things British as much as Gbagbo loves things French. Their grievances with their respective ex-colonizing nations’ governments appear to be as much about rejection by them as about principles and ideologies.

Resource-rich Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) was considered a special African jewel in colonial Britain's crown, as resource-rich Ivory Coast was considered the first among France's African colonies. Most of the British colonies were used mostly for resource-extraction purposes, but Rhodesia was different in being chosen to host a significant British colonial settler population, like Kenya. Similarly, the French saw most of their empire as simply a huge mine of natural wealth, but Ivory Coast (and Senegal) were different in being also found suitable for hosting relatively large numbers of French settlers. This factor alone, and the resulting strong lingering kith-kin considerations have affected and complicated relations between Britain/Zimbabwe and France/Ivory Coast tremendously up to this day, meaning nothing between the two pairs of nations is quite straight forward or what it seems on the surface. One must always dig below to decode and explain tensions between the two pairs of nations.   

Ethnic tensions have played a central role in both countries' political troubles, though for different reasons and to different extents.

To different extents, both countries' ex-colonizers have overtly as well as surreptitiously played prominent roles in the affairs of their former respective colonies. This has variously been welcomed and condemned by the locals depending on the said post-colonial role, tipping the love/hate relationship between ex-colonizer and ex-colonized more towards hate than love, at least officially.

'At least officially' on the previous point because regardless of the state of government relations, in both cases the ex-colonial capital remains a choice destination for citizens of the ex-colony seeking political and economic refuge or study opportunities.  

Both ex-colonies are in many ways still deeply dependent on and maintain many expectations of their respective ex-colonizer, but also get extremely upset at any hint of 'interference' unless it is specifically requested, which it is in selected cases! Political meddling by the ex-colonizer is furiously resisted, but respective ex-colonizer is quite welcome to donate food aid and various other handouts, and is often even expected to do so as a matter of course. In both cases the ex-colonizer makes a big show of resenting this but they secretly relish this dependence because it gives them continuing excuses and means to meddle in and seek to control the affairs of the ex-colony. In other words, thoroughly unhealthy relationships of mutual sick dependence creating misery all around!   

Both Gbagbo and Mugabe were long-time opposition leaders before assuming power democratically, both were initially widely lauded as democrats, both men are highly-educated and 'western-sophisticated.' Both begun to fairly quickly lose their democratic credentials on gaining power, but for a good while after doing so both remained the 'good boys' of the powers (“the international community!”) who are now playing an active role to see them go.

In both mens' cases it is arguably not so much their ‘democracy-deficit’ that has turned their ex-colonizers against them, but the fact that as domestic pressures built up they took decisions (economic )which did not sit so well with the entrenched interests of the respective ex-colonizer. Those ex-colonizers had no problem with Gbagbo or Mugabe when they begun to be repressive but were still regarded as 'good boys' for French, British and US (“the international community!”) interests. And today, there are rulers from all over the world who are arguably in the same league as Gbagbo and Mugabe (allegations of widespread citizen abuse, dubious elections, etc) who are nevertheless warmly welcome at the Elysee Palace, Number 10 Downing Street and The White House. “Democracy” and “human rights” have relatively little to do with why Gbagbo and Mugabe are now in the dog house internationally. Domestically, the best interests of “the people” have less to do with why the incumbent rulers hold on so tenaciously than holding on to loot, privilege and impunity.  

In short, ordinary Ivorian and Zimbabwean are subject and victim to very similarly cynical and self-serving historical, current, domestic and international forces. And both countries’ problems are so deep, so convoluted; the domestic divisions so deep and the foreign interests so strong that the resolution cannot be simply at the ballot box, despite our na├»ve hope. 

Strip away the thin surface layer of the different colonial experiences Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe have had, and you will find that our recent pasts and our current plights have a lot in common. 


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