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Chocolate and Imperialism: Ivory Coast’s Political Crisis Exposes Western Colonialism

By Asad Ismi

The West African country of Ivory Coast, the world’s leading exporter of cocoa, has been politically paralyzed since a November 2010 election ended in both main contenders declaring themselves winners. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo (backed by the Ivorian army) and his rival Alassane Ouattara, a former minister, both claim to have won the election. The country’s Election Commission declared Ouattara, President, while the Constitutional Council which is supposed to announce the winner, said Gbagbo was elected. Gbagbo claims electoral irregularities in the north of the country which is under the control of rebel forces called Forces Nouvelles (FN) that are allied with Ouattara. The country has been politically and militarily divided between north and south since a northern-based rebellion in 2002—-a schism the election was supposed to end through reunification.

Ouattara has been recognized as the winner of the election by the U.S., France, European Union, United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS has even warned Gbagbo that it could militarily intervene to force his ouster. Two hundred people have been killed in post-election violence and about 25,000 have fled as refugees to neighbouring Sierra Leone.

The Western mainstream media blame Gbagbo for the violence, call for him to step down and portray Western governments as backing a fair democratic process in Ivory Coast. But is this really the case? Do the governments of France and the United States which have exercised imperialist domination over the Ivory Coast since it became “independent” in 1960 really suddenly care about democracy? Of course not.

To begin with, the Forces Nouvelles allied with Ouattara are responsible for a level of human rights violations comparable to those Gbagbo is accused of, having massacred more than a hundred people in the northern part of the country under their control. There is also no evidence that Ouattara won the election fairly or that fraud did not take place in the northern area. It is likely that both Gbagbo and Ouattara committed some electoral fraud. Most importantly, both men are part of the corrupt French and U.S.-backed Ivorian elite that has monopolized the country`s wealth along with Western multinationals, while consigning the majority of the population to poverty.

Rather than any concern for democracy, the real reasons for the Western preference for Ouattara have to do with his greater pliability as a Western puppet as opposed to Gbagbo whose usefulness in this regard has ended due to his attempt to expand his international support base beyond the West. The incumbent President came to power in another suspect election in 2000 and inspite of his ruling the country as a corrupt, repressive dictator he has been backed by France until recently. In fact, France has supported every Ivorian government leader since 1960, all of whom have ruled the country in a dictatorial fashion preventing the development of democratic institutions. This was fine with France as long as the leaders allowed the plundering of Ivorian resources by French and other Western multinational corporations.

Not only is the Ivory Coast the world’s leading exporter of cocoa producing 40% of it, it is also the third largest producer of coffee and significant offshore oil deposits have been discovered there recently. It is Gbagbo’s handing over of this oil to Russia rather than the West that has most likely stimulated France and the U.S. to get rid of him. Russia is in the process of signing an off-shore oil agreement with Gbagbo.

According to Ann Talbot writing on the World Socialist Website: “Gbagbo has forged close links…with the Russian oil company Lukoil. He believes he can use the revenue from oil to keep himself in power despite international disapproval. Equally, the prospect that Ivory Coast has viable oil reserves makes it more important strategically for the West. France and the U.S. want a trustworthy figure in control of a country that has a longstanding regional significance, is the world’s largest cocoa producer, has many valuable natural resources and may now have the added importance of oil.” Ivory Coast’s oil production is currently 60,000 barrels a day and is projected to reach 200,000 barrels a day by 2020. Gbagbo claims a friendship with China as well and major Chinese telecom and construction companies have arrived in Ivory Coast.

Ouattara is a former deputy managing director of the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and as one observer put it, “his identification with the free-market policies of the IMF makes him the ideal candidate for Western interests.” Ivory Coast has been functioning under a World Bank/ IMF structural adjustment program (SAP) since 1989 which along with falling commodity prices has led to the country’s economic destabilization and the consequent divisions between north and south.

After two decades of economic growth starting in 1960, Ivory Coast experienced economic decline in the 1980s due to falling world prices for cocoa and coffee. Under the SAP, the country was required to cut government spending by 30%, capital expenditures by 15%, privatize state enterprises, deregulate the labour market and eliminate price controls and public subsidies. State firms in the telecommunications, transport, electricity and water supply sectors were all privatised.

The social impact of these drastic measures on Ivory Coast was severe: the poverty rate doubled and GDP was cut by 15%. In 2009, more than half the population lived on about a dollar a day. Close to 60% of the rural population is considered poor. A horrendous consequence of increased poverty in Ivory Coast has been the encouragement of widespread child slavery. The owners of the countries’ large cocoa plantations use children to clear land for the planting of cocoa trees, and for weeding and harvesting crops. The boys and girls who are as young as seven years are unpaid or paid very little. Cocoa is used to make chocolate and also in the beverage industry.

According to a documentary produced by Channel Four in England, 90% of the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast use child slave labour which harvests most of the cocoa imported into England from there. Working conditions for the children have been described as “akin to hell” and include twenty hour work days (seven days a week), malnutrition, torture, the threat of physical, psychological and sexual abuse as well as poisoning by chemicals.

With the economy destabilized by the IMF’s SAP and falling commodity prices, the Ivorian elite turned to exploiting ethnic and religious divisions “as competition for declining revenues became fierce.” This strategy led to civil war between the north where Muslims predominate and the mainly Christian-populated South causing the country’s physical division in 2002 when France sent troops to separate the two sides. The country is currently occupied by 10,000 U.N. troops and 900 French ones. France has repeatedly militarily intervened in Ivory Coast and West Africa to guard its imperial interests and went so far as to destroy the entire Ivorian air force in 2004 to assert its domination.

Ivory Coast’s ethnic and religious conflicts are a legacy of French colonialism. France colonized the country in 1893 and separated it out of the larger colony of French West Africa. Ivory Coast was created by France as a mainly Christian country with a thriving cocoa industry. The people from poorer neighbouring Muslim countries had little choice but to move for work to Ivory Coast where they suffered discrimination. Under French colonialism, tens of thousands of people from the north of Ivory Coast and from neighbouring Burkina Faso were also deliberately displaced to the south of Ivory Coast and made to work as forced labour. The population in the north of Ivory Coast today is made up of immigrants from Muslim countries and Ouattara is one of them. Gbagbo who is Christian from the South has said that Muslims from the country’s north are not Ivorian.

Gbagbo’s main backer in the current stand-off is the Ivorian army but he is also getting considerable support from foreign multinationals prominent in Ivory Coast’s cocoa sector. The cocoa trade also supports Gbagbo’s northern opponents. According to a 2007 report by the NGO, Global Witness, titled, Hot Chocolate: How Cocoa Fuelled the Conflict in Ivory Coast, “the profits each side [in the Ivorian conflict] derives from this [cocoa] trade are fundamental to understanding why the main protagonists have not shown greater commitment to solving the political crisis over the past four and a half years.

“On the government side, the national cocoa institutions…have directly contributed at least $20.3 million to the war effort. The big cocoa and coffee exporters union, the Groupement Professionel de Exportateurs de Cafe-Cacao (GEPEX) whose members include multinational companies such as Cargill and European companies such as ED and F Man Holdings Ltd. [British], was represented on the board of the Bourse du Cafe et Cacao (BCC), one of the national cocoa institutions that decided to make this contribution to the war effort.”

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the notoriously corrupt U.S. multinational, has also been part of GEPEX. ADM has been fined $70 million by the U.S. government for price-fixing. Global Witness quotes an “inside source” as saying that the $20.3 million payment to the government was “a joint decision by the boards of all the cocoa institutions and that exporting companies represented on the boards thought it was a good idea.” The source called the payment “a political decision”. The report adds that the payments from the BCC to the government, “coincided with a period when some of the worst human rights violations by government forces took place.”

The Global Witness report estimates that the Forces Nouvelles (FN), the Ivorian northern rebels, get about $30 million a year in cocoa revenues because companies exporting cocoa from the north have to pay an export tax to the group. FN leaders run an extortion racket centred on the cocoa trade and enrich themselves through it. One such leader is Martin Fofie Kouakou in charge of the Korhogo zone near the Mali border. According to the report, “some of the worst human rights abuses in Ivory Coast since the conflict began took place under Kouakou” [including the massacre of more than a hundred people mentioned above].

The Western multinationals exporting cocoa from Ivory Coast in turn sell this to chocolate manufacturers such as Cadbury-Schweppes, Nestle and Unilever. Given the significant role of cocoa and Western multinationals in sustaining and financing the Ivorian civil war, Global Witness calls on the chocolate industry “to ensure that the products it sells are conflict-free“; the NGO recommends that companies “press for all cocoa institutions accounts to be audited and published as a way of ensuring that levies paid by exporters are not contributing to financing the conflict.“ Also, cocoa-exporting companies should operate transparently and publish the payments they make to the Ivorian government and cocoa institutions.


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, February, 2011

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Ravaging of Africa which has been aired on 28 radio stations in the U.S. and Canada reaching about 30 million people. The documentary can be heard on this website under the “audio” category.