What we can learn from the crises in Zimbabwe and Cote D’Ivoire

Robert Mugabe is still going after 37 years in office. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Robert Mugabe is still going after 37 years in office. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Zimbabwe, a struggling ex-British colony in southern Africa, and Ivory Coast, a surging powerhouse in West Africa formerly ruled by France, appear at first glance to have little in common. However, their geographic distance, language divide, and current economic gaps obscure a significant post-colonial parallel: widely lauded success followed by economic and political chaos.

With the intrigue of presidential succession escalating in Zimbabwe and a series of military revolts rocking the Ivory Coast, a look at three interlocking components of the ongoing problems in each country offers a mutually reinforcing warning against the tendency to follow myopic paths that fail to deal with the root causes of ongoing problems.

Long-Serving Leadership
In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is still going after 37 years in office. The first president of the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, reigned for 33 years before his death in 1993. As Houphouet-Boigny aged, and especially after his death, the Ivory Coast became increasingly unstable. A coup in 1999 removed his handpicked successor, Henri Konan Bédié, and civil war erupted three years later.

Western nations are eagerly looking forward to the emergence of Mugabe’s successor in the belief that it presents an opportunity for greater, not lesser stability. It is believed that the UK is backing the frontrunner, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa in the succession race.

Mnangagwa is a controversial figure in Zimbabwe, tainted by his perceived association with ethnic violence in the 1980s (known as Gukurahundi) that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Leadership tensions in the Ivory Coast, fostered by Bédié’s promulgation of exclusionary ethnic politics known as Ivoirité to shore up his deteriorating position, warn that executive transition in Zimbabwe may not necessarily mark the end of tensions, even if the ruling party adopts a clear succession plan.

Transitional Violence
The Gukurahundi atrocities were rooted in the year immediately following independence when armed forces allied to the ruling party, ZANU, and the opposition, ZAPU, engaged in a series of clashes at the Entumbane barracks outside of the second city of Bulawayo.

Throughout the 1980s Mugabe’s ethnically Shona dominated government systematically sought to weaken the main opposition, ZAPU, backed primarily by the Ndebele, whose ethnic heartland lay in the area surrounding Bulawayo. Following the Entumbane clashes, the ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo fled to Botswana in 1983, only joining a unity government in 1987 after heavy pressure. A prominent Zimbabwean politician recently said that Mugabe refuses to step down because he fears prosecution over Gukurahundi.

In 2011, President Laurent Gbagbo was deposed by a combined military intervention of the UN and the Forces Nouvelles rebels, who backed the victor of the presidential election of the previous year, Alassane Ouattara. A number of Gbagbo loyalists who had fled to Ghana were arrested and repatriated to the Ivory Coast without due process. Shortly after Ouattara assumed power, Ibrahim Coulibaly, a warlord and his ex-bodyguard, was killed by forces loyal to the new leader and the pro-Gbagbo press was muzzled.

Neither country has made significant efforts to address the root causes of the ethnic and political violence, posing significant concerns for future developments. The subsequent economic collapse of Zimbabwe when the government faced a resurging opposition in 2000 is a particularly troubling portent as a series of recent mutinies in the Ivory Coast has coincided with a drop in the price of cocoa, its main export.

Xenophobia and Attacks on Minority Economic Elites
As Zimbabwe’s opposition coalesced under the banner of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2000 and made rapid gains, Mugabe’s government launched a violent program of fast track land reform targeting white farmers, many of whom were perceived as supporting the new party. Britain, the former coloniser, was the recipient of invective and a leading politician openly celebrated massive emigration. The actions and discourse threw the economy into disarray and Zimbabwe lost its status as a middle-income country.

Under Houphouet-Boigny’s open door economic policies, a large number of French immigrated to the Ivory Coast following independence. Gbagbo rallied popular support by attacking their privileged position and his government accused France of arming the rebels. The philosophy of Ivoirité was used to marginalise the predominantly Muslim north and derail attempts at national reconciliation.

While the economic position of whites in Zimbabwe has been greatly weakened over the last two decades, they remain a useful political punching bag and Gukurahundi fostered an embryonic secessionist movement. Meanwhile, French and Lebanese elites are experiencing a resurgence as the Ivory Coast enjoys explosive rates of economic growth and voting patterns largely follow ethnic lines.

As with earlier Ivorian booms, many are left out of the economic progress, and as the mutinies and voting patterns indicate, the underlying tensions behind the conflict and related ethnic tensions have not been addressed.

The Achilles’ heel
The end of the economic miracle in Ivory Coast and the world’s worst peacetime inflation in Zimbabwe emanated from a number of similar political factors – stagnant leadership, resentment of economic elites, and pent-up frustrations that were met with lethal state-perpetrated violence.

With Zimbabwe facing elections next year with Mugabe yet again at the helm and Ouattara confronting term limits in 2019, and positioning Daniel Kablan Duncan, another septuagenarian with a similar profile as his successor, both countries are poised to potentially suffer from renewed instability.

Amidst the euphoria over the transition to majority rule and a rapid expansion of social services, Mugabe was largely given a pass during Zimbabwe’s political violence of the 1980s. Similarly, in the Ivory Coast, strong economic growth appears to be minimizing calls for reconciliation and many indicators point to victor’s justice following the end of the war in 2011. Likewise, the struggle of the Ivory Coast to navigate the post Houphouet-Boigny era bodes ill for post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.

However, Zimbabwe’s high rate of human development and the Ivory Coast’s diversifying economy are not inherently an Achilles’ heel. With dynamic leadership and international encouragement, these achievements provide the foundation to propel each country to higher heights. Unfortunately, the leading candidates on the horizon, Mnangagwa and Duncan, are establishment political fixtures and do not appear to embody these qualities.

Brooks Marmon is a PhD student in the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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