French Role in Côte d’Ivoire Questioned

UNITED NATIONS – France is coming under fire for its heavy-handed action in destroying virtually the entire air force of its former colony Côte d’Ivoire in retaliation for the killings of nine French soldiers and a U.S. aid worker last week.

"We deeply regret the unfortunate incident," Ambassador Philippe Djangone-Bi of Côte d’Ivoire told reporters Tuesday. "But France was wrong in its unilateral reprisal," he added.

He said his government wants the Security Council to make a pronouncement about "our right as a sovereign nation."

"We love France, it is a friendly country," said Djangone-Bi, but its troops had no right to "fire at our presidential palace, destroy our forces, humiliate us, and shoot at our civilians from helicopters."

Asked to respond, French Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere told reporters Tuesday the Ivorian Armed Forces carried out "a deliberate attack" on French troops.

"France had the right to retaliate. No one [in the Security Council] questioned us. This is not an issue," he added.

French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to destroy the Ivorian Air Force was "widely supported by the Security Council," de La Sabliere added.

As part of a combined French-UN peacekeeping force, Paris has more than 4,500 troops in Côte d’Ivoire, where a civil war has partitioned the territory into a government-held south and a rebel-held north.

The UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), created by the UN Security Council in April 2004, has a military strength of over 6,000 peacekeepers. But in an unusual arrangement, French troops have the right to act alone and do not come under the military authority of UNOCI.

The two forces are mandated to monitor a May 2003 cease-fire and peace agreement that was signed by the rebel forces and the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.

"The French should not be in Côte d’Ivoire," says Bill Fletcher Jr., executive director of Washington-based TransAfrica Forum.

"There should be either a United Nations force or an African Union [AU] force. The French clearly have an interest in retaining their role as the hegemonic power over their former colonies," Fletcher told IPS.

Côte d’Ivoire gained independence from France in 1960.

Fletcher also argued that ethnic tensions in the West African nation have been additionally "manipulated by opportunist forces who are more interested in power than in national unity."

South African President Thabo Mbeki has been mandated by the AU and the Economic Community of West African States to visit the Ivorian capital of Abidjan and mediate the 2-year-old civil war.

He is expected to bring Gbagbo and opposition leader Alassane Ouatarra to the negotiating table, along with Gabonese President Omar Bongo and the president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, both heads of state of neighboring countries.

Gbagbo has accused France of favoring the rebel forces and undermining his position ahead of elections in 2005.

"It is unfortunate and a grave miscalculation that Gbagbo’s regime launched its surprise air raids in an attempt to retake the rebel-held north, which killed nine French soldiers and one American, violating the year-old ceasefire accord," says Kwame Akonor, executive director of the New York-based African Development Institute.

He said it is not surprising that France’s counterattack – "which included the destruction of Côte d’Ivoire’s newly built-up air force and securing strategic control of the country’s largest cities" – is raising concerns about the European power’s real motives, "given its checkered history and entrenched interests in its former colony."

On Saturday, the 15-member Security Council condemned Côte d’Ivoire’s fatal attack against French forces.

"The Security Council expresses its full support for the action undertaken by French forces and UNOCI," said a statement by U.S. Ambassador John Danforth, the council’s current president.

France, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, is pushing for stronger action, including military sanctions and a travel ban on Côte d’Ivoire government officials.

A resolution calling for such measures is expected to be adopted before the end of this week. But it will give the two parties till Dec. 1 to implement the ceasefire and the peace agreement before coming into force.

Akonor said French concern over developments in its former colony is not simply politically motivated: Côte d’Ivoire has long been the key investment platform for French companies in West Africa.

France, he said, is Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest single trading partner, defense supplier, and bilateral aid donor. Paris also has military bases in the African country.

"Given its political, economic, and military interests in the country, some genuinely wonder if France can function as a neutral peacekeeper," added Akonor.

This perception is not helped by the fact that French troops constitute 40 percent of the current UN peacekeeping force, and operate independently of it, he added.

"Anti-French sentiment was further stoked in Côte d’Ivoire when a dozen French peacekeepers were arrested and charged in September with stealing money from a local bank," said Akonor.

He suggested that if the UN deployment is to be credible and effective, "then the composition of its force must reflect its principles of neutrality and impartiality."

The Ivorian ambassador told reporters his government had requested an independent commission of inquiry to establish the facts of last weekend’s attacks.

Asked if France was supporting rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire, Djangone-Bi said that by its recent actions, Paris was obviously seen to be favoring the rebels.

He also accused France of "rushing" for urgent Security Council action and of dictating terms with its "powerful diplomacy."

"The house is not burning," said the ambassador. "Give Africa a chance to resolve the problem."

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Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.