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Alex Means, Toxic Sovereignty: Biopolitics and Cote d'Ivoire

Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.
-Michel Foucault

Death has been sown in a voluntary or involuntary manner – justice will decide.
-President Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast
In August 2006, 500-tons of toxic petrol chemicals were offloaded from a ship leased by Trafigura, a Dutch commodities firm, and then dumped in public places around Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire’s largest city. In the wake of the toxic waste dumping tens of thousands have become ill and at least fifteen people have died from inhaling fumes from the open-air dump sites. The event makes visible the vulnerability of Ivorian citizens and the iniquitous structures of power responsible for such insecurity. This paper will take up the toxic crisis in Cote d’Ivoire as a point of entry into the intersection of global capitalism and the politics of human life. It discusses the erosion of Ivorian society since the mid-1980s and links the current internal political upheaval to this decline. I present a narrative of the events of August 2006, in which the various political and economic players are indicted for their complicity in this tragedy. Additionally, I situate the Ivorian catastrophe within several contemporary understandings of biopower. I address Michel Foucault, who first advances the notion of biopower, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who contemporise Foucault’s theories within the framework of globalization. Lastly, Achille Mbembe locates biopower within a theory of necropower that exists ultimately as a decision over the right to live and to die. These approaches aid in mapping how events like that in Cote d’Ivoire are not isolated, and in fact point to a much wider state of emergency for economically marginalized people throughout the world.


Cote d’Ivoire was once viewed as a model of development in West Africa. Although it was never completely free from its colonial relationship to France, and has never been an inclusive democracy, its well-managed agricultural economy and expansive social state had made Cote d’Ivoire one of the most stable and economically prosperous postcolonial societies in Africa. (BDHRL) During its first two decades of independence (1960-1980) it boasted astonishing rates of economic growth along with significant gains in employment, literacy, and civil infrastructure. (Ibid) When tropical commodities crashed on the world market in the 1980s the Ivorian government turned to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for support. In exchange for loans, the nation embarked on a path of structural adjustment aimed at the privatization and liberalization of their economy. Over the last two decades this switch to a market economy and adherence to structural adjustment policies has coincided with a downward trend in the quality life for the majority of Ivorians and increasing levels of state corruption and civil conflict. (HDR, 2006) During this period, life expectancy and literacy rates have dropped, access to clean water and medicine has been negatively affected, average incomes have declined, rates of HIV/AIDS infection have increased, unemployment has soared, and the once bustling tourist industry in Abidjan, once known as the “Paris of West Africa” for its skyscrapers, beaches, and nightlife, has been decimated. (Ibid)

The steady economic and social decline has coincided with the erosion of political stability in Cote d’Ivoire. In October of 2000, Laurent Gbagbo was elected president in a highly contested election. Controversy over the results sparked an internal conflict that has divided the country along political and ethnic lines, with a rebel army occupying the rural North, while the Gbagbo administration controls the densely populated south. (BDHRL) The country has had a tenuous cease fire and power-sharing agreement that has set up territorial integrity for both sides as well as creating limited political representation in the government for the northern rebels. (Ibid) This in-fighting stems from multiple causes including a compromised electoral process, deepening inequality, ethnic tensions, and a leadership mired by corruption, which has mercilessly suppressed dissent using all manner of coercion and violence. (Ibid) The Gbagbo administration and the Northern rebels have both been accused of severe human rights abuses including the institution of death squads, disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests, and severe restrictions on civil liberties and personal freedoms. (Ibid) A complex set of economic and historical forces have shaped a moment where life for the Ivorian people exists under perpetual insecurity. It is within this context that a major environmental, political, and medical crisis has been unfolding in Cote d’Ivoire over the last several months.

The Event

On August 19, 2006, a ship called the Probo Koala docked in Abidjan’s main port. The ship itself is illustrative of the global network in which the story must be situated. The Probo Koala is Korean built, registered in Panama, and is owned by a Greek Company (Selva). When it arrived in Abidjan on the evening of the 19th the ship was under contract by a Dutch commodities firm but was taking orders from its British office. Trafigura had used the ship as an offshore gasoline refinery. After processing a load of fuel, the ship used 500-tons of a caustic chemical mixture, referred to generally as “toxic slops”, to clean out its tanks (Ibid). This industrial chemical sludge is extremely dangerous, likened to cyanide, and its proper disposal requires specialized technological and industrial capabilities. The Probo Koala had first tried to dispose of it in the Netherlands but the processing fee, around $300,000, was more than Trafigura was willing to pay. (AP, Oct 17) In early August, while Trafigura shopped for the best deal, the Probo Koala sailed from Amsterdam to Estonia and then to Nigeria. Finally Trafigura cut a deal with an Ivorian company named Tommy to dispose of the waste for around $20,000 dollars. Details still remain sketchy but it is widely believed that Tommy was a front company set up specifically to handle the waste by members of the Ivorian government (Ibid). This would imply that the British office of Trafigura was in contact with these governmental ministers negotiating the waste disposal. According to Trafigura’s public statements, they deny any and all wrong-doing, but conditions suggest that both parties were well aware that Cote d’Ivoire did not posses the facilities to properly dispose of the waste. (White)

During the early morning hours of August 19th tanker trucks offloaded the Probo Koala’s toxic cargo. The trucks proceeded to fan out across Abidjan, eventually dumping the sludge in at least 17 different public places including drains, ditches, and municipal dumps in some of Abidjan’s poorest neighborhoods. (AP, Oct 17) The 6 million residents of Abidjan awoke to a thick, noxious, and choking chemical odor. As the stench of rotten eggs and garlic blanketed the city, sickness and misery quickly spread waking many people to bouts of nausea (Ibid). In the days that followed, at least fifteen died and up to 100,000 sought medical treatment for nosebleeds, vomiting, headaches, open sores, burning eyes, and fainting spells due to exposure (AP, Oct 17). The sludge was particularly harmful to children who made up the majority of the official deaths. Additionally, it is suspected that many deaths have not been counted in the official toll. For example,

Marie Koko, says her eight-year-old granddaughter who died two weeks ago, was not among those counted. She says, her granddaughter was complaining of an aching head and stomach. She says, her granddaughter started to vomit over and over again. She says, she gave her medicine and took her to the hospital, but the next day she died (Wild).

ith official figures in dispute and many res
idents unable to access medical care, it is nearly impossible to gage the true extent of the human destruction. It is extremely difficult to calculate how many years this incident will negatively affect the health of Abidjan’s residents. Similarly, the event has made an already shaky political situation more unstable as feelings of bitterness, outrage, and fear permeate the social fabric. Gbich, an Ivorian news paper, made the bold statement: “Ivorians have you understood? Your lives are worthless to our leaders” (AP, Sept 19).

Globalization and Biopolitics

Such tragedy calls into question the politics of human life within contemporary understandings of power, both in the national and international contexts. Michel Foucault formulated power as a force of production that circulates through the totality of social, economic, and political relationships. In Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College De France he outlined a history of power in which he describes a transition from a pre-industrial notion of sovereign power, to an industrial disciplinary state, to a Fordist society of control. In the society of control, power was transformed from an external mechanism of production to an internalized form of biopower where life itself became what was ordered and reproduced. (Foucault) Biopower in this context is understood to be the nexus where the body intersects with various productive and destructive forms of political power, which reach into the interior of life itself, and dictate its terms. Biopolitics then can be said to describe the political position of life in relation to the totality of social, legal, local, national, and international structures in which it is engaged. In Foucault’s conception, biopower functioned to produce an equilibrium within the totality of these social relations (Ibid).

In their book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offer a prescient reconceptualization of biopower within the context of globalization. They claim that although Foucault at times “grasped the horizon” of global capitalism, his entrenchment in a state socialist system prevented him from anticipating it in its current dynamisms. (Hardt and Negri, 2000) Hardt and Negri argue that the global reconfiguration of production with its flexible networks, liquid flow of information and capital, and its reliance on armies, has once again changed the way power operates. Power has been liberated from the circuits of the Fordist-state as public institutions and infrastructure have been sold off and national economies have become tightly interlinked (Ibid). Although the metaphor of the Fordist-state was probably never apt in the case of Cote d’Ivoire, the shift to a free market economy has coincided with a deepening level of economic hardship
In 1999, 28 percent of Ivorians lived below the poverty level and now the figure is 44 percent, according to U.N. statistics, and is increasing. More and more Ivorians are having trouble finding enough food. This extreme poverty, in a country which was one of the best-off countries in West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, has forced many people to live near or on garbage dumps in Abidjan because they are forced to survive by picking through trash for salable items (Dunkel).

Within the processes of global power, this kind of economic and social degeneration has become more common (Rifkin). Hardt and Negri claim that the reality of an interlocking global economy means that attaining equilibrium is no longer a primary function of power. Life is being produced and dictated within widening gaps of privilege and exclusion. Intense imbalances in wealth and resources have been exacerbated through a world of networks where power produces new forms of wealth creation and deepening levels of inequality. Hardt and Negri argue that new spheres of economic activity have to be perpetually created to forward the processes of growth and accumulation. This feature of global capitalism makes entire modes of production, labor, and existence irrelevant and disposable (Bauman). Hardt and Negri claim that as capital has become more abstract and fluid, racing across the globe defying time and space, human life has become increasingly determined through interconnected webs of information and technology. (Hardt and Negri, 2000) How do we understand such a theorization of global power within a national context like that of Cote d’Ivoire?

According to Hardt and Negri, as the ability of states to exert control over their national economic situations has deteriorated, the sovereign power of the nation state has declined. While the relative strengths and weaknesses of nation states remain open to debate, their argument concerning the erosion of civil societies and the rise of a militarized state under this global power is worth observing. They argue that social and legal structures that mediate between power and subjectivity have been demolished by neoliberalism, and that the state has been reduced to an emergency/security apparatus existing primarily to keep order for the uninterrupted flow of capital. (Ibid) Within this configuration of the modern state, citizenship has given way to biopolitical positions increasingly defined by widespread violence and marginalization. (Hardt and Negri, 2004) Absent any kind of social contract, citizenship is detached from the national context, and left to flounder within a web of naked power and profiteering. Hardt and Negri claim that as civil protections have been eroded, the body and the state remain linked only through a context of war and profit. In Multitude they argue that

the sovereign authority of nation-states, even the most dominant nation states, is declining, and there is emerging a new supernational form of sovereignty, a global empire, the conditions and nature of war and political violence are necessarily changing. War is becoming a general phenomenon, global and interminable (Ibid, p.3).

This global empire makes war a general state of social existence for both the economically excluded as well as an increasingly paranoid and security-conscious elite. The collusion of the Ivorian government in the toxic waste dumping raises serious questions regarding the position of the citizen, state power, and global capital. If war is a general state of social existence then how do we interpret the event within this global modality of power? The toxic situation in Cote d’Ivoire should not be viewed in isolation but rather as part of an ongoing struggle in which the Ivorian citizenry and other populations throughout the world are engaged. Similar to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, even in the world’s wealthiest nation, the inefficient, the poor, the elderly, and the racially marginalized can no longer count on the concern or the competency of government. Reminiscent of the helplessness experienced by the captive citizens of New Orleans who could not afford to escape the Hurricane, an Ivorian woman who upon asking her doctor how to protect herself from the waste was told that: “the only cure was for her was to move away.” Her response: “I live in an affected area and I cannot afford to move, so what can I do?” (BBC, Sept 7). Eric Cadzyn has noted that within the cold economic ideology of global capitalism, who lives and who dies comes down to “simple affordability that cuts across national borders”, where the only justification that is needed for the destruction of life is a simple apology, “sorry we cannot afford to save your life” (Cadzyn, p. 17). Although existing in radically different contexts, the helplessness of citizens trapped by their poverty in the poisoned waters of News Orleans and the Ivorians choking on the toxic fumes in Abidjan can be seen as occupying a symbiotic field. Their fates are interwoven through the utter privatization of their life-chances in the face of a power that increasingly takes form in the destruction of social life.


Achille Mbembe writes that Africa still occup

ies the western imagination as a place o
f “absence”, “lack”, “non-being”, “in short, “nothingness” (Mbembe, P. 4). These notions have deeply seeded roots in the racist imaginary of European colonialism and in the continued manifestations of western imperialism. Achille Mbembe’s interpretation takes this dynamic into account when conceiving biopower in the context of Africa. Influenced by Giorgio Agamben who has argued that it is necessary to approach biopower from the perspective of the state of exception, this conception offers a different angle from which to engage with biopolitics. Agamben argues that as the rights of the citizens are seized, life is reduced to a category of “bare life” where the right to kill functions as the primary mode of power (Agamben). Biopower then, in this context, is the power to rule over life, to take it at will, as it is no longer a productive force but a destructive meeting of body and violence. Mbembe labels this form of destructive power necropower. He is specifically interested in exploring these issues within the African context. In On the Postcolony, Mbembe states that within the current context of globalization, state power in Africa has shifted to a form of private indirect government characterized by decentered regimes of profiteering underpinned by privatized violence, social death, and terror (Mbembe). Mbembe claims that hope for a more just future resides in the recognition of this construct of necropolitics. If democracy is to have a chance, we must confront the destructive way in which power now excersises itself. Quoted from an interview with Christian Hoeller from Springerin Magazine, Mbembe states that:
Democracy as a form of government and as a culture of public life does not have a future in Africa – or for that matter, elsewhere in the world – if it is not rethought precisely from the crucible of necropower. By necropower, I have in mind the various ways in which, in our    contemporary world, sovereign power imagines itself and is deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of deathscapes, new and unique forms of    social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead (Hoeller).

These deathscapes are resultant from the emergence of nation states stripped of all social and legal structures where the sovereign power of the state is predicated on its application of violence within a state of exception. Mbembe claims that this sovereign power exists within a matrix of crisscrossing layers of capital flows that have made looting and terror the rule and has pushed populations into despairing positions, which Mbembe equates to living dead, or zombification (Mbembe). The toxic dumping in Cote d’Ivoire illustrates the level of insecurity facing African citizens where death is literally leaking into the very soil under their feet. In Mbembe’s analysis, a constant state of exception and the residual psychic and social scars of colonialism prevent life from ever really existing in places like Cote d’Ivoire. In the postcolony, life is bound with the perpetual the presence of death (Ibid).

In the wake of the waste dumping, there was a widespread recognition among Ivorians and the international community that profit had been placed before the lives of Ivorian citizens. Although the discourses of biopower that Hardt and Negri and Achille Mbembe describe are illustrative of a stark reality, and the situation in Cote d’Ivoire is dire, possibilities for agency and collective action still exist. As Jean Comoroff insightfully argues, although the “capricious power of structural violence are all too evidently capable of severing life from its civic endowment and social value, no act of sovereignty can perpetrate on human beings a total alienation from meaning and will” (Comoroff, p. 19). Despite having a government that has violently suppressed civil protest in the past, Ivorian citizens did not stand mute in the wake of the disaster. In the days following the catastrophe, thousands of Abidjan’s residents took to the streets to protest. With wet rags tied around their faces to protect themselves from the stench, they expressed their outrage and frustration by setting up roadblocks, marching, and holding rallies. They carried placards in the streets reading: “they sold our health”, “they are killing us for money”, “it is a crime against humanity”, and “they sold away the lives of the people of this country, for crumbs” (BBC,Sept 7). These actions were directed toward the Ivorian leadership for their complicity in corporate greed and exploitation as well their indifference to the lives of their citizenry. Outrage has also been directed at the inability of the international community to enforce established rules governing the illegal trade in toxic waste which is slowly creating more deathscapes like the one in Cote d’Ivoire. Such acts of resistance, while offering hope that agency and collective action still exist even in the most difficult of circumstances, may not be enough to stem the tide of waste flowing into the developing world from the west. According to Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, who has monitored hazardous waste trade for 17 years, there is more evidence of illegal toxic waste dumping today than at any time in the past. (BAN, Sept 8) He claims that, “ironically today we have the international rules to control or prohibit such global dumping but we are lacking in the diligent enforcement and implementation of these hard won laws” and “unfortunately if it’s easy to poison the poor for profit, unscrupulous operators and businesses will do it” (Ibid).

The Cote d’Ivoire toxic waste scandal sheds light on a reality where the poison of the west is being dumped indiscriminately on the global poor. The incident in Cote d’Ivoire does not exist in isolation as developing nations are increasingly being used as a dump sites for western refuse. Many of these nations do not have the regulations, resources, or facilities to properly dispose of these waste products thus exposing their water, food, air, and citizens to an uncertain future. As demonstrated by the conditions in Cote d’Ivoire, this kind of activity has a profound impact not only on the environment and human health but on political stability as well. The United States alone is thought to be responsible for exporting many hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous waste to the developing world every year despite international rules which forbid such trafficking (Kahn).

All down the West African coast, ships registered in America and Europe unload containers filled with old computers, slops, and used medical equipment. Scrap merchants, corrupt politi-cians and underpaid civil servants take charge of this rubbish and, for a few dollars, will dump them off coastlines and on landfill sites (AP, Oct 17). These activities are sowing death into the environmental and social fabric of these states. As the developing world scrambles to overcome an increasing digital divide, one of the biggest problems is the 20-50 million tons of “e-waste” that is being created and exported every year from the west. These old computers, cell phones, and television sets contain lead, mercury, cadmium, and other toxic compounds. Much of this waste is being burned, sending clouds of toxic smoke into the air, or it is being left to rot in large open dumps, leaking poisonous metals into the ground and water supply. The Basal Action Network, a global watchdog organization which monitors the trade in toxic waste, has recently turned its attention toward what they see as a coming “tsunami of electronic waste” ready to hit the African shore with the cross-over to Microsoft Vista. This toxic storm stands in contrast to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s charitable commitment “to bring innovations in health and learning to the global community.” (BAN, Jan 30) Jim Puckett of BAN states
Today with the release of Vista, Microsoft could bring both

a massive digital d
ump and a perpetuation of the digital divide to the global community. It is shameful how little innovation and concern the electronics industry continues to demonstrate for the long-term consequences of their products in light of their abilities to innovate front-end gadgetry to encourage sales. A truly responsible industry will take steps to ensure that innovation does not automatically equate to obsolescence, toxic waste and a growing population of hardware have-nots. (Ibid)

Africa has long existed as a sphere from which the west could extrapolate wealth and resources. Now it appears that it increasingly exists to absorb the garbage when those resources have fulfilled their productive purpose. Despite the environmental and human consequences, the short term economic benefit of off-loading waste in places devoid of regulations and infrastructure to safely dispose of it, continues to win out for western companies.


Although some arrests have been made and several top government officials in Cote d’Ivoire have resigned, (only to be later reinstated) justice remains elusive, as who to blame for the disaster is unclear while accusations fly between Trafigura, the Ivorian government, and international human rights advocates. In February 2007, a court decision was handed down that required Trafigura to pay $200 million dollars to the Ivorian government. Ironically, a large portion of this money will go toward building a facility that will be able to handle such toxic waste disposal safely. The other funds will ostensibly go toward cleaning up the dump sites and compensating victims for medical expenses. The Cote d’Ivoire crisis could present an opportunity to question destructive practices within an international context of power that must be grappled with before anything like justice or democracy can take root in Cote d’Ivoire or elsewhere. If any good comes out of this, it will probably be that the incident has attracted so much outrage and attention. How can this be turned into productive action toward preventing such exploitive activities? Why can’t international laws be enforced or new laws created to stem the flow of waste into these countries? A discussion of biopower is one way of trying to grapple with the complexities that exist between global capitalism and national and local realities. But this way of mapping power also brings up some fundamental questions regarding the connection between the breakdown of states like Cote d’Ivoire, exploitation like toxic waste dumping, and the logic of global capitalism. Is disorder and war really in the interest of capital? If not, then how do we theorize political conflict in places like Cote d’Ivoire? If we accept that there is a global capitalist system that operates through a logic of endless accumulation, how and why do these deathscapes function within this system? Why don’t or can’t local elites put these bodies to work? Is it because the space of the country is more valuable as a dumping ground? If the political strife is the result of economic inequalities, then are these conflicts not, in fact, organized against capital? If so, then nations such as Cote d’Ivoire may offer evidence of the fraying-at-the-edges of global capital, the impossibility and impracticality of creating the kind of seamless, all-encompassing economic logic that we all seem to have accepted as globalization.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Associated Press. “From Rich to Poor: Ivory Coast Tragedy Highlights Hazardous Trade on the Rise” October 17, 2006. Basil Action Network. Available online at:

Associated Press. “UN Says Dumping of Waste clearly Violated International Agreements” September 19, 2006. Basil Action Network. Available online at

Bavier, Joe. “Ivory Coast Government Panel Releases Toxic Waste Findings” November 23, 2006. VOA News Aavilable online at:

Basel Action Network. (BAN) “Global Out Break of Toxic Waste Dumping Demands immediate Enforcement of International Law”September 8, 2006. Available online at:

Basal Action Network. (BAN) “Microsoft Vista Could Hurt Health in Developing Countries” January 30, 2007. Available online at:

Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. (Polity Press, 2003)

BBC News. “Help Urged for Ivory Coast Tragedy” November 24, 2006. Available online at:

BBC News. “Ivory Coast: Collapse of the Government of National Unity” September 7, 2006. Available Online at: government-of-national-unity/

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. (BDHRL) Annual Report 2005. Available online at:

Cadzyn, Eric. “Bioeconomics, Culture and Politics after Globalization.” Unpublished Draft

Comaroff, Jean. “Beyond the Politics of Bare Life: Aids and the Neoliberal Order.” Public Culture 19.1 (February 2007)

Dunkel, G. “Poverty and Struggle in the Ivory Coast” October 28, 2006. Workers World. Available online at:

Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College De France 1975-1976 (Picador, 1997)

Hardt, Michael. Negri, Antonio. Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000)

Hardt, Michael. Negri, Antonio. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin Press, 2004)

Hoeller, Christian. “Interview with Achille Mbembe.” Springerin Magazine. Available online at:

United Nation Human Development Report 2006 (HDR) Available online at:

Kahn, Jeremy. “How First World Garbage Makes Africans Sick” September 22, 2006. Slate Magazine. Available online at:

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. (University of California Press, Berkeley 2001)

Rifkin, Jeremy. “Capitalism’s Future on Trial” July 22, 2005. The Guardian. Available online at:

Selva, Neera. “Toxic Shock: How Western Rubbish is Destroying Africa” September 21, 2006. Basil Action Network. Available online at

Wild, Franz. “Number of Ill climbs in Ivory Coast Toxic Waste Scandal” September 16, 2006 VOA News. Available Online at:

White, Anne-France. “Dimas Outraged at EU Toxic Waste Shipment” September 28, 2006. Basil
Action Network
. Available online at:

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