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The Ivory Coast I love: from Western Africa's success story to the morass of ethnic strife

by Agnes a Paris Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 03:59:23 PM EST

Back from front page

This is a brief story of Ivory Coast based on the vivid recollections of a small girl, then a teenager, who spent there part of her elementary and the whole of her secondary education, until the year 1990.

This is not only about history, but also about love for an adoptive motherland.


For the neighboring countries (Ghana, Togo, Mali), Ivory Coast was a land of plenty, attracting immigrant workers who seemed to pretty well fit in. There was work for everybody as the French expatriates who not only chaired foreign companies' subsidiaries but also taught at the local schools and universities had indeed participated to the economical boom. The other factor to the economic success story was the two-edged sword of most under-developed countries, the key natural resources that made up the bulk of export flows: cocoa, for which Ivory Coast stood as first producer worldwide, and coffee, ranking second behind Brazil, were trading high and brought the country the so much needed hard currency.

Until the late nineties, Ivory Coast was not only considered as one of the most developed economies on the continent, but also a harbor of political stability. Felix Houphouet Boigny steered his country, a French colony since 1893, towards a peaceful independence in 1960. He was a deputy within the French National Assembly and close to General de Gaulle. In the late fifties, it was not difficult to convince de Gaulle, freshly back to power in France, that independence without bloodshed made sense. This relationship proved critical as Houphouet Boigny's influence was not limited to his native country, but also to a bunch of neighboring countries he assisted in the peaceful independence process.

Sure, he was an enlightened autocrat and held power from 1960 until he passed away in 1993. He however added to his credit winning the first free presidential election after opposition parties had become legal in 1990. br>Much to his credit too, he managed to keep closed the ethnic Pandora's box: although stemming from the dominant ethnic group, the Baoules, he always held from using ethnic argument to legitimate his leadership.
Well he had no need for that; his legitimacy was based on the peace his fellow citizens had enjoyed on the path to independence and ever since. There is no need to remind how differently things went in other countries under French domination. He was nick-named "le Vieux", an affectionate though reverential reference to his wisdom and role as federator of all the Ivory Coast citizens.


The Ivory Coast I love went without saying.  It went without saying that black and white children spell the same words in French class in the same classroom, sing both the Ivorian and French national anthems once a week, eat the same fried bananas on the way back home, and watch the same cartoons on both the local and French TV channels. It went without saying seeing my parents' Ivorian fellow teachers and the dean of the University invited at home among their expatriate friends. It was a casual and undisturbed way of life.
As a child and a teenager, I never came across the world racism.


What became of all this is not memory, but history.
There is one year I specifically remember though: 2000. In October, fighting erupted between Laurent Gbagbo's (freshly proclaimed president) mainly southern Christian supporters and followers of Alassane Ouattara, who are mostly Muslims from the north. From then onwards, the country was split along ethnic and religious lines.
The political morass came on top of the economic crisis that started plaguing the country in the late eighties, when cocoa and coffee prices slumped on international markets (London and New York).

Display:
Obviously the economic crisis made for the kind of discontent and societal instability which can be the breeding ground of conflict. This is a pattern which is familiar from many places.

There is more to the story though, I am sure. Do you have any comments on submerged ethnic fault-lines or grievances that may have helped trigger the fighting?

Or was this situation amplified from the outside?

Do you also have any comments from your experience about the religious issue? Is it a bigger cause of friction than ethnic divisions?

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 04:28:01 AM EST
I am not sure which factor was prevalent. At`the time when I lived there, catholicism was strongly promoted by Houphouet Boigny, who had a copy of Rome's st Peter's cathedral built in his native city, Yamoussoukro, allegedly funded by his personal fortune. But there was no kind of persecution against Muslims. Furthermore, both religions had been adapted by the locals and were mixed with animist practises.

Nonetheless, ethic roots have always been a strong identification factor in Sub-Saharan Africa. Colonialists created artificial borders defined with straight edges without taking into account resulting the ethnic divisions that resulted from drawing a border with a ruler.
To sum up, my personal view is that ethnic divisions were the main driving force.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 12:12:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems I cannot build proper sentences today...<s>
What I meant is that borders in Africa are mainly the result of colonial superpowers dividing the continent so as to come up with equal shares of territory. When you take a look at a map of Africa, it is striking how borders appear to have been drawn with a ruler.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 12:16:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When it comes to amplification from the outside,I cannot but think of the wishywashy, stop-and-go attitude of the French government (cf the Marcoussis peace summit held in Paris and its consequences).  
Unlike Great Britain, France never resolved to admitting that maintaining a colonial empire was more trouble than it was worth, nor did they succeed to dismantle the colonial machine even in the countries that were long independent.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 12:52:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
According to official figures, Muslims make up a rough 40% of the population, with Christians not far off at 35%, the balance being made up (personal guess only) by animists.
There are 60 ethnic groups in the country, the Baoule being dominant. Former President Houphouet was a Baoule, but he was wise enough never to capitalise on his ethnic belonging to justify his leading the country. He always portrayed himself as a federating figure. I remember one of his quotes regularly opening the evening TV news : "peace is not a word, it is about behaviour"  "la paix ce n'est pas un mot, c'est un comportement".

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 01:07:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Some commentators  (who usually talk about events using the kind of timeline laid out by the BBC) view the ethnic and religious divisions as almost secondary to the breakdown of the civil structure.

Particularly, they suggest that whilst "le Vieux" did eventually take part in an election, democracy was given no true root in the country. Power resided with factions, who derived their power from the dictator. Once "le Vieux" disappeared from the scene, these factions struggled to become the new dictator. They used ethnic and religious issues to strengthen support in their power bases, but the military struggle was all about "who will become the next Arch-Supreme-Generalissimo?"

In this view, "le Vieux" either died too soon after introducing democracy (or waited too long to introduce it) and thus didn't have the chance to really replace the old autocratic structures with democratic ones. Thus, after his death, the country descended into a war for autocratic power.

Basically, my two comments should have been one. They represent two of the main meta-narratives floating around about what happened.

Do you have, from your experiences, a view on what mix of the two approaches the reality in Cote D'Ivoire?

And do you see any signs of hope at the moment?

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 04:42:06 AM EST
Yes, because the race/ethic/nationality card was brought in, IIRC, as early as 1993 to keep Ouattara out of the presidential race, by branding him as a foreigner as he has another nationality (and the fact that he was a senior guy at the IMF was also used to brand him an "Américain", back when it was a worse insult than "French" today - the concept of each of the two countries is used to fight the other one nowadays).

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 05:59:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My view is that we Westerners have analytical patterns that are too simplistic to embrace the complexity of what is going on in Africa, hence our failure both to alleviate poverty and to have machine guns put to rest.

Once the fight for power was on, any argument to keep an opponent out of the race was valid : Robert Guei had Alassane Ouattara banned from the presidential election because of his being Burkinabais (from neighbouring Burkina Fasso) and Henri Konan Bedié wanted him out because he was a Muslim.

Being French or American is equally alien and the difference does not matter that much ; being from Burkina Fasso or Liberia is worse, by far. Laurent Gbagbo's efforts to promote the concept of pure Ivorian parentage is an evidence for that.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Mon Jan 16th, 2006 at 05:01:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A question: is Ouattara Burkinabais because he was really born there, because he has parents there, or because he gained passport as a dissident there? (The first seems his detractors' claim, but I read the last somewhere about two years ago - but I'd consider you more of an authority than either of my earlier sources.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 03:27:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I will double check this. What his detractors also said is that he could not run for President as his parents were not both born on the "Ivorian" territory.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 04:58:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
whilst "le Vieux" did eventually take part in an election, democracy was given no true root in the country. Power resided with factions, who derived their power from the dictator. Once "le Vieux" disappeared from the scene, these factions struggled to become the new dictator. They used ethnic and religious issues to strengthen support in their power bases, but the military struggle was all about "who will become the next Arch-Supreme-Generalissimo?"
This analysis seems to make pretty much sense.

Houphouet had a very acute political sense and many witnesses and people close to him admitted "free elections" were his last attempt to remain in the forefront and give the appearance he still had the lead. He was already undergoing strong criticism on the grounds of fund misappropriation and outrageous personal wealth whereas the country was undergoing an economic plight. He was also considered too old to rule the country and put it back on the track to  prosperity. Indeed, his date of birth was not public knowledge but in 1990 he must have been at least 85.
One key factor in the disruption of civil status quo between the local, the immigrant and the French expatriate populations certainly was the economic slump.


When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 12:31:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That description actually sounds a good bit like Iraq, except the guy who kept the thing going in Iraq was a total bastard, while in the Cote d'Ivoire, he was more of a King Hussein type. However, if one things back to pre-Saddam Baath Iraq, the analogy holds up well. Remember that the Baath Party was not a dirty word in much of Iraq in the 1970s, when the country experienced a sort of "golden age." (if you read Shadid's excellent account)
by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 11:33:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Slightly edited excerpts from a blog post I wrote in November 2004 - the first part refers to then current events, then comes what I gathered as a timeline:

In the Ivory Coast, French-led UN troops (UNOCI) do this time what they refused to do in Bosnia (with the exception of an odd general, later dismissed) or Rwanda: prevent the breakout of another civil war. Or did they?

The 'offensive' against the rebel North that included the bombing of a UN base, killing nine French blue helmets, had all the hallmarks of a conscious provocation - I can't imagine Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbago wouldn't have had foreseen, and hence that he didn't calculate with French retaliation, especially considering what followed - the French leaders should have guessed that what will follow will be the instigation of anti-French riots, even if those were not only based on actual French military [both UN and other, already stationed there, with the excuse of the defense of 15,000 French expats] actions but false rumours too.

The diplomatic intervention of the African Union (with Mbeki from South Africa) cooled down things a little, but this time the rebels refused peace talks, saying nothing will go with Gbago - which led to an UN SC decision on arms sanctions and a promise of travel bans on both sides earlier this week. So UN troops seem likely to be poised to keep apart the two sides under ever stronger rather than abating tensions. That is, they might fail.

...I don't see the story as evil colonial power vs. rightful leader trying to regain control of his country, and see Gbago as the main problem, despite significant French industrial interests there. Why? Here is my understanding of the background on the Ivory Coast conflict:

Like most West African countries, the Ivory Coast has a North-South Muslim-Christian divide, and ethnic divisions that have cross-border complications. Led by the same party from independence, the country was stable until the middle of the nineties, as exemplified by having a Southern President (Henri Konan Bédié) and a Northern PM (Alassane Dramane Ouattara). But the former started to play on divisions to push out power rivals.

In December 1999, there was a military coup by general Robert Gueï, a Southerner, who promised new elections. He broke his promise to not enter the race himself. His most popular opponent was Ouattara, so Gueï also attempted to capitalise on divisions, all of them, barring Ouattara from the contest because he was allegedly born in a neighbouring country. (He in fact held a Burkina Faso passport when he was dissident some years earlier.) Also disqualified was Emile Bombet, candidate of the pre-coup ruling party, and a dozen other candidates, including all from the North - but Laurent Gbago, Southern candidate of the third largest party, and three more also-runs remained on the ballot. This led to widespread boycotts of the October 2000 Presidential elections. And here is the root of the current problems: Gueï lost these sham elections to Gbago.

When Gueï saw he is losing, he halted the count by sending the military against vote-counting officials, and declared himself winner. But Gbago's followers staged a successful revolution - and Gbago, then with the foolish support of the French government, declared himself President - only to have the followers of the barred candidates against him. Subsequently, Gbago used the same divisive tactics Gueï did (whom he gave immunity in return for Gueï's appeal to the Army to accept Gbago), also barring Ouattara and others again in Parliamentary elections December 2000 - January 2001. They lasted so long because of repeats, which failed to 'ride out' the almost total Northern boycotts (while boycotts by other parties meant low turnout in the South too).

Conflict ensued, breaking into a civil war in September 2002 after a mutiny and failed coup, ended by French/UN intervention (which saved Gbago: he was poised to lose militarily at this time) and a French-brokered peace agreement in January 2003. The peace agreement prescribed a unified transitional government, the deployment of UNOCI in the summer of 2003 and new elections timetabled for 2005. But Gbago didn't rest, for example after dispersing a peaceful street rally of Ouattara's followers in March 2004, police and militias staged night raids on organisers - killing about 120. This led to a four-month boycott of the nominally joint transitional government by the Northern rebels, ended at EU pressure.

Agnes, was this a fair assessment?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 10:50:15 AM EST
My feeling is that the chronology of events you describe is fair enough. However, I am not fully in line withe the following
Like most West African countries, the Ivory Coast has a North-South Muslim-Christian divide, and ethnic divisions that have cross-border complications. Led by the same party from independence, the country was stable until the middle of the nineties, as exemplified by having a Southern President (Henri Konan Bédié) and a Northern PM (Alassane Dramane Ouattara). But the former started to play on divisions to push out power rivals.

Cohabitation between Bedie and Ouattara was only a brief moment of rest before the storm. It is really difficult to say who was the first to blame, Guei, Bedie or Ouattara. It would be however simplistic to reduce the conflict in Ivory Coast to a religious division between the North and the South.

As I already wrote, in what we call Afrique noire, ie Sub-Saharan Western Africa, people belong to an ethnic group, much more than a religious community. The ethnic group is about language, customs, rituals, the land where ancestors rest in peace. Religion is essentially an imported concept.
And it is not about race, it is about the land of your ancestors. Everyone who spent some time in Afrique noire will reckon that Nature talks to you out there.
I am afraid that ethnic divisions with cross-border complications together with reckless fight for political supremacy will shape the destiny of Ivory Coast over the foreseeable future.  


When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 04:02:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very interesting. Forgive the ignorance of someone with no direct experience of the area, but are you saying that  the strongest component in ethnicity in Afrique noir is geographical?
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 04:11:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I would be careful about this, my recollections of what I learnt of Africa's history in elementary school are not so good.

However, I can safely say that people would be better off if ethnic groups were not split up by political borders. I am not trying to brush off your question, just need to do some research before I provide a more accurate answer.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Sun Jan 15th, 2006 at 04:15:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
all settled now ?

Thank you for contributing to this diary.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Mon Jan 16th, 2006 at 04:19:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Unfortunately, still not :-) But tomorrow the stage will be reached when my work computer will be operational.

I hope I can still catch you with this short reply. Regarding religion vs. ethnicity, it was just my bad composition in using 'northerner/southerner' every time (and lazyness in getting accustomed with the names of major ethnic groups), the impression that the religious division is the key was unintended, I'm sorry 'bout that. But your assessment that Ouattara and Bédié and Gueï were playing who-blinks-first is just a kind of on-the-ground-based correction I expected. So one question: were/are there any significant political groups (even if with no chance at leadership of the country), or even civilian groups, with a markedly cross-ethnic base? (Oh, and a connected question: what I read and put into my November 2004 blog post regarding Ouattara having been most popular, would you say that that was - if it was true at all and not pro-Ouattara spin - because of the relative size of the ethnic groups behind him?)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 03:22:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the northerner/westerner distinction did make a sense, so you were not wrong in using it, as it was a fact that Ivory Coast was split between the north and the south in 2002 when "rebels" took and held major cities such as Bouake whereas the south remained under governmental (ie military) control. Plus it is true that ethnic divisions match geography, more or less, as the 2 main ethic groups in northern Ivory Coast, Senoufos and Dioulas, are far less represented in the south. But this was difficult to sense before 1990, as Houphouet Boigny had tried to import the concept of nationality, pretending that everyone living within IC's borders was Ivoirien.

I very much doubt that there are civil or political forces with a cross-ethnic base. This is one of the reasons why the Marcoussis peace treaty was dead before even being implemented : the rebels (read opponents) had managed to negotiate portfolios within the new government that would have emerged from the agreement. The President accepting that, plus the fact that the agreement was perceived as fostered by France, brought discredit to the peace treaty. The President was considered felon by his own supporters, for he had accepted participation of a different ethnic group, and not only because they were rebel representatives.


When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 04:55:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
From the
BBC story of Africa again
Religion has always been central to people's lives in Africa. Although the majority of Africans are now Muslim or Christian, traditional religions have endured and still play a big role. Religion runs like a thread through daily life, marked by prayers of gratitude in times of plenty and prayers of supplication in times of need. Religion confirms identity on the individual and the group.


There are a huge number of different religious practices on the continent. They share some common features: a belief in one God above a host of lesser gods or semi-divine figures; a belief in ancestral spirits; the idea of sacrifice, often involving the death of a living thing, to ensure divine protection and generosity; the need to undergo rites of passage to move from childhood to adulthood, from life to death.


In the history of the continent, religion has had a powerful effect on political change: spirit mediums have led revolts against European and African rulers, ancestral spirits have commanded acts of destruction and called for the overthrow of rulers and chiefs. People have sought the help of priests and medicine men to achieve power and wealth.

This is an interesting assessment, though clearly one of a Western mind. In Afrique noire (I am not talking about Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, and so on), ethnicity has always been the primary factor determining belonging to a group.
And the BBC rightly underlines the influence of ancestral spirits. In that context, this is more about ethnicity than religion itself.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill

by Agnes a Paris on Mon Jan 16th, 2006 at 04:37:11 AM EST
Thank you Agnes, for a very interesting diary. I know very little about Africa - just what is coming from main Western sources, but your informations seems to have a relevance of its own.
by Fran on Mon Jan 16th, 2006 at 02:23:00 PM EST
Yes, thank you Agnes for this. I recently finished a paper on the use of sports to help youth overcome trauma from disaster, and I interviewed a Swiss woman who spent time in Cote I'vore working for two different sports organizations...and she painted a very interesting picture. Your diary (and the comments) helps fill a number of gaps...though, more gaps to fill, I fear. But an excellent piece!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 03:55:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for your kind comment.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Wed Jan 18th, 2006 at 04:59:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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