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The Ivory Coast's Politics of Belonging

Ahead of former president Laurent Gbagbo’s delayed ICC trial, current president Alassane Ouattara’s visit to Europe provokes angry protests claiming he is not Ivorian.
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President Ouattara outlines his government's policies to maintain peace and security. Photograph by Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“Alassane Ouattara is completely non-Ivorian. He has been imposed on Ivorian politics for 18 years”, a protester outside London’s Chatham House – where President Ouattara was giving a talk on 27 July – proclaimed to Think Africa Press. The president’s visit to Paris a few days previously had also triggered demonstrations, culminating in the arrest of several scores of protesters.

The demonstrators believe Ouattara was illegitimately elevated to power and are supporters of former president Laurant Gbagbo whom Ouattara succeeded in dramatic fashion in 2011. After elections in 2010, the incumbent Gbagbo was declared the winner by the Constitutional Council - Ivory Coast's highest court; the Independent Electoral Commission, alongside numerous international observers, leaders and organisations declared Ouattara the victor. In March 2011, after months of failed talks and violence, Ouattara’s forces began a military offensive which ended a month later when Ouattara’s French-backed forces arrested Gbagbo in Abidjan.

Gbagbo is now awaiting trial by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity committed during the 2011 violence. His trial was due to start on August 13 but has been delayed, and many fear that the start of the proceedings will trigger violence in the country.

This, and the anger expressed by pro-Gbagbo supporters in London and Paris, is testament to the divisive character of identity politics that has engulfed the Ivory Coast since 2002. This often violent state of affairs has been characterised by attempts to depict part of the population as ‘foreigners’. The highest profile target of this is currently President Ouattara, although he is hardly wholly innocent himself. Such politics have, however, also fostered insecurity amongst large parts of the population.

Gbagbo divide and conquer

In many respects, the crisis of early 2011 was symptomatic of the divisive way in which Gbagbo sought to consolidate his rule in the Ivory Coast. When Gbagbo took power in 2000, his primary bases of support were those in his western homeland and more marginalised groups in Abidjan such as the unemployed, youth groups and small businessmen.

Upon assuming office, Gbagbo was less than secure and seized upon exclusionary rhetoric and politics of belonging in order to strengthen his position, although he was not the first to exploit such tensions. Gbagbo manipulated the concept of Ivorité, first introduced to encourage the peaceful coexistence of ‘autochthonous’ (indigenous) Ivorians and more recent immigrants, into a weapon of xenophobia and came to adopt a frightening ideology. Ivorian nationality became closely associated with local ties to land, excluding lots of those from the country's north. The new administration began to issue identity cards and to investigate the heritage of those suspected of being ‘foreigners’.

Gbagbo’s tactics had two primary consequences. First of all, it allowed him to consolidate support amongst westerners and southerners who had long held grudges against northerners who they accused of taking their land. Secondly, it permitted the Gbagbo regime to exclude potentially dangerous northern politicians on the basis of doubtful nationality and continue a policy passed by his predecessor Henri Konan Bedie which forbids anyone with foreign-born parents from running for office.

This had the effect of dividing the population in terms of citizenship between those seen to be ‘autochthonous’ and those seen to be ‘allochthonous’ or foreign.

Emblematic of the effects of Gbagbo’s corrosive policies are the ‘Young Patriots’, the militia upon whom Gbagbo relied during troubles in 2002-2005 and again in 2011. Ivorian youth were particularly susceptible to Gbagbo’s ideology and this group demonstrated a propensity and willingness to use violence to protect their benefactor. During the early months of 2011, this militia were deployed to the streets of Abidjan, ready to shoot ‘foreigners’ without warning.

In 2002, in response to Gbagbo’s policies, a northern rebellion was launched. This served to partition the Ivory Coast between north and south. Led by Guillaume Soro (now president of the National Assembly), the Forces Nouvelles (FP) sought to bring an end to Gbagbo’s increasingly exclusionary policies through what Ruth Marshall-Fratini termed a war of ‘who is who’. This conflict further radicalised politics around national identity and saw many thousands of ‘foreigners’ chased from their lands or killed. The Ivory Coast’s most recent presidential elections, at which Gbagbo refused to step down, were originally intended to be held in 2005 to bring an end to the conflict.

The historical roots of divisive identity politics

While Gbagbo’s political use of the concept of Ivorité worked to polarise north and south, understanding the structural conditions underlying the Ivory Coast’s complex identity problems require us to look back further in its history, in particular the country’s colonisation and the autocratic rule of its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled from 1960-93.

Under French rule, colonial administrators established a system based on ethnic territoriality to help govern their new territories. These areas were ruled indirectly through local chiefs. Each ethnic group was allotted an area based upon a rudimentary colonial understanding of each tribe’s domain, which had the effect of ‘territorialising ethnicity’ and binding people to the land.

For the most part, the autocratic rule of Houphouët-Boigny served to keep a lid on ethnic tensions but some seeds of future contestation were sown when in 1963, the president decreed that “the land belongs to whoever cultivates it”. This encouraged waves of immigration into and internal migration within the Ivory Coast. By many accounts, this is the highest in West Africa and had been a great driver of the Ivory Coast’s economic success by the late-1980s. However, there was a side-effect. As the majority of internal migration was from north to south, ‘autochthonous’ Ivorians living in the south encountered greater competition for land. The resultant situation was one of unease and animosity between northerners and southerners over land access which contributed to creating an environment in which ethnic or ‘autochthonous’ conflict was a likelihood.

Challenging reconciliation

The commercial capital Abidjan was once known as the ‘Paris of Africa’ and the Ivory Coast was celebrated as ‘the melting pot’ of the region. However, years of divisive policies and bitter conflict have clearly altered the complexion of this West African nation.

Although Ouattara may not prove to be the great unifier some hope him to be, Gbagbo’s removal was surely positive for the long-term stability and unity of the country. The road ahead will be difficult and, as recent protests demonstrate, the country’s north-south divide remains salient to the Ivorian people. Any process of reconciliation will no doubt be fraught with challenges, and although perhaps positive in the longer-term, it seems unlikely Gbagbo’s upcoming trial will do much but aggravate the deep divisions in Ivorian society in the short-term.

Amendment 16/08/2012: For the purposes of clarity, paragraph two has been amended to make clear that Ouattara was declared the winner by the Independent Electoral Commission while Gbagbo was declared the winner by the Constitutional Council.

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Dear William,Thank you on an interesting piece. Regrettably, the introduction suffers from either poor editing or an overzealous attempt to summarise a key driver in the conflict. You wrote, "After elections in 2010, the incumbent Gbagbo was declared the winner while Ouattara, alongside numerous international observers, leaders and organisations claimed Ouattara had won." Sorry, but this is factually incorrect. On 2 December 2010, the Independent Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner with 54.1% of the votes compared to Gbagbo's 45.9%. This was the result which was verified by international observers and respected by ECOWAS, the AU, EU and UN; indeed it was endorsed by the UN Security Council and repeated by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General.Only subsequently did Paul Yao Ndre, President of the Constitutional Court, overturn the results by dismissing the results from 7 departments in the Zone Centre-Nord-Ouest due to unspecified irregularities. He declared Gbagbo winner with 51.45% compared to 48.55% for Ouattara. Importanty, Ndre was appointed by Gbagbo during his tenure as President and he is from the same ethnic heritage. Of course, all of the departments he declared invalid due to irregularities were won by Ouattara. I suggest that you correct the article so that it does not imply that Gbagbo ever won the election. He lost and then tried to alter the results. Many thanks,Nick