Africana Plus

No55 March 2003.3

Ivory Coast

The Ideology of Fraternity


Now we have another country torn apart by internal conflicts. More fratricide, a country in pieces,  efforts to try and put the pieces together, to check the geographical, ethnic and religious unrest exploited by selfish nationalists. No doubt, political leaders seek try to explain their disagreements by appealing to reasons of one kind or another. Very often however their only real interest  is to provoke discord in order to satisfy their own lust for power and possessions.


The Bishops of the Ivory Coast denounced the  collapse of morality in their country which, especially in the north, has been in a state of civil war since last September. "In the eyes of the people of this country, the virtues of honesty, integrity and justice have come to look like characteristics of a bygone age...Money is the only standard for judging the human person.  That is the source of all our woes, and it leads inevitably to the destruction of our republican institutions like the army and  political parties. People join a political party, not for the sake of an ideal or a program, but simply out of personal economic interest." Faced with civil war, the Bishops urge the people to foster a genuine love for themselves and their country. "We must learn to love each other and stop fighting each other. We must stop sticking labels on people, calling them southerners or northerners, easterners or westerners. Loving one's own country means having a common ideal, always putting the interests of the country before our own personal and selfish interests."


There are fifteen million people in the Ivory Coast. The average annual income is 800 dollars, or about two dollars per day. The country's wealth comes from cocoa, of which it is the world's largest producer. There are hundreds of thousands of small cocoa growers, but they are all subject to the fluctuations of an international market in which they have absolutely no voice. In these conditions, it is not surprising that internal conflicts develop. 

Ivory Coast is a big country, some 125,000 square miles in area. There are five major tribal groups, with about forty sub-groups.

Since the death of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, different political leaders have sought to strengthen their power by dividing and subdividing the country, according to the classical formula, "Divide and rule". Henri Konan Bédié, the predecessor of the actual President, Laurent Ggagbo, introduced the concept of "Ivoriness", which he defended as "a new step forward which will strengthen our identity. This identity resides above all in our republican institutions, summarized in our national motto of discipline and work, but including also peace, the struggle against national and international injustices, the equality of men and women, the essentially lay character of schools and the state, the rejection of all fanaticism and intolerance. These are the values which must fashion our national unity and bestow a universal character on our Ivorian citizenship."  In this ideology, "Ivoriness"  becomes an affirmation of the cultural, sociological and political identity of the peoples of the Ivory Coast. Its apologists deny that it has any overtones of xenophobia or racism and maintain that it in no way contains the seeds of exclusion.

The party opposed to the present government however is of another opinion. One-third of the resident population comes from the neighboring countries of the Sahel, and it was Houphouët-Boigny's successor, Konan Bédié, who introduced the distinction between "indigenous" and "foreign" residents. The real problems of access to nationality and to land ownership, say the government opponents, have never been faced. For the political class in Abidjan, "Ivoriness" is no more than a policy of exclusion, a battle for power in which the principal weapon is the tribalisation of political and social divisions. Political difference has become a war of chiefs.


Who then are the principal protagonists in this struggle? There is of course the actual President, Laurent Gbagbo, of the Ivorian Popular Front, which controls the south of the country. Then there are the chiefs of other political parties, such as Alassane Dramane Ouattara, of the Republican Assembly, and Francis Wodié, of the Workers' Party. There are also the chiefs of the armed rebels, like the Patriotic Movement, dominated by Muslims from the north,  the Popular Movement of the West and the Movement for Justice and Peace, which group the rebels of the west. The latter two parties claim to be followers of General Robert Gueï who was killed during the failed coup d'état of 19 September which marked the start of the current crisis. While the north is largely dominated by movements backed by Burkina Faso and Blaise Compaore, the north-west is more under the influence of Charles Taylor's Liberia, which casts jealous eyes on the cocoa plantations on its borders. It was to these political chiefs that the Bishops of CERAO, the Regional Episcopal


Conference of West Africa, addressed themselves on 9 February. "We address an urgent appeal to the leaders of political parties. We urge them to give a chance to dialogue by speaking to their militants and disarming their fighters and sinister death squads. Political leaders must have the humility to recognize their responsibility for the evil consequences of their personal ambitions and interests which damage the common good of the nation."


How can all these factions come together to unite the country? On 24 January an effort was made to bring them together at Marcoussis, some twenty miles from Paris, and to hammer out an agreement in principle. The participants spoke of the future of democracy, of relations with neighboring countries, of the Constitution, of the reform of the nationality and land ownership laws, "the rights of blood and the rights of the soil". The Republican Party insisted on "the rights of the soil", by which it meant that all those born in the Ivory Coast had rights of citizenship. The governing party on the other hand, the FPI, pointed out that it was Ouattara himself, now leader of the Republican Party, who had introduced residence permits when he was Houphouët's prime minister and so undermined the principle of "rights of the soil". It is clearly very difficult to reconcile these entrenched position by simple debate and without recourse to the use of force.


After the peace accords were signed in Marcoussis, tens of thousands of Gbagbo's supporters mounted a violent protest in Abidjan against what they considered a humiliation for the President. In particular they objected to giving the key posts of Minister of Defence and Home Affairs to the rebels. The President himself nevertheless declared himself satisfied that reconciliation had been achieved in Marcoussis. "Coming out of a war is not like leaving a gala dinner. I have not won the war, and lessons have to be drawn." After thanking France for its help, he went on to say that a crisis which had lasted for four months was bound to be expensive. There had therefore to be concessions by all parties, and, said he, "I have made concessions."


The chiefs' war meanwhile goes on. All these chiefs have monstrous egos. "I have not won the war," says Gbagbo, "and so I must negotiate." The implication is that one wages war first and then, if one is not successful, one negotiates. No doubt negotiation has always been the poor relation in the solution of conflicts. It has been seen as weakness and cowardice. All except war is dishonorable. It is a strange way of approaching the problem of peace. Whatever Laurent Gbabgo may say, his logic is not the logic of peace but of war. People were waiting for the President to address the nation, but he only spoke to his supporters, saying that all that was done at Marcoussis was to draw up proposals. "I am still waiting to see what happens," he said.


The Bishops of CERAO on the contrary insist that peace must be given a chance. The Marcoussis agreements must be taken seriously. "Certainly they are not perfect, they involve difficulties. Nevertheless they manifest the courage and the good will of the participants and of the representatives of the people to make the necessary sacrifices for peace. They point the way to the peace which is so earnestly desired by everyone. They lay the foundations for a future of fraternal co-existence... We demand that the armed forces and what are called the 'rebel' organizations adhere fully to the peace plan accepted by all the leading players in this drama and supported by  the international communities and by all persons of good will. Only thus can be safeguarded that peace which is so indispensable and so longed for by all the people of the Ivory Coast."


Gambari Yaya, of the magazine Jeune Afrique, and an opponent of the ideology of "Ivoriness", wrote this to President Gbagbo: "I invite President Gbagbo, if he wants to go down in history and save the Ivory Coast people of tomorrow, to swallow his personal pride and ignore the reactions of some of his militant followers, and recognize that this whole concept of "Ivoriness" is the principal cause of all the miseries which the country is enduring. It is up to this President to repair all the errors which have been committed by political leaders since  Houphouët. He should use the national Ministry of Education to draw up a program of civic instruction, at both elementary and secondary levels, with this theme: Ivory Coast is a country which is home to different tribes and religions. No one chooses his tribal identity, and none is superior to any other. Our African brothers who live on our soil are an asset, for they contribute to the development of our country. If young pupils can absorb this 'ideology of fraternity' both in schools and at home, I can dare to hope that the nation of the Ivory Coast will be tomorrow both stronger and more united."


According to Archbishop Bernard Agré of Abidjan, the war has brought out the opposition between the tribes of the north and the south, but it is not a religious conflict. The Cardinal is very anxious to prevent the clashes from taking on a religious color as if they constituted a war of religion. It was in the same spirit that a  meeting for peace was organized recently by the religious communities of the Ivory Coast. "A great peace-signal emerged from the inter-religious prayer meeting in which thousands of people took part, including the head of state and a number of ministers," declared a local source contacted by the Fides Agency in Ivory Coast. The final ceremony was the conclusion of three days of prayer organized by the fifteen religious communities present in the country, including Christians, Muslims and Traditional Religionists. All the religions made it abundantly clear that they wished to avoid the snare of religious conflict and that they wanted peace. The war has political and economic causes which have in principle nothing to do with religious differences.


Pope John-Paul II also issued an appeal for national reconciliation in Ivory Coast. The crisis which broke out in September has been exacerbated by the recent manifestations organized against the Marcoussis accords. "Once again our thoughts turn towards the Ivory Coast, in the midst of a serious crisis which is tearing these populations apart. Let us pray that the efforts of all those who are anxious for the unity of the country and for respect for law will gain the upper hand over every spirit of divisions and revenge. May faithful Catholics in particular, guided by their pastors, do everything possible to ensure that dialogue and respect for persons and  property be promoted and put into practice by all."


Forty years ago Pope John XXIII wrote in his Encyclical Pacem in Terris: "Political meetings at both the national and international levels will only advance the cause of peace if the  commitments taken in common are respected by all sides. Otherwise these meetings are in danger of becoming useless and insignificant events and people will come less and less to believe in dialogue and will instead seek to resolve their differences by force. The failure to observe commitments is bound to have negative repercussions on any peace process, and this reflection should lead the heads of governments and states to weigh each of their decisions most carefully." When there is a Conclave in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, white smoke signifies that the election has been successfully concluded. We can only pray that the white smoke of peace will finally issue from the conclaves in the Ivory Coast.


Michel Fortin

(15 February 2003)

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