Cote d'Ivoire: Divide and Reap Chaos: How and Why Did Cote d'Ivoire, Once a Model African Nation in Terms of Economic Growth and Political Stability, Descend into the Conflict Ridden Nation It Is Today? Neil Ford Describes the Destructive Influence of Weak, Short-Sighted Political Leadership

Article excerpt

For many years, Cote d'Ivoire was known for its tradition of ethnic inclusiveness, us much as for its economic and political stability. President Felix Houphouet Boigny, who ruled from 1960 to 1993, pursued a policy of national cohesion and actively encouraged immigration from other parts of West Africa.

Yet the story of the past decade provides a salutary lesson in how easily a stable, economically strong country can be quickly brought to its knees by weak political leadership which attempts to cling to power by playing the ethnic card.

Most of the foreign workers who were welcomed into the country during the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s came from the poorer states of Mali and Burkina Faso to the north. Many of them came from the same ethnic and linguistic groups that populate the north of Cote d'Ivoire itself, where people were generally poorer than in the southern part of the country. Many of these mainly Muslim foreigners and northerners moved to the south-west cocoa growing areas to work on plantations, prompting southerners to collectively term them 'the northern community'.

The plantation workers lived peacefully alongside the people of the south, and although religious and cultural differences sparked occasional small scale conflict, it was nowhere near the scale of that exhibited in much of the rest of West Africa. Today it is estimated that up to 50% of the country's 17m population comprises foreign nationals.

The rise of ethnic tensions during the later 1990s, during a period of sustained growth, is difficult to explain in economic terms. The blame has been laid at the door of weak political leadership which followed Houphouet Boigny. Underlying tensions between difficult strands of Ivorian society and between locals and the millions of other West Africans who worked in the country were exploited for short term political advantages during the economic slowdown in 1999 and 2000.

It was President Henri Konan Bedie who set the seal on ethnic conflict in the country when he formalised divisions in the country through the policy of Ivoriete. This concept divided the population into 'pure Ivorians' and 'circumstantial Ivorians" who were defined as non-nationals who just happened to work in the country. It meant that hundreds of thousands of people born on the plantations could not gain Ivorian citizenship because one or other of their parents or grandparents had been born outside the country.

Bedie originally adopted the policy of Ivoriete in order to exclude a major political opponent, Alassane Ouattara, from the 1995 Presidential elections. Outtara's parents had been born outside the country.

Under this policy of Ivorianisation, foreign employees were replaced by local people wherever possible and the remaining foreigners were not accorded many of the rights associated with citizenship. The current period of political instability began in 1999, when General Robert Guei seized power.

As a consequence of Bedie's support for Ivoriete, not everyone was distraught by the Guei coup, but the general continued to implement the policy of divide and rule. The results of the 2000 Presidential election were then manipulated, provoking a popular uprising in October of that year, which forced Guei from office.

Laurent Gbagbo was confirmed as the country's new president and the whole episode looked like being recorded in the history books us something of an anomaly in an otherwise stable and relatively prosperous West African nation.

ADDING FUEL TO THE FLAMES

Indeed, many viewed the success of the popular uprising as evidence of the strength of democracy in Cote d'Ivoire. Yet although the C6te d'Ivoire Democratic Party (PDCI) of former President Bedie and Affi N'Guessan's Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) came together to form a coalition government following the fall of Guei, there were signs that political allegiances were being reformed along ethnic lines. …