Ivory Coast: a tale of two countries

2010-12-17 00:00

ALL the foreigners and about half the Ivorians agree that Alassane Ouattara won last month’s presidential election in Ivory Coast — but not the southerners, who say that it was their man, Laurent Gbagbo. So the Election Commission declared Ouattara the winner, and the Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner.

It’s been eight years now since Ivory Coast, once the richest country in West Africa, was divided. This election was supposed to end the division, but it has just perpetuated it. Maybe it’s time to accept that Ivory Coast is two countries, not one.

Once the notion of dividing an African country in two was unthinkable. The basic rule of the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was that the former colonial borders must remain inviolable, since if they could be changed there might be a generation of civil wars.

But there was a generation of civil wars anyway — in Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Congo and Sudan, to mention a few. There are far more ethnic groups in Africa than there are countries: some vie for dominance within the existing borders, while others simply want to secede and form their own countries.

There is also a religious split between mainly Muslim and predominantly Christian regions that extends right across the continent, but the dividing line runs through a number of countries, not between them. From Ivory Coast in West Africa to Sudan on the Red Sea, the north of every country is Muslim, and the south is Christian.

The ban on division was breaking down even before the OAU was replaced by the African Union in 2002. Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1993 was accepted by the OAU, although the subsequent secession of Somaliland and Puntland from Somalia has not received official blessing. And next month southern Sudan will almost certainly secede from the rest of the country in a referendum overseen by the African Union.

It’s becoming almost commonplace — and maybe Ivory Coast is a suitable case for treatment. It enjoyed three decades of peace and prosperity under the rule of its first post-independence president, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, but since his death in 1993 there has been almost continuous political upheaval. Finally, in 2002, rebel “New Forces” in the army seized control of the Muslim north and split the country.

It has remained split ever since, and there are some 8 000 United Nations peacekeepers in the country. But neither negotiations nor outside pressure have ended the division — and neither have elections.

Gbagbo is a Christian southerner, and he lost because there are a few hundred thousand more people in the Muslim north of the country. But he did control the Constitutional Court, which promptly declared that hundreds of thousands of northern votes were invalid, either because the voters in question were actually foreigners, or because they simply didn’t exist.

The African Union is trying very hard these days to ensure that electoral results are respected in Africa, so it has suspended Ivory Coast’s membership until Ouattara is actually in power. Since Gbagbo still has the support of the army and controls the state television channel, however, it will be very hard to get him out. Besides, the rights and wrongs of the situation are not as clear-cut as they seem.

Because Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa, was the richest country in West Africa, for decades it received a large flow of immigrants from the poorer countries to the north, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. The immigrants were all Muslims, and their languages were closely related to Dioula, the dominant language of northern Ivory Coast. They were all illegal, of course, but some of them voted anyway.

Ivorian elections have therefore long been troubled by accusations that many voters in the north are not citizens. Even Ouattara himself was banned from running in the 2002 election because his parents, it was alleged, were from Burkina Faso. And it doesn’t matter who is right: southerners will always think they have been cheated if their candidate loses, while northerners will always insist that the vote was legitimate.

The problem has crippled Ivory Coast for almost twenty years, and it will not go away. Mercifully, the killing so far has only been in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands. But if Ivorians can’t resolve the current dispute quickly, it may be time to consider a divorce.

• Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climat­e Wars, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

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