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Clouding Ivory Coast's peace: Ivoirité

A loaded term exacerbates the ethnic divide, hampering peace efforts in the war-torn country.

By Lane HartillCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2006



ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST

Djigue Dramane was on his way to an opposition party press conference in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, when three young men approached him. They asked where he was going, and before he knew it he was surrounded, he claims, by 20 some young men who beat him as the police watched.

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He pulls out X-rays and lifts his faded shirt to reveal scars from the iron bars they used. He says the Young Patriots - ardent supporters of Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo - attacked him because of his northern name.

Mr. Dramane's beating is one of hundreds of ethnically motivated attacks on the rise in the past few years and highlights a major divide in the country since a failed coup led to civil war in 2002. One key to exacerbating ethnic divisions here is the concept of Ivoirité, which means the state of being a true Ivorian. The term manifests itself throughout all levels of society, and is held up by many observers as a root cause of the country's violent downward spiral from its status throughout the 1970s and '80s as the most prosperous, stable country in volatile West Africa.

Many residents from the government- controlled southern part of country say those from the rebel-held north (often identifiable by their names) are not true Ivorians because many have lineage originating in poorer, neighboring countries such as Mali or Burkina Faso. Some southerners also resent that their northern neighbors support northern political figures.

The xenophobia often extends beyond northern Ivorians to all foreigners, and shifted last week to the United Nations and the French after a UN-backed international mediation group recommended that the National Assembly - a key power base for President Gbagbo - be dissolved. This prompted the Young Patriots (from the south) to take to the streets in several cities last week, bringing the nation back to the brink of war. At the same time, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), Gbagbo's political party, declared it would pull out of the national unity government and requested that UN forces leave the country. The FPI announced Monday it would rejoin the transitional government, but last week's riots have created hundreds of new refugees and caused the World Food Program to stop distributing much-needed food aid in the country.

The Ivoirité concept emerged here in the 1970s when many nationals from neighboring countries flooded into southern Ivory Coast to work the manual labor jobs in the coffee and cocoa sectors. Many Ivorians became resentful, feeling the newcomers were coming to take advantage of the financial boom the country was experiencing.

In the 1990s, former President Henri Konan Bédié brought the term to the national stage when he used Ivoirité to gain an advantage over former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara in the 1995 presidential election. He accused Mr. Ouattara, who is from the north, of not being 100-percent Ivorian.

Benoit Scheuer, a Belgian sociologist who made a documentary film called "Ivory Coast: The Identity Powder Keg" in 2001 in which he filmed acts of vandalism and physical violence stemming from Ivoirité, says it was the intellectuals around Mr. Bédié who brought Ivoirité back to into the picture. Mr. Scheuer compares Ivoirité to exclusionary tactics used in other conflicts such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The country, he writes in an e-mail interview, has a "political elite that wants power or is in power but has a legitimacy problem (this was the case of [former President] Habyarimana in Rwanda and Bédié in Ivory Coast). In these cases, the elites are going to manipulate the spirit and the mentality [of the citizens] and are going to develop a discourse, a rhetoric of 'them and us.' "

Scheuer, whose documentary is banned in Abidjan, continues to be vilified here by those who don't agree with him. A story in the state-run newspaper Fraternité Matin this past fall called the film "deadly propaganda."

Ivoirité has left thousands humiliated and feeling marginalized, says Alpha Blondy, a popular reggae singer who is famous throughout the region and was named United Nations ambassador of peace in Ivory Coast. Mr. Blondy, who is from the northern town of Korhogo, says Ivoirité is one of the main causes of the crisis here, and it must be resolved or the conflict will continue.

"Forbidding the concept of Ivoirité is the first part of Ivory Coast's healing," he says. "We Ivorians are proud. When one Ivorian humiliates another Ivorian, that's war."

Blondy also says that the harassing of northerners by some government officials is a direct manifestation of Ivoirité, and needs to stop. "Not only saying [Ivoirité] is forbidden; it's abolished, it's illegal, but on the ground, we have to see that too. To see that the police will not - just because of your name, because of the way you dress - see if you deserve to be humiliated or not, and look at you like a second-class citizen."

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