Take time to understand Africa

Since October, hundreds of Ivory Coast citizens have died in struggles following a military coup, rigged elections, and tensions that fall along ethnic and religious lines. What is happening in this country, which was once considered an anchor of stability and prosperity in West Africa?

This conflict must be seen for what it is: A quintessential case of political manipulation by corrupt leaders trying to divide a population and cling to power at any cost. Yet, like conflicts elsewhere in Africa, this one is in danger of being marginalized by Western observers because it is somehow "different" from conflicts they would consider "closer to home." Gaining a better understanding of this crisis and others in Africa is an important step for those who would help.

From independence to the early 1990s, the Ivory Coast enjoyed peace and relative prosperity within its heterogeneous population. Under President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, it carried out a development policy that drew on northern labor pools in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Mali. Today, almost 40 percent of the nation's 16 million inhabitants have roots in these states.

Over the years, millions of young men and women, most of whom are Muslim, migrated from these Sahelian states to become wage laborers in the fields and light industrial complex of the Ivory Coast. It was on the backs of these laborers that Mr. Boigny engineered the development of a strong agricultural economy which, despite its unhealthy dependence on cocoa production, is the third richest in sub-Saharan Africa and the region's economic hub.

All of this changed in 1993 with the death of Boigny and the rise to the presidency of his deputy, Henri Konan Bedie. Mr. Bedie's ineptitude and desire to cling to power led to the creation of the xenophobic "Ivoirite" (or Pure Ivorian) policy, which defined Ivorian citizens as only those with native-born parents.

While Bedie's policy was aimed at eliminating his chief political rival, IMF deputy director and former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara - a popular Muslim northerner who was accused of not having two Ivorian parents - Bedie, a Christian, in effect built an ethnic and religious schism that now threatens to tear the nation apart.

Bedie's divisiveness, along with a failing Ivorian economy, led to the nation's first coup last December. The military strongman, Gen. Robert Guei, who was initially praised for seizing power from the unpopular Bedie, reneged on his pledge to return the presidency to a popularly elected civilian. Instead, General Guei fell back on the xenophobic policy of his predecessor and pushed through a constitutional referendum barring Ivorians with foreign-born parents from holding political office.

Events climaxed on Oct. 22, when Guei's attempt to steal the presidential election - which excluded Muslim candidates - failed, and he was chased from power by mass demonstrations and a splintered military.

Guei's departure from office has not brought calm to this once-peaceful African state. Violence erupted along religious lines when the presumed winner of the presidential election, Laurent Gbagbo, announced that he will not hold a new contest. The violence that ensued led to more than 300 deaths and the torching of mosques in the nation's economic capital, Abidjan. In one grisly event, 57 opposition supporters were massacred and left in a field outside the capital.

These events have shocked Ivorians and conjured images of other devastating conflicts across the continent. And for the moment, the fighting has stopped.

While the way forward for the Ivory Coast is unclear, it is important that onlookers understand the context of current events in this West African country. As in many cases on the African continent, Western ignorance of political developments can lead to reductionist conclusions. Events in Africa like the Ivory Coast drama are too often explained away as another case of "tribal warfare" or "ethnic hatred." This is not to say that racism and prejudice do not exist in Africa. Indeed they do.

What events in the Ivory Coast provide, however, is a clear-cut example of ethnic and religious manipulation by corrupt political leaders - a common, cynical, man-made phenomenon that often produces explosive results in countries undergoing transition. As in the Balkans, leaders using ethnic or religious differences for their own advantage can fan economic frustration into violent hatred.

Nevertheless, it is this dynamic that so often eludes explanation of events on the continent and furthers the notion of "hopeless Africa," an inaccurate and damaging image that was unwittingly supported by comments from both presidential contenders this year.

As the continent continues to be torn apart by war, thoughtful observers of Africa need to look beyond the foreboding headlines of news stories to understand what is behind the sort of "sectarian killing" or "ethnic fratricide" that has recently gripped the Ivory Coast. Understanding the causes of Africa's crises must be the first step along the path of helping to fix Africa's problems.

Timothy W. Docking is a program officer at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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