Ivory Coast's conflict and Rwanda's genocide: Key differences

Ivory Coast bears some similarities to Rwanda in 1994, but there are a number of factors that make it unlikely Ivory Coast's conflict will develop into a genocide like Rwanda's.

Luc Gnago/Reuters
A pro-Ouattara fighter from a group which calls itself the "invisible commandos" holds a gun in northern Abidjan's Abobo district on March 26. Fighting in Ivory Coast's main city is spreading and the death toll from a power struggle between incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara is mounting.

Is Ivory Coast headed toward a genocide?

No. At least, I don't think so.

Senam Beheton has a very interesting post on possible parallels between Ivory Coast today and Rwanda in 1994. He draws the parallels, then reaches the following conclusions:

All of the above, will occur if everything stays the same. While I am happy to see the FRCI’s successes, I would like the world to understand that we have been here before. Gbagbo is boxed in militarily and politically. He has no way out. He is literally a prisoner in Abidjan with nowhere to retreat in Ivory Coast and dwindling options outside of the country. He is an historian and knows what happened to Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe, Dadis Camara and the like. It is only a matter of time till forces loyal to Mr. Ouattara take control of the whole country. What happens between now and then is up to all of us. I don’t know what the trigger will be for UN and French Licorne forces currently in Ivory Coast. The UN and France were in Rwanda. Both were sorry for their reluctance to protect civilians. They will have a do-over. I hope they make the right decisions this time for humanity sake.

Now, I know a lot about Rwanda, but I am by no means an Ivory Coast expert, so take my opinions here with that grain of salt in mind. I think Beheton makes some very interesting points here, but am not sure that this will lead down the path to genocide, even if things continue to go horribly wrong. Which they will. The international community's refusal to take this crisis seriously or do anything about it beyond inadequately funding the response to the humanitarian crisis is appalling. Like Rwanda in 1994, this crisis is the result of a previous series of crises and longstanding tensions that were allowed to fester for decades with little attention from the outside world.

But I digress. In order to think more about this, I'd like to consider a few points of difference between the Rwanda situation and what's going on in Ivory Coast today. This is not in any way to diminish the human suffering or seriousness of the Ivory Coast crisis, but rather to help us think clearly about where this mess is headed:

  • Exiles aren't invading Ivory Coast and northerners control territory. Both Rwanda and Ivory Coast have significant ethnic cleavages (whether constructed by colonizers or based on religion), but Ivory Coast is different from Rwanda in that the base of power for the northerners (almost all of whom back Ouattara) is in the country rather than outside in a neighboring country. Furthermore, the two sides in this conflict are much more segregated by location than were Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. Northerners control their territory and have done so for about a decade. I think this makes a real difference in how the fighting will play out. In Rwanda, massacring Tutsis was relatively easy for the Hutu extremists because Tutsis lived next door. In Ivory Coast, while there's certainly a high concentration of northerners in Abidjan and other urban centers, most northerners are in the north. Those who are not can at least try to flee to the north, whereas Tutsis in Rwanda had few options for escape.
  • Ivory Coast is richer than Rwanda. The cocoa industry and Ivory Coast's importance as a regional economic power means that a lot more people have an interest in seeing stability and a political solution to the problems there. France has pointedly taken a back seat to ECOWAS and the African Union through much of this crisis to avoid being seen as a neocolonial power pulling the strings (which is exactly what Gbagbo wants France to do). But if things get really nasty, I think we'll see France become increasingly involved.
  • Ivoirité is not Hutu Power. Ivoirité is a nasty ideology that developed in Ivory Coast in the mid-1990's as a means of excluding northern Muslims from the country's political space by labeling them as "foreigners." While it's true that Ivory Coast does have a large foreign population (workers come from all over West Africa to provide labor for the cocoa plantations), Ivoirité was not really aimed at them; it was aimed at Ivoirian Muslims and involved an explicit political goal, namely, excluding Ouattara from running for president in 2000. While there are lots of nasty manifestations of the ideology, as far as I know, we have not yet seen the use of Ivoirité to justify mass slaughter of Ivoirian Muslims in the same way that Hutu Power ideology was used to justify the killing of Tutsis. There's a qualitative difference; Hutu Power was always about eliminating Tutsis from the face of the planet, whereas Ivoirité has been about more subtle forms of discrimination and exclusion. That may be changing as we speak, but I imagine it will take some time.

Ivory Coast experts and interested observers, what do you think? Do I have this completely wrong? Is Ivory Coast headed for genocide if action is not taken quickly?

Laura Seay is a political science professor at Morehouse College who blogs at Texas in Africa.

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