Thursday, October 17, 2002

Cote d'Ivoire: Tearing Apart.

Date: Thursday 17 October 2002
Subj: Cote d'Ivoire: Tearing Apart.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference

By Elizabeth Kendal


The media coverage of the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast, West Africa) has generally failed to get beneath the surface events and present the bigger picture in all its complexity. It has generally failed understand the religious element of the conflict and thus failed to report accurately the Ivorian struggle for survival as a people and as a democracy.

Whilst this conflict is primarily political, it is unavoidably splitting the nation along ethnic and religious lines. The future of Cote d'Ivoire and West Africa are seriously at risk. As such, the future of mission in West Africa and the growing Church in Cote d' Ivoire are also seriously threatened.

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IMMIGRATION, DEMOGRAPHICS AND TENSION

The media is using the toxic term "xenophobic" to describe Cote d'Ivoire, a nation that has for decades had a deliberate policy of openness and hospitality towards immigrants.

The recent and present tensions arise from the fact that, in recent years, the rate of immigration has reached critical proportions giving rise to today's situation where Cote d'Ivoire now has a population that is around 40 percent immigrant. This is causing considerable stress to the nation. Land pressure and economic recession have led to tensions and clashes between Ivorians and immigrants, but this has nothing to do with "xenophobia".

The rapid swell in the immigrant population has also created religious tension. Cote d'Ivoire sits atop the African ethnic / religious fault-line. The northern population is predominantly Muslim and the southern population is predominantly and traditionally Christian and animist.

Twenty-seven percent of Ivorians are Muslim, yet when the immigrant population is added in, Islam becomes the majority religion in Cote d'Ivoire as the immigrants have come from the surrounding strongly Islamic nations of Burkina Faso (more than 4 million immigrants), Mali (2 to 3 million), Guinea and Senegal (1 million), Niger, Mauritania and Nigeria (amongst a total population of 15.8 million). (These are approximate and unofficial figures.)

The situation is most marked in central Cote d'Ivoire. For example, the Baule people, who have lived in the region for centuries and are traditionally animist and Christian, now find themselves to be a minority in their homeland, a region that is today reportedly 68 percent Muslim - primarily immigrants.

THE CONTROVERSIAL ELECTORAL CODE

As is well known to observers of religious liberty and Islam, Muslim majorities generally refuse to be governed by non-Muslims. This fact has put the predominantly Christian government of Cote d'Ivoire in a critical position. The government's position was aggravated by the fact that President Bedie (the president of the National Assembly, who came to power in December 1993 after the death of Houphouet-Boigny - president since independence) had become very unpopular with the northern and immigrant Muslim population.

To protect its integrity, the National Assembly passed a controversial electoral code stipulating that presidential candidates be Ivorian born of Ivorian parents (i.e. not recent immigrants).

While this did not exclude Muslims from the presidency, it did however disqualify the Muslim strong-man and favourite, former Prime Minister, Dr. Alassane Ouattara, from contesting the elections, as Ouattara's parents are citizens of Burkina Faso. Regardless of this, the opposition group, "Rassemblement des Republicains" (RDR) named Ouattara as their candidate, setting the stage for a confrontation.

In 1999 a referendum was held regarding the constitutional amendments and election code. The election code was approved by 87.6 percent of voters. Ouattara was therefore banned from contesting the 2000 elections. This resulted in bloody riots and accusations of discrimination and xenophobia. Then in December 1999, General Guei toppled the unpopular Bedie and took power in a bloodless coup.

In October 2000, Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian, was elected President after a popular uprising. In January 2001 there was a failed military coup and in November 2001, President Gbagbo, in his desire to unite the people, initiated a two-month-long National Forum on Reconciliation.

THE SEPTEMBER 2002 COUP ATTEMPT

It had long been suspected that General Guei, who was killed in Abidjan by loyalist forces on 19 September 2002, the first day of the uprising, would attempt another coup.

The rebel soldiers are northern Muslims who are demanding a change of government. They have the support of the northern Muslim population (which is predominantly immigrant). Ouattara has been accused of fanning fear amongst immigrants for political gain. Christians generally are loyal to the government of President Gbagbo. Thus the conflict, while essentially political, is unavoidably splitting the country along ethnic and religious lines.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the former colonial power, France, also has interests in a change of government in Cote d'Ivoire. When he was Prime Minister under President Houphouet-Boigny, Alassane Ouattara permitted Cote d'Ivoire's public services to be freely placed in French hands. France has since run a monopoly on Cote d'Ivoire's water, telecommunications and electricity. France is aware however, that President Gbagbo, a socialist, will not permit that monopoly to be renewed in 2004. Hence France would also like to see a co-operative Ouattara in power.

One Ivorian Christian has described the conflict as, "an Islamic plot, maintained by France and the world press. It is for France to control Ivory Coast market which is so rich and for Muslims to have control of the country."

"SYSTEMATIC KILLINGS"

Some Ivorians responded to the initial uprising by attacking immigrants who they suspected were supporting the rebels. President Gbagbo responded with an urgent plea for calm. "I want to tell Ivorians that the foreigners are not our problem right now. Our fight is a fight to free our country and not to attack foreigners," Mr Gbagbo said. "Do not attack foreigners." (BBC 9 Oct)

Likewise Army spokesman Jules Yao Yao called on citizens to stay out of the conflict, to not take the law into their own hands, so as not to turn it into an ethnic or religious conflict (Reuters 16 Oct).

The flashpoint at present is central Cote d'Ivoire. Reports from Ivorian evangelicals put real flesh on the media reports of killings and terror.

Associated Press 10 October 2002 - "BOUAKE, Ivory Coast -- The killers were young and armed, bearing guns, machetes and clubs. They roamed the streets of Ivory Coast's second city, chasing victims. Some, they burned alive.

"Frightened residents of Bouake - fleeing by the thousands during a lull in fighting that has raged for days - spoke Thursday of how the three-week-old rebellion let loose deadly ethnic rivalries in the this rebel-held, central city of 500,000.

"After a government offensive failed to dislodge the insurgents this week, young ethnic Dioulas armed by the rebels hunted down fleeing members of the government-supported Baule tribe, residents said.

"They chased them through the streets, stealing their belongings and
burning their homes. On Wednesday, Dioula youths raided a Baule
neighbourhood and burned residents there alive."

THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE

One Ivorian Christian writes, 12 October 2002, "Today I speak to you from one of the cities occupied by the rebels (Bouaké) about Dioulas (population of the North and immigrants of Sahelian origin). All Moslems attack and kill the other populations, generally Christian, under the supervision of the rebels.

"In these zones occupied by the rebels, only districts lived in by the Christians and the animists are traumatized and held. Those populations can make nothing. They starve and thirst. While districts lived massively by the Moslems are provided for by the rebels; shops are opened, the population eats, drinks and dances with the rebels. Here is what the world press never reveals. We count on you to make this known to the international community. Please, get in touch with NGO for us."

Another Ivorian Christian writes, 14 October 2002, "The rebels in Bouake have been given strong and popular support from a large part of the migrant populations. Knowing the place and the people, those populations have shown to the rebels every house belonging to opponents of the RDR, members of the Army, Customs and Police etc. Entire families have been slaughtered, and many people burnt alive from the beginning of the rebellion.

"Since the Army's assault (to liberate Bouake) failed (7 Oct), the crimes have increased in number and in horror. Rebels and the RDR supporters are conducting systematic killing of non-Muslims, Christians and supporters of other political parties; all these people had been localized prior for this purpose, long before the rebels came in.

"Far beyond all imagination, rebels are also trying to start to a civil and ethnic war trying to convince every tribe or ethnic or religious group that the others are preparing to kill them in mass; this is done not only in Bouake, but everywhere in the country.

"It is clear as ever that the people who initiated this rebellion are now willing to turn it into a civil ethnic and religious war. It is their clear intention to justify an international intervention in the country and from then, to obtain a new political process and the election of their mentor.

"I believe that the fall of the present government, if it occurs, will lead not only this country, but the entire region of West Africa into endless civil and religious war, and Islam will certainly withdraw the greatest benefit of this."