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Ivorian identity a lost issue on the campaign trail

The candidates in Ivory Coast's long-awaited presidential election have steered clear of the question of Ivorian identity, a deeply divisive issue that once drove the country to civil war.


It was a lethally controversial issue that plagued Ivory Coast for decades, fracturing the once most stable, prosperous West African nation and sending it into economic decline and political instability. But the once hot potato issue of identity appears to be a thing of the past these days, with none of 2010 presidential candidates daring to utter the word on the campaign trail.

“It’s a strange absence,” mulls Thiémélé Ramses Boa from the University of Cocody-Abidjan, referring to the sudden distrust of a concept that once dominated the Ivorian political discourse.

Appearing on the political scene during the 1990s, the issue of identity – or “Ivorianness” – gained steam with a rising tide of nationalism that sparked the 2002-2003 rebellion against President Laurent Gbagbo.

Populist politicians stoked the issue of “Ivorianness,” pitting southerners against the “foreigners” from the north. While some northerners were children of immigrants from neighboring countries who were attracted by the cocoa-fuelled Ivorian economic miracle, others were just northern Ivorian with foreign-sounding names.  

Driven by the row over who could claim Ivorian citizenship, the civil war resulted in the breakup of the once famously multicultural West African nation into the government-run south and the rebel-run north.

A unifying concept that fractured the nation

The notion of “Ivorianness” has long been a source of tension between communities, one that the founder of the nation, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, always warned against.

According to Ramses Boa, “Ivorianness” was initially meant to be a unifying concept. “The word and idea was born in the 1970s. At that time, the founder of the concept, Niangoranh Porquet, wanted to synthesize the various cultural elements in the country,” says Ramses Boa.

After Houphouet-Boigny’s death in 1993, President Henri Konan Bedie appropriated the concept in an effort to unite a country struggling to come to terms with the loss of its founding father.

Addressing his supporters in the Ivorian capital of Yamoussoukro in 1995, the new head of state famously declared: “What we pursue is obviously an affirmation of our cultural personality, the self-actualisation of the Ivorian man that makes him specifically 'Ivorian'.”

The nationalist beast was born.

The identity issue was introduced into the political discourse in an attempt to address the malaise confronting the nation. But it was soon used to justify the administrative harassment of northerners, the "aliens", or immigrant workers from neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Togo who migrated to Ivory Coast to participate in the "Ivorian miracle" of 1970-1980.

For Bedie, it was also a political tool to contain the presidential ambitions of his rival, Alassane Ouattara, from the north. In 1995 and 2000, Ouattara, a former prime minister, was barred from running for president on the grounds of his "dubious nationality".

By 2002, Ivorian chauvinism had reached new heights, prompting a backlash from northern insurgents. “Many former rebels now say they were deeply affected by the divisive issue and it was this frustration that prompted some to take up arms,” says Ramses Boa.

Eight years later, it seems that the lessons of the past have been learned and Ivorians are loath to jeopardize the fragile stability of Ivory Coast.

Bedie faces Gbagbo and Ouattara in the 2010 presidential poll. None of the three seasoned Ivorian politicians have played up the identity card on the campaign trail.

Tantamount to political suicide

In February 2010, while preparing the electoral lists, Gbagbo ordered the cancellation of many voters suspected of being foreigners. According to him, nearly 430,000 people of “doubtful” origins were included in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) list. The blacklisting triggered a wave of violence that was only quelled when Prime Minister Guillaume Soro intervened to put an end to the stripping of names from voter lists.

A northerner, Soro led the rebel MPCI (Patriotic Movement of Côte d'Ivoire) in the September 2002 rebellion against Gbagbo’s government. Following a peace agreement in 2007, Soro was appointed the country’s prime minister.

Despite recent turmoil, “the theme of ‘Ivorianness’ appears to have run its course and is not as controversial as it used to be,” says Florent Geel, head of the Africa section of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

“After the first round, candidates might be tempted to revive the nationalist position to win an electorate. But reading the Ivorian political game has become much more complex,” he said. “The ethno-political dividing lines between Gbagbo in the west, Bedie in the south-east and Ouattara in the north are false. The dispersion of (ethnic) votes (across the country) is expected to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control.”

But the most important deterrent, according Geel, is that no candidate wants to be accused of launching the crisis that plunges Ivory Coast into another conflict. This, says Geel, would be tantamount to political suicide.

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