Daily archives: March 6, 2011

The Puzzle of National Identity

Ivory Coast, like its neighbour Ghana, has recently discovered significant volumes of deepwater oil which is just coming in to commercial exploitation. That does much to explain the unusually hight degree of Western interest in its electoral standoff, and particularly the strenuous French support for President-elect Alassane Ouattara, who is close to French oil interests.

Unfortunately an apparently united international community and strenuous economic sanctions have done nothing to move Mr Ouattara closer to power, and he remains a virtual prisoner in a 5 star hotel, protected by concentric rings of UN APCs. The large majority of the population of the capital, Abidjan, would string Mr Ouattara up given half the chance. The distinct “incomer” districts where Ouattara’s Abidjan supporters live have been pillaged and terrorised by supporters, of Laurent Gbagbo including the army and police. At least thirty Ouattara supporters have been killed this weekend already, as Ivory Coast threatens to plunge back into civil war.

Like most West African states, Ivory Coast has a sharp cultural split between Northerners and Southerners. Meet any Gbagbo supporter and they will immediately tell you that Ouattara is not really an Ivorien at all, but rather from Burkina Faso or Mali.

The root cause of the conflict is the nonsensical colonial boundaries drawn up between the British, French and the US sponsors of Liberia. Again like West Africa in general, the boundaries bear no reference to tribal, cultural, economic or social divisions, other than those since inculcated artificially by the existence of the boundaries themselves. Cultural identities, tribal and chieftaincy loyalties have no relation to these boundaries – and divisions within the artificial nation are potent and dangerous.

Yet is is also true that new national identities do take hold to an extraordinary degree. Cross the border from Ghana and you instantly see a completely different world – Gitanes, scooters, everybody speaking French. Football matches are a vital component of national pride, and the Ivory Coast team is supported enthusiastically by Northerner and Southerner alike. Yet individual national identities are blurred where the border has no tribal meaning.

Artifical borders are not the only unfortunate colonial legacy in Ivory Coast. To a large extent traditional landholding systems were overturned and replaced with large plantations, that made Ivory Coast the world’s largest producer of cocoa. But it also brought landlessness, rural poverty, urban drift and the use of child labour on plantations. Given existing ethnic tensions and this weak social structure, increasing migration from drought affected Mali and Burkina Faso helped create the current tinderbox.

Nor is the international community as united behind Ouatarra as the endorsement of the EU, Ecowas and African Union would appear to suggest. Gbagbo has strong support, including practical covert assistance, from Ghana, where the NDC government views him as an important ideological ally. More crucially still, Gbagbo enjoys strong personal support from Jacob Zuma, who detests Ouattara and views him as a colonial puppet. The Chinese hope that if Gbagbo can be kept in power, the west will be punished and they rewarded with oil contracts. And the electoral situation was not as clear as it seems; the electoral commission and the constitutional court declared different victors, free and fair polling was not really possible in either the North or the South as supporters of both candidates terrorised the minority in the areas they respectfully control. There is also the great unsaid, but which everybody who knows Ivory Coast understands; there are a great many more voters on the register in the north than there are actual people living there.

All of which makes it quite remarkable that Ouatarra received so much international endorsement in the first place. They keys to this are strong and very active personal support from Sarkozy, and the firm backing of Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mali.

All the signs are that this protracted standoff is going to decline into something much more violent. Neither “President” is interested in compromise. Ouattara is notably vainglorious, while Gbagbo is something of a thug. The Ivory Coast needs to be shot of both of them and to discover younger leaders and a politics that unites its people, rather than serves the interests of opposing northern and southern elites.

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