The Puzzle of National Identity 8


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.


8 thoughts on “The Puzzle of National Identity

  • Clarq

    It is a huge curse to discover that you're living above a large reservior of oil, mitigated only slightly if your country has serious means of defence.

    So what is a "significant" quantity of oil? The figure I've found for Ghana is 1.9 billion "barrels" (stupid unit). That's about as much as the world consumes each month. It will yield about twice as much energy as all the plants on Earth capture from the Sun every 24 hours. Even if I'm wrong by a factor if ten, it's not much better. On such trifles are so many lives ruined.

  • Christine

    I have been waiting to read your take on the Ivory Coast situation. I am so pleased that you are back on-line.

  • Vronksy

    Word is spreading. Shopping in Glasgow today I struck up a conversation with a pretty counter assistant. She is a marketing student, aiming for career in PR, preferably in the oil industry. Ghana is the next big thing, she tells me. But she also fancies the arms business, and is learning Arabic. She tells me that she will never marry – independence too important. Kids today, honestly.

  • Ruth

    Here's the content of an email I've just sent to my MP:

    I would be most grateful if you could inform me as to whether the 'diplomatic' mission of the SAS plus diplomat captured carrying ammunition, explosives, maps and fake passports was in reality a covert operation to blow up the arms depot at Rajma.

    Moreover, is it the aim of the UK and its partners to weaken the rebels so that the UK and its partners will be called in to assist the rebels leading to the UK and US controlling Libya's oil and gas industry as has happened in Iraq.

  • Duncan_McFarlan

    You probably know a lot more about Cote D'Ivoire than i do Craig, but from the little i know from books and the internet i completely agree with you. I already knew Ouattara was a former IMF official and the wikipedia entry for him says he was PM under Houphouet-Boigny (who was pretty much a dictator), so i already suspected the backing for him from the "international community" (read the US government and governments allied to it) was based on the interests of western firms and not any concern for democracy. I didn't know he was in with French oil companies or about the African governments backing Gbagbo.

  • Japuonj

    Comment One

    A good take on Ivory Coast. I disagree about the colonial boundaries excuse, which I think is an over-used ruse by African dictstors to keep the boot firmly on the citizenry's neck. The fact that people in most African countries can speak their own languages and at least one European language should now be effectively utilised as a plus in the global economic environment.
    As an African, and having seen how frustrating it is to vote out corrupt dictators and then see them clinging to power, I find Gbagbo's action deplorable and plain annoying.

  • Japuonj

    Comment TWO

    Have you ever considered that:
    -Gbagbo has consistently postponed the elections that were due to be held in 2005 citing one excuse or another, including the threat of inducing another outbreak of violence. Gbagbo knew he was going to lose on a fair elections. His campaign slogan was 'we win or we win' that doesnt sound like a man ready to cede power.
    -The western liberal suspicions about Ouattara's past link with IMF and how that might affect his perfomance is plain patronising to Africans all over who just want free and fair elections in the hope that their votes would count .
    – Craig, African nations are coming to an age where they have been independent for about the same number of years that they were colonised (50-50) and as a generation of African born after independence, I have seen enough dictatorship, corruption, incompetency, excuse after excuse for failure THEREFORE while I deplore colonialism and what it stood for, I am also aware of who I need to blame NOW. Gbagbo lost in Ivory Coast, Kibaki lost in Kenya, Mugabe lost in Zimbabwe and they should have left power.

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