Two decades ago, Ivory Coast was the archetype for a haven of peace and prosperity in Africa. Now, however, it is a melting pot of tension and turmoil as historical friction between the Muslim north and Christian south reached breaking point during the recent leadership crisis.
The West African country was first recognised as an independent state in 1960, having been a French colony since 1893, and enjoyed a steadier start to life as a sovereign state than many of its African counterparts. Many newly-independent former colonies in Africa flirted unsuccessfully with Marxism, but Ivory Coast’s first president, Felix Houphoeut-Boigny, took a Western-style free market approach, a decision made possible by the country’s lucrative cocoa and coffee export trade.
However, an increasingly large influx of immigrants from poor neighbouring countries like Burkina Faso, underlined already existing economic, ethnic and religious tensions within the nation. As many of the immigrants shared ethnic ties with the northern, Muslim-dominated parts of Ivory Coast, the Christian south began to resent the non-Ivorian section of the population.
Following the recession of the 1980s and a damaging local drought, the country’s external debt tripled, and by the 1990s Ivorian students and civil servants began widespread protests against institutional corruption; since independence, Ivory Coast had been a one-party state under President Houphoeut-Boigny.
The unrest eventually forced the government to relent, and a multi-party democracy was established.
Houphoet-Boigny died in 1993, but not before nominating Henri Konan Bédié as his successor. Bédié was duly elected, and immediately set about abandoning his predecessor's liberal attitude to immigration in favour of a more avowedly nationalist mentality. Many analysts believe that this was used mainly as a tool to undermine opposition leader and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim whose parents originated from Burkina Faso.
Bédié’s government stirred the old embers of tension between the North and the South by closing opportunities for those not considered 'true Ivorians', barring them from many administrative and civil service jobs. These sanctions affected a large proportion of the population, especially in the north, and relationships between Ivory Coast's ethnic groups quickly became increasingly strained.
Following a military coup in 1999, Laurent Gbagbo was elected president in 2000. Once again, Alassane Ouattara — by that time leader of the liberal Rassemblement des Républicains (Rally of the Republicans, or RDR) — was excluded from the race to power by nationality issues, enraging his base of supporters in the north.
The relationship between the north and south was to deteriorate further in 2002 with the outbreak of civil war. While President Gbagbo was abroad on a state visit to Italy, members of the Ivorian armed forces mutinied and launched an armed insurrection, attempting to seize control of several major urban centres. Government forces managed to hold the capital city of Abidjan, but ceded control over much of the north. Former colonial power France mounted a military intervention in an attempt to prevent further rebel gains, and French forces razed the shanty towns where rebel troops were believed to be hiding.
Solomon Diarra is an Ivorian national living in Edinburgh. Speaking to The Journal, he described the experience of family members in Abidjan during the war. “My heart was breaking listening to my mother crying down the phone," he said. "My brother was missing for a week, and the worst was feared. But he was hiding at a friend’s; he was too scared to try and make it home.”
The fighting paused briefly in January 2003 with the conclusion of the Linas-Marcoussis Accord between the Gbagbo government and rebel leaders. The agreement mandated the formation of a new government of national unity and the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping troops to the country, but the new government proved fatally unstable and in late 2004 the peace agreement collapsed.
President Gbagbo’s term of office should have ended in 2005, but civil unrest prompted both the African Union and UN Security council to endorse an extension of his term until elections could safely be held. The elections eventually took place in November 2010, with Allasane Ouattara declared the victor by UN monitors. But President Gbagbo refused to relinquish power, sparking the most recent violence across the country - currently believed to have cost at least 1,500 lives.
Paul Nugent, professor of Comparative African Studies and director of Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh told The Journal that ”Cote d'Ivoire had always been a disaster waiting to happen from the point that Gbagbo cemented his grip on power in the absence of a proper election.”
Prof Nugent pointed out that Gbagbo’s refusal to leave power was a strategic ploy, and that his only chance to retain power was to force a crisis which might lead to the formation of a second government of national unity. However, he said, Ouattara “has been waiting for the chance to become president for many years, and this was his moment. That meant that a standoff was inevitable.
“If sufficient international pressure had been applied in the week after the polls, Gbagbo might have gone peacefully, but when ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] dithered over the decision to use force, Gbagbo read that as a lack of resolve and dug in."
Mr Diarra expressed hopes of a brighter future for his home country, saying:“I think Ouattara can make things alright. Maybe he can get everybody to think about what a true Ivorian is not by where their parents were born, but what they do for the country.”
Prof Nugent was, however, more pragmatic in his assessment of the future of a formerly prosperous African state. “Ouattara is no angel," he said, noting that the north/south divide is often more a matter of self-identification than strict geography, "and it remains to be seen whether he possesses the statesmanship to win over people who perceive themselves as 'southerners'.
“How he deals with Gbagbo will set the tone for the rest of his presidency. Within the sub-region, he can count on considerable goodwill and support for reconciliation. If he bungles the moment, and is seen to be vindictive, he will merely set things up for the next round of conflict.”