Ivory Coast at the threshold of a civil war?

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Tuesday, demonstrators burned down the prefecture of Vavoua, a town in central Côte d’Ivoire, to protest against attempts by the Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien, FPI), President Laurent Gbagbo’s party, to tamper with the country’s voters’ list. This incident, as well as several others that have taken place in other parts of Côte d’Ivoire, is not an isolated case. Sidiki Konate, spokesman of the Forces Nouvelles, says the situation is alarming. He evokes “the seeds of a civil war.”

Tensions are rising in Côte d’Ivoire. Thousands of protestors Tuesday torched the prefecture of Vavoua, a town situated in the country’s middlebelt, an area still under the administration of former Forces Nouvelle rebels. The protestors also tried to set fire to the town hall, but were held back by an intervention from local security forces, who fired live bullets into the air to disperse them.

The rioters were protesting against the summoning of 333 persons — accused by the FPI for fraudulent practices in connection with the area’s voters’ list — to the Daloa (a neighboring town) tribunal. According to Moussa Kone, president of the local opposition youth party, Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR), the building was troched by “infiltrators from the sub-prefecture itself to sabotage (the) demonstration”.

“Another Rwanda in the making in the Ivory Coast

Last week, several similar incidents occurred in a number of cities, including Divo, Katiola and Man. In a seizure of jurisdiction by supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, the courts of the affected areas had ordered the removal from the electoral list, basing their arguments on nationality and fraud, mainly, people from the northern part of the country.

The spokesperson of the Forces Nouvelles, Sidiki Konate, finds this situation particularly worrying. He fears that “a Rwanda is in the making in the Ivory Coast.” “There is a real danger to the peaceful coexistence of communities who now glare at each other with hostility, ready to pounce at any given moment. These are the seeds of a civil war. Everyone is sharpening their blades; machetes, knives,” Sidiki Konate said Monday, after a Forces Nouvelles conclave that took place in their stronghold in Bouake, a major city that lies in the country’s middlebelt.

“The abusive accusations” and “instrumentalization of village chiefs” by members of the FPI to obtain the names of alleged “non-Ivorians” have created an atmosphere of “suspicion… among the communities… We must draw the attention of every single person, as well as our social partners, both at the national and international levels, to this danger,” Sidiki Konate argues.

The painful question of being Ivorité

Last week, the UN appealed for calm after a wave of incidents had swept the country. According to some observers, the removal of names from the voters’ list could be a way for the political power to indefinitely postpone the pending polls, scheduled for March 2010.

Apart from accusing the FPI of seizing the courts for an “illegal, partisan and arbitrary removal of names,” the opposition says it fears a repetition of the 2002 politico-military crisis. Meanwhile, Laurent Gbagbo, has been warned that playing the “Ivoirité” card is tantamount to hoisting the red flag.

History of Ivoirité

The term Ivoirité (Ivoirity) was first used by former Ivorian President Henri Konan Bédié in 1995, to seemingly bolster “cultural identity” and highlight the common cultural identity of all those living in the Ivory Coast. Foreigners represented one third of the population.

The word Ivoirité was, however, corrupted ahead of the 2000 general elections when it was coined into a policy that distinguished ‘real Ivorians’ from ‘second-class’ citizens who comprised mostly of internal and external economic immigrants.

Used as a means of political exclusion, the new definition of Ivoirité was instrumental in the disqualification of Alassane Ouattara, a northern presidential candidate representing the predominantly Muslim north; an area which is often linked with poor immigrant workers from Mali and Burkina Faso employed on large coffee and cocoa farms. The policy was one of the major reasons behind an internal politico-military clout in a once stable and rich west African country.

Although he has distanced himself from the present definition of Ivoirité, Mr. Bedie has not been able to entirely rid himself of criticisms pointing that he had used the concept to frustrate political challenge from Ouattarra. One of the demands of the Ivoirité policy was that both parents of a presidential candidate should be Ivorian. It was believed that Alassane Ouattarra’s parents were from Burkina Faso.

Rivalry between Messrs Bedie and Ouattarra reached its peak in 1993. Bedie, who was the President of the National Assembly, and Ouattarra, the Prime Minister, had briefly fought to take control of the country upon the death of long-time President Félix Houphouët-Boigny that year. Bedie succeeded in his bid. Ouattarra risigned.

The policy of Ivoirité has since been described as blighted, xenophobic and divisive.

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