Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) may no longer be physically divided, but the scars of its long conflict will linger for years to come. Even if public administration has returned to the north, cocoa producers need no longer export via neighboring countries, and the financial system has been restored, fear still stalks the countryside. Violence persists. Drivers need to avoid troubled areas. And a focus on prosecution of the losers instead of reconciliation ensures that resentment will continue to fester.
Although it was once West Africa’s best run country, Côte d’Ivoire has long suffered from deep ethnic and geographical inequities that made conflict much more likely. As the following maps show, these inequities can be traced back to colonial times, and to the policies followed by successive governments since independence. Unbalanced development is a recipe for trouble in countries divided into a number of large ethnic groups.
Before the establishment of French power in the late 19th century, the region had many different states and peoples. The northern states—although not all of the northern peoples—were Muslim, closely linked to Islamic trade networks and scholarly circles based in the Sahel and stretching across the Sahara. The southeastern kingdoms, by contrast, were animist in religion, and much closer links to European merchants.
French authority rearranged the power dynamics of the entire region, enhancing the significance of the southeast while undermining that of the north. It also cut through the territories of indigenous states and ethnic groups all along the borders of the newly created Côte d’Ivoire (as almost all colonial regimes in Africa did).
Such policies enhanced the positions of Kwa-speaking peoples of the southeast. With independence in 1960, the Baoulé people of the center (Félix Houphouët-Boigny was a Baoulé) came to play a predominant role in politics, with the greater southeast retaining economic primacy. The north (and to a lesser extent the southwest) remained marginalized.
These inequities overlap to a certain extent with religious differences. The north is mainly Muslim. The south has become mainly Christian (the world’s largest church is in Côte d’Ivoire). But ethnicity remains much more important.
The concentration of investment, jobs, and wealth in the southern regions, especially around Abidjan, exacerbated socioeconomic disparities. In 1974, for instance, the income per capita of the four northern departments was significantly below Côte d’Ivoire’s national average and 65-80 percent lower than that of the richest department (Abidjan). In 1985, well over half of the country’s poorest 10% were in the Savannah (northern) region even though it contained less than one-fifth of the population. While Kwa and Southern Mande were proportionally less than half as likely to be impoverished than average, Northern Mande were twice and the Gur three times as likely.
When competition for power between ethnic groups eventually spilled out into open conflict, it roughly followed the divisions that were put into play generations before. The country was divided into two from 2002 until 2011.
The violence that has repeatedly erupted roughly follows a east-west line across the country not unlike where the long-standing education and economic advantages of the south end. Compare these maps with those above.
As this map (courtesy of Geocurrents and World Elections) shows, three of the top four vote getters in the first round of the 2010 elections fully dominated the results in their own ethnic homelands. Meanwhile, Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent (who is now awaiting trail in the Hague), crushed all other candidates across most of the southeast, the economic heartland of Ivory Coast as well as its most Christian region. He also did extremely well in some of the non-Muslim Mande areas of the west. This reflects an incredible low level of national cohesion. People identify with their own ethnic group and not the country.
In the second round, Gbagbo again was victorious across the south. Alassane Ouattara, the eventual victor, triumphed in the north, and won the critical central Baoulé region because its candidate, former president Henri Konan Bédié, eventually supported him.
As this analysis should show, the conflict is much more complicated than typically depicted. Ethnicity plays a much larger role, as it does in most African conflicts (and elections). Religion mattered, but more at the margins, as a reinforcing element overlaying existing fault lines.
The election was not fought over policies or programs, but over which group would gain access to the spoils. The winner thus has much less freedom to maneuver than he might like. He has to placate his supporters even if they are implicated in violence or if they take advantage of the system to the detriment of the country. And although the losers have much blood on their hands, they are not as evil as sometimes made out to be. They governed narrowly, and excluded large portions of the population. But they followed the logic of ethnic politics correctly. The fact that this logic is bad for the country–and encouraged some pretty bad behavior–is unfortunate.
It will require much nation building and reform of the way leaders are chosen and power is distributed to ensure that Côte d’Ivoire has no more Gbagbos.
It will also require a rethinking of the role of regionalism in West Africa. As this last map indicates, the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire is but one of many conflicts that have plagued the region for decades.
Many small, fragile states situated side by side makes each country’s problems that much harder to solve. Wars spill over borders. Business climates are bad–and hard to improve when isolated, far from any dynamic economy. Problems with corruption, drug trafficking, and other illicit activities are hard to cordon off. Ethnic conflict can infect one country after another. Inward migration can upset delicate sociopolitical balances. Better to try to build something that can help all these countries simultaneously, as I discuss in this article in the Washington Quarterly.