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Disparate Interpretations—and Misinterpretations—of the Conflict in Ivory Coast

Submitted by on April 25, 2011 – 12:32 am 5 Comments |  
Map of the Division of Ivory Coast in 2007Understandings of the recent conflict in Ivory Coast (officially, Republic of Côte d’Ivoire) vary significantly among different sectors of the news media. Mainstream sources in the United States often mention the Ivorian Civil War of 2002-07 that effectively divided the country in two (see map), but they focus primarily on the presidential election of 2010, which the defeated incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to honor. The framework applied is generally one of political obstruction and transformation, with Gbagbo representing the old order of unaccountable African strongmen, and election-winner Alassane Ouattara depicted as upholding democratic rule and responsible governance. In this reading, honoring the verdict of the Ivorian people required the military intervention of France, with the approval of the United Nations. Reports from the African press, however, present a much less sympathetic picture of Western military involvement. As detailed in a recent Le Monde article (translated and reprinted in The Guardian), journalists in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal welcomed the downfall of Gbagbo but not the foreign intervention that ended his rule. Ghanaian and Cameroonian newspapers, on the other hand, more often denounced the regime change as a French neo-imperial power-grab, stressing the atrocities allegedly committed by Ouattara’s forces. Ghanaian reportage can indeed be harsh, as demonstrated in a recent GhanaWeb post—which may set a record for the most lavish use of exclamation marks in an article:

Right now, the elected president according to Ivorian law has been kidnapped by the French and Ouattara’s men and, there is no outrage! No pride! Very few men of integrity who have spoken out!! All of this while in essence a precedent has been set which states that in Africa our laws don’t matter! Our constitutions are toilet paper, and if the west does not back who wins their UN neocolonial army will bomb you out of power!!!!

Despite differing interpretations, the mainstream media, whether in the United States or Africa, tend to frame the conflict as one of national party politics and international geopolitical maneuvering, downplaying ethnic and religious dimensions. Religion, however, is emphasized in certain highly partisan segments of the media, which see the contest as one between Christianity (Gbagbo) and Islam (Ouattara). Here France again gets singled out for censure, though for opposite reasons in different quarters. Muslim reporters have long castigated France for supporting Ivorian Christians while thwarting its Muslim population; today’s anti-Islamic websites denounce France for supporting Ivorian Muslims and thwarting its Christian population.

A 2000 Islam for Today article lays out the former perspective most explicitly. According to its author, Muslims constitute sixty percent of the Ivorian population, yet have been systematically excluded from the government. Instead, up to the turn of the millennium, “power has rotated among the Christian Baoule people of central and eastern Ivory Coast, who account for about 22% of the 16 million citizens…” France, the author contends, was largely to blame: “The Islam-phobic French empowered the mainly Christian Baoule at the cost of the Muslim majority. Today, the country’s Muslims are determined to reclaim their due.”

Anti-Muslim websites dispute the direction of French favoritism, while agreeing about Muslim designs and French perfidy. A recent posting in the hard-right website Atlas Shrugs claims, “We are witnessing an Islamic takeover of the Ivory Coast. And the French (and the UN, US, and Europe) are helping them. Sick.” The post further contends that Ivory Coast is “about to toggle” from being a Christian-majority country to a Muslim-majority country, largely because of unrestrained, illegal immigration from Muslim lands to the north. Such commentators often denounce the close personal ties between the French political elite and both Ouattara and his Algerian-born French wife, Dominique Folloroux-Ouattara—although rumors that Nicolas Sarkozy himself presided over the couple’s wedding are apparently not true.

As the disparate figures used in these articles indicate, the religious demography of Ivory Coast is highly debatable. Overall, the entire conflict is much more complex than is indicated by most recent media reports. Religion does play a role, but so do a number of other factors. GeoCurrents will thus delve into the Ivorian situation over the next week, examining maps of ethnic identity, religious adherence, electoral returns, and migration flows in hopes of bringing some clarity to an intricate, murky, and important situation.

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  • Hello Martin,

    I logged on during my lunch break today with the thought of trying to catch up with you, and stumbled upon (a) your faschinating blog, and (b) this very interesting posting. Having spent the better part of a year (2001) in Mali and in Ivory Coast researching the phenomenon of labor migration between the two countries, I have followed recent events with keen interest.

    Despite my time in Mali and Ivory Coast having been over a decade ago, the fault lines that exploded into conflict during the past few months were almost identical then–same issues, even the same cast of characters.

    The religious differences between North and South are real, but Painting this as a religious conflict is far too simplistic. After all, the largest source of migrants into Ivory Coast (at least the last time I looked at the issue closely) was Burkina Faso, where only fifty percent of the population is Muslim. The fault lines are primarily ethnic. There is indeed a history of social exclusion whereby those whose ethnic origins are in northern Ivory Coast or in neighboring countries to the north have been treated as “second-class Ivorians.”

    At the risk of overgeneralizing, my impression was, and is, that many in the Ivorian political class with “southern” roots see it as their god-given right to control the state–and the pecuniary benefits that come with power. And these people fought for the better part of two decades to keep Ouattara out of power because they saw his rise, correctly, as an existential threat to this social and economic order.

    But–in a refreshing departure from so much of Africa’s recent history–it seems to me that Ouattara is genuine in wanting to usher in a new era of transparency. I do not think he is interested in transferring the spoils of power to ethnic northerners; I think he wants to create a successful modern state. It will be very interesting to see if those who helped elevate him to power will support his doing that or will stand in his way.

  • Thanks, Matthew, for the perceptive comments. I agree that the fault lines are primarily ethnic; my next post will look at the very complicated geography of religion in Ivory Coast, and the one after that will examine ethnicity, comparing maps of ethnic groups with those of electoral returns. The correlations here are close. Then I will take on migration, both internal and from other countries, particularly Burkina Faso. As you well know, immigration from Burkina Faso has been one of the biggest issues in Ivory Coast over the past several decades. Most sources say that 70-80% of these Burkinabe immigrants are Muslim, but I wonder how accurate that figure is — as you say, roughly half of Burkina Faso’s people are non-Muslim. What often happens in situations like this is that someone comes up with a number, perhaps just by making it up, and other simply follow suit. At any rate, I hope that you can continue commenting on the forthcoming Ivory Coast posts.

  • Indeed, an interesting post. However, while I will not go as far as calling African constitutions toilet paper, the direct role played by the French in removing Gbagbo is a rather deplorable turn. Such incidents create the opportunity for regional organizations including ECOWAS and the African Union to assert their authority, to act decisively. Indeed, a modern-day precedent has been set, where, like enforced power-sharing before it, foreign powers have imposed a new paradigm for governmental evolution in African countries. Perhaps a much more salubrious approach would involve capacity-building assistance for regional organizations to solve problems in their own backyards, rather than resort to actions that reignite the neocolonialism debate, especially in this period where such debate detracts from more beneficial ones not least on proactively-generated political and development by African countries.

  • Eugene makes an important point about the setting of a precedent here, which is indeed a major concern to many people in this part of the world. Note that Eugene is the author of “Religiously Remapped,” a cartographic exploration of religion in Africa, previously referenced in GeoCurrents (

  • Jim Wilson

    While one might hope that ECOWAS would get itself together enough to support the enforcement of elections in the Ivory Coast, would we really want the African Union intervening anywhere? Any organization President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea as chairman seems a pretty unlikely guardian of democracy.