Thursday, April 07, 2011

How migration contributed to the meltdown in Côte d'Ivoire

The civil war in the West African country of Côte d'Ivoire is entering its final stages (I hope).

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara laid siege to incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo's residence on Thursday, after an attempt to pluck him from his bunker met with fierce resistance.

Fighting continued in the economic capital Abidjan as Ouattara's forces tried to unseat Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power after losing a November election to Ouattara according to U.N.-certified results.

Sporadic explosions broke the silence in one of the lighter nights of fighting since Ouattara's soldiers arrived in the city a week ago, a Reuters witness said.

A Gbagbo advisor based in Paris told Reuters Ouattara forces had renewed an assault on Gbagbo's residence late on Wednesday with support from U.N. and French helicopters. His statement could not be independently verified.

Ouattara forces had attempted to storm the residence in the upscale Cocody neighborhood earlier on Wednesday after talks led by the United Nations and France to secure Gbagbo's departure failed, but they were pushed back by heavy weapons fire, a western diplomatic source who lives nearby said.

[. . .]

Analysts said Ouattara forces, who swept south last week in a lightly contested march toward Abidjan, could struggle to best Gbagbo's remaining presidential guard and militias.

"Just like in Libya, it's going to take both the rebels and outside forces to push Gbagbo out," said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, analyst at DaMina Advisors in New York.

This conflict has its roots in the country's demographics, particularly in its immigrant population. Landinfo's Geir Skogseth has a extensive chronology of the crisis and its background. The migration from the Sahel to the West African coast that I blogged about back in June 2006 was one of the most important theme in Ivoirien demographic change.

During the French colonisation, new migration patterns evolved due to the economic development of the southern part of the country. This led to two main migration flows:

1. Urbanisation and rapid population growth in Abidjan fed by extensive migration from the whole country (as well as neighbouring countries – especially Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea). Thus, Abidjan has grown from a tiny village to a city of more than three million in less than a century.

2. Expansion of the plantation economy in the south-western part of Côte d’Ivoire
led to the movement of large numbers of farmers from the north and southeastern
regions (as well as the neighbouring countries mentioned above –
especially Burkina Faso).

As is common all over Africa, several ethnic groups live across borders, and may be known under different names in different countries. For example, the Guéré/Wè are known as Krahn in Liberia, and the Yacouba/Dan are known as Gio.

The migrants going to Abidjan mainly work in commerce, transport, industry and as
artisans, whereas the migrants moving to the southwest mainly work in agriculture –
either as farmers or working on plantations. Most migrants from outside today’s Côte
d’Ivoire came from neighbouring French colonies – Burkina Faso was even
administered together with Côte d’Ivoire as a single entity. Comparatively few
migrants came from Liberia (independent in principle, but under strong American
influence) or from the British colony Gold Coast (Ghana since independence). The
migration to Côte d’Ivoire from other French colonies was encouraged by the French
authorities, and this policy was continued by president Houphouët-Boigny after

People with Kwa origin, especially Baoulé, were given preference in the colonial
administration, the bureaucracy and in the plantation economy, and this situation
continued after independence. A smaller migration flow in numbers, but with great
political importance, consisted of educated Baoulé and other southerners who moved
from the southeast to other parts of the country to take up administrative posts – in
the educational system, as civil servants and as administrative staff on plantations.

As mentioned above, the migration from outside Côte d’Ivoire has been substantial,
and roughly a quarter of the population of Côte d’Ivoire are people with origin in
neighbouring countries. Relatively few of these migrants have been naturalised, not
the least since this generally was a non-issue until the end of the 1980s. Only then
did a serious debate evolve on whether there should be a difference in rights between
Ivorian citizens and others living in the country. During the colonial period and the
single-party system under president Houphouët-Boigny, there was no difference in
rights to speak of between Ivorian citizens and immigrants, accordingly immigrants
had little incentive to apply for naturalisation, and very few did.

Sadly for Côte d'Ivoire, the strong post-independence economic growth that attracted these millions of migrants disappeared by the 1980s, and in the democratic transition following the death of Houphouët-Boigny, ethnic nationalism via the concept of Ivoirité took hold.

One key to exacerbating ethnic divisions here is the concept of Ivoirité, which means the state of being a true Ivorian. The term manifests itself throughout all levels of society, and is held up by many observers as a root cause of the country's violent downward spiral from its status throughout the 1970s and '80s as the most prosperous, stable country in volatile West Africa.

Many residents from the government- controlled southern part of country say those from the rebel-held north (often identifiable by their names) are not true Ivorians because many have lineage originating in poorer, neighboring countries such as Mali or Burkina Faso. Some southerners also resent that their northern neighbors support northern political figures.

[. . .]

The Ivoirité concept emerged here in the 1970s when many nationals from neighboring countries flooded into southern Ivory Coast to work the manual labor jobs in the coffee and cocoa sectors. Many Ivorians became resentful, feeling the newcomers were coming to take advantage of the financial boom the country was experiencing.

In the 1990s, former President Henri Konan Bédié brought the term to the national stage when he used Ivoirité to gain an advantage over former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara in the 1995 presidential election. He accused Mr. Ouattara, who is from the north, of not being 100-percent Ivorian.

Benoit Scheuer, a Belgian sociologist who made a documentary film called "Ivory Coast: The Identity Powder Keg" in 2001 in which he filmed acts of vandalism and physical violence stemming from Ivoirité, says it was the intellectuals around Mr. Bédié who brought Ivoirité back to into the picture. Mr. Scheuer compares Ivoirité to exclusionary tactics used in other conflicts such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The country, he writes in an e-mail interview, has a "political elite that wants power or is in power but has a legitimacy problem (this was the case of [former President] Habyarimana in Rwanda and Bédié in Ivory Coast). In these cases, the elites are going to manipulate the spirit and the mentality [of the citizens] and are going to develop a discourse, a rhetoric of 'them and us.' "

The only virtue that this conflict has is that if Gbagbo is decisively defeated, Côte d'Ivoire might be able to move beyond its sterile north-south conflict and evolve in a positive direction. This, alas, might be a lost cause, with Ivoirité having caught on. In the meantime, as the Inter Press Service's Fulgence Zamblé noted, the Côte d'Ivoire that was once a magnet for migrants from across West Africa has now become a major contributor to refugee flows within West Africa.

As many as a million people have fled Côte d'Ivoire's commercial capital, Abidjan, due to intensified fighting. Many people are fleeing to areas in the north, centre and east of the country as thousands of youth answered a call to join forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo; others are trying to leave the country.

Saturday saw a rally of up to 15,000 youth supporters of Gbagbo outside the presidential palace in Abidjan, but the exodus from the city began accelerating following a mortar attack on a market in the northern suburb of Abobo on Mar. 18, which killed 30 people,and wounded 60 more.

UNOCI, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Côte d'Ivoire, said the shelling of the market was carried out by soldiers loyal to Gbagbo, who has refused to concede that his rival, Alassane Ouattara, was the winner of presidential elections last November.

The death toll since mid-December is put at 462 by the United Nations, rising quickly as Gbagbo supporters and loyalist soldiers fight their way into areas of the city identified as Ouattara strongholds.

An estimated 100,000 people have sought refuge in camps and villages in Côte d'Ivoire's neighbour to the west, Liberia. The deteriorating situation will likely also see an increase in refugees fleeing east, across the border into Ghana.

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