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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Hate politics in Ivory Coast
Political tension led to unprecendented ethnic violence last year
By BBC West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle in Abidjan

In January this year Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade created a diplomatic storm when he said: "These days in Ivory Coast, citizens of Burkina Faso are treated worse than black people in Europe."

Mr Wade had broken an African taboo. It is rare for leaders here to speak ill of "brother" governments, still less to compare them unfavourably to Europeans.

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo
Gbagbo has used ethnic tension for politcal gain

His remarks met with noisy protests outside his country's consulate in Abidjan.

The Senegalese Government had to apologise to Ivory Coast for what they called a 'misunderstanding'.

In fact Abdoulaye Wade was, in his characteristically frank manner, addressing a problem of mounting concern in West Africa - xenophobia.

Regional implications

He was was referring to the difficulties that citizens of Burkina Faso have experienced in Ivory Coast in the last few years.

Difficulties that have deepened as an internal Ivorian political row has taken on major regional implications.

In recent years Burkinabes have been targeted by racketeering Ivorian police and army road blocks.

They have been arrested on flimsy charges and forced to pay bribes. Some were chased away from land they have worked for generations.

Many thousands have left for their much poorer, but at least welcoming, semi-desert homeland.


The Burkinabe of Ivory Coast, who number several million, are caught up in a political row centring on the contested nationality of the Ivorian opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara.

Alassane Ouattara
Ex-PM Alassane Ouattara is branded a foreigner

Mr Ouattara says he is Ivorian. But his opponents, including Ivorian leader, Laurent Gbagbo, have said that he is Burkinabe.This issue prevented him constesting for the presidency.

But in the Ivory Coast context, the sidelining of Mr Ouattara, currently in exile in France, has a much wider impact than just on the political career of one man.

Mr Ouattara's party says his exclusion from the presidential race was in fact a tactic for alienating a broad group of people.

This group, they say includes, Ivorian muslims and immigrants from the mainly muslim Sahelian countries to the north who have tradtional made it their home.


The millions of Burkinabes, Malians and Guineans say they feel the attacks on Ouattara as if they were xenophobic attacks on themselves.

Ivorians on the other side of the debate, mainly southerners, throw their hands up in exasperation.

They wonder how they can possibly be accused of xenophobia when at least a quarter of the population of Ivory Coast are foreign nationals.

These Ivorians point to other countries and wonder whether they would accept "foreigners" as their leaders.

"Would the average voter in Britain want a Prime Ministerial candidate from Germany or France?" one Ivorian asked me.

Cocoa plantations

The late President Felix Houphouet-Boigny's 'Open Door' policy for immigrants, has also contriButed to the millions of foreigners who have settled here, many working on the huge tropical fruit and cocoa plantations.

Some of these foreigners are vulnerable to police rackets because they are, strictly speaking, illegal residents.

No poor African will pay the 15,000 CFA Francs ($20) required to obtain a bona fide residence permit unless forced to do so, in years gone by it was not deemed necessary and old habits die hard.

Ivorian Police
Police are accused of targeting northerners

This is the context in which Mr Ouattara's opponents reject the charge of xenophobia.

They say passionately that in fact it is Mr Ouattara who is the cause of all of Ivory Coast's current problems, because he, a foreigner, has manipulated his way into the Ivorian body politic.


A major problem with this argument is that Mr Ouattara was once the Ivory Coast prime minister under Houphouet-Boigny.

Northern Ivorians, Africans of mixed parentage, and foreigners who have lived here for generations feel that if Ouattara can be castigated as foreign, their position is threatened as well.

If the former prime minister, no less, is not "Ivorian" enough, these people ask, what chance have they of being accepted?

Until recently Ivory Coast was surely one of the most peacefully cosmopolitan countries in the world.

Tension among the various groups have rarely plumbed the depths of the regular violent politico-ethnic conflicts that plague other countries in the West African sub-region.


But all that began to change in the mid 1990s, when the then President, Henri Konan Bedie, began introducing the concept of Ivoirite or Ivorian-ness into the political lexicon.

Supporters of President laurent Gbargo
Gbargo's supportes with his poster

Ivoirite was a useful tool for Bedie, a man who did not have the political weight of Houphouet, nor the advantage of running a single party state where there was no popular challenge to his power.

It is a tool which Bedie's successors have also used enthusiastically against Alassane Ouattara and which has sharpened the wider debate in Ivory Coast about nationality.

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