Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Saturday, 17 July 2004 15:56 UK

Ivory Coast's cultural divide

By James Copnall
BBC correspondent in Abidjan

A singing rebel soldier playing the kora, an African harp, in the north of Ivory Coast highlights the deep divisions in what was once West Africa's richest country.

Women dancing in the rebel stronghold of Bouake, Ivory Coast
The north has close cultural links with its northern neighbours

Split for nearly two years between the rebel-held north and government-controlled south, Ivory Coast is not only divided along political lines but cultural lines too.

A series of laws intended to heal these divisions are being debated throughout July in the national assembly, in particular northern concerns about the right to own land and the issue of nationality.

But the serenading rebel guard I saw at a checkpoint near the Mali border seems to drive home the point that the north of Ivory Coast arguably has closer ethnic and cultural links with the countries to its north than it does with southern Ivory Coast.


The soldier sang in the fashion of a griot - the oral historian and praise singer found throughout West Africa - whose social role is never more important than in Mali and neighbouring Guinea.

He sang softly in Dioula, the main language of the north of Ivory Coast.

Dioula hails from the same linguistic family as Bambara, the principal language in Mali, and Malinke, which is widely spoken in north-eastern Guinea.

New Forces leader Guillaume Soro in a June 2003 file photo
The New Forces leader insists Ivory Coast is one and indivisible

The rebel New Forces movement that took control of the north in September 2002 goal has political objectives, but its composition is also undeniably ethnic.

They are largely made up of Dioulas and Senoufos, representatives of the two major ethnic groups in the north, who rallied to the rebel cause because they feel northerners have been discriminated against in Ivorian politics.

In the mid 1990s the Ivory Coast Democratic Party (PDCI), which held power from independence in 1960 to 1999, popularised the concept of Ivoirite or Ivorianness.

It was an ideology seen by many as xenophobic and those with northern names or origins were frequently accused of not being Ivorian.


In 2000, the leader of the Rally of Republicans (RDR) party, Alassane Ouattara, a Dioula, was stopped from standing in presidential elections, after doubts were raised about his nationality.

It was claimed that both his parents were not Ivorian, ruling him out of being a presidential candidate.

Rebel fighters in Ivory Coast
Rebels will not disarm until the law on nationality is passed

RDR supporters were infuriated by that decision, and northerners say they have had many other grounds for complaint in the last 10 years.

There have been numerous cases of northerners in Abidjan suffering serious human rights abuses.

The latest case in point was the banned opposition demonstration scheduled for 25 March of this year.

A United Nations report claimed at least 120 people were killed in an operation "meticulously planned" by "the highest authorities of state".

People were killed over a three-day period, the report said, and often on grounds of ethnic or national origin.

Most of those killed were northerners.

Sticking point

It is just those sorts of abuses that the New Forces say they are fighting against.

Two months ago it seemed as if the former rebels might declare the north independent.

But New Forces leader Guillaume Soro vetoed the suggestion and insisted Ivory Coast was one and indivisible, a strange statement from a man who had annexed more than half of the country's land.

map of Ivory Coast

And now many of the New Forces' complaints are being discussed in the National Assembly.

All sides of the crisis have agreed to vote in the laws by 28 July at the latest, or there will be an extraordinary session of parliament to finish the job.

However, who can stand for president - the famous article 35 of the constitution - appears to be a real sticking point.

It is this point of law that stopped Mr Ouattara from running for office in the 2000 presidential elections.

President Laurent Gbagbo and his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party say they will only countenance debate and a referendum on article 35 once the country is reunited.

That implies the former rebels disarming, and the state regaining control of the north.

The New Forces say they will only disarm once article 35 has been amended.

Until this stalemate has been resolved, it is impossible to see Ivory Coast dragging itself out of its current crisis.


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