Finding peace after power shift

With power in Côte d’Ivoire having changed hands from Laurent Gbagbo to Alassane Ouattara, the social dynamic has shifted in Moyen-Cavally, creating new challenges for stability in the cocoa- and coffee-rich region where political partisanship runs largely along ethnic lines. But observers say community structures and local will to overcome divisions remain and can be built upon to move past unprecedented turmoil.

“People here have no choice but to coexist,” said Benjamin Effoli, prefect in the western town of Duékoué in Moyen-Cavally. “Social cohesion is a non-stop job and every single person has his or her role.” He said in the wake of the latest crisis, long-standing community groups are monitoring the situation and discussing how to rein in strife.

People from other regions and from neighbouring countries have farmed in Moyen-Cavally for decades, living alongside the native Guéré population. Since the 2002 rebellion and subsequent unrest, residents, local authorities and aid groups have worked on social cohesion, forming peace committees and holding community meetings to resolve conflict, and crafting stop-gap agreements to deal with land disputes.

Today the power dynamic is completely reversed, with migrant communities largely relishing Ouattara’s arrival in power and local Guéré - mostly Gbagbo supporters - dejected and piecing their lives back together, many saying reprisal attacks are rampant.

The views of two women depict the stark difference in how different communities - particularly in the west but also in other parts of the country - perceive the current situation; the divide is a principal challenge ahead, experts say.

In mid-July (some three months after fighting subsided) a Malinké woman who works as a midwife in Duékoué told IRIN: “Things are much better, we sleep in peace now.” She said in the past Malinké lived in constant fear of attacks by pro-Gbagbo militants.

''I don't sort by ethnic group when someone calls on me for my services - a pregnant woman is a pregnant woman''

A Guéré saleswoman, displaced and living at a church in nearby Guiglo, said: “Our people are being killed just like that, for nothing. We are suffering.”

“These two completely contradictory reactions convey the very set of problems we’re dealing with in the unique setting of western Côte d’Ivoire, in terms of solutions for social cohesion,” said Jacques Seurt, senior adviser with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Still, both women talked of simply wanting to have peace and return to work so their families can eat. The midwife said, unprompted: “I don’t sort by ethnic group when someone calls on me for my services - a pregnant woman is a pregnant woman.”

Ethnic divisions

Even if in their daily lives most people do not act on the basis of ethnicity, in Côte d’Ivoire politicians have often fanned ethnic divisions and that has taken a toll on coexistence.

When Gbagbo was in power Guéré youth had the sense that in any kind of dispute with someone from another ethnic group they would be backed by higher-ups, said Diomandé Yaya, human rights and social cohesion manager with the International Rescue Committee in Man, western Côte d’Ivoire. “During the Gbagbo administration there were people from Moyen-Cavally in high-level positions who did not at all contribute to the peaceful resolution of conflict in the region. Local youth felt they would be supported by those in power, at all costs. The attitude was, ‘no matter how we resolve the problem, our guys are in power’.”

He said this brings up a factor that must be taken into account in any social cohesion efforts: one possible reason many Guéré are still hesitant to return home is that for now they have a tough time envisioning this new existence - that is, without the “privileges” of having their people in power.

IOM’s Seurt, who has been working on these issues in Côte d’Ivoire since 2003, said even in the new political setting, local authorities and aid groups have much to build on. Peace committees, for example, are made up of representatives from all ethnic groups in a given community, headed by village chiefs and are recognized by the local prefectural authorities as a forum for conflict resolution.

Still, Seurt said, attention must be paid to how migrants and non-Guéré will react to the change in power. “Now that power has changed hands, the `foreigners’ in the region are more at ease - whereas up to now they were under the domination of their Guéré landowners, who were sometimes backed up by some police and gendarme elements sympathetic to the natives… We fear that some non-Guéré could take advantage of the new situation and occupy land that’s not theirs.”

Underlying causes

Côte d’Ivoire has yet to tackle the fissures at the heart of turmoil since the 2002 rebellion - disputes over nationality, citizenship, immigrants’ rights and land ownership. 

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
Rich land makes for high stakes

“This latest post-election crisis is only another manifestation of the general crisis Côte d’Ivoire has lived [through] for more than 10 years,” Seurt told IRIN. After the fighting earlier this year social cohesion would be a difficult hurdle not only in the west but also in other parts of the country, he said.

For Georg Charpentier, former UN deputy special representative of the Secretary-General and humanitarian coordinator/resident coordinator in Côte d’Ivoire, lasting cohesion will require new, equitable government policy on these issues.

“We shouldn’t look at this as paybacks or vengeance or such. The government should really look beyond the short-term and the hard feelings and look ahead to resolving the issues of immigration, nationality and co-existence in a place like Côte d’Ivoire. It must be sorted out from a national policy point of view.”

He noted the role of “Ivoirité” - a concept of Ivoirian nationalism politicians have used over the years for political gain in a country full of immigrants whose rights have yet to be clearly defined. Ouattara in the past was barred from running for president over doubts about his nationality; in campaigning Gbagbo militants regularly called his backers “foreigners”.

“I think we have a golden opportunity now with this government,” Charpentier told IRIN. “They have come through all the tensions linked to the concept of Ivoirité - I think all agree a wrong concept - and they can bring the country to become a melting pot of the sub-region and an economic engine for the sub-region.”

“Melting pot” would appear a long way off if many people share the sentiments and experience of Guéré farmer Ernest, currently displaced and living on church land in Guiglo.

“We want security, but in order to have that, all the foreigners must leave,” he told IRIN. “We are constantly threatened by Burkinabé here; if they leave, we would again be free to go to our villages and plantations.”

The region’s land is enormously rich and that is high stakes, said Kacou Fato Patrice of Côte d’Ivoire’s civil society coalition, CSCI. He recently toured the Moyen-Cavally region talking with religious and traditional leaders, merchants, transporters and other local groups.

“People will be able to coexist in peace, but it will take hard work,” he said.

Arbitrary arrests

As emergency response winds down and aid agencies turn to “early recovery” and development, efforts to boost social cohesion come amid widespread charges of arbitrary detention and killings by the national army, Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), and for many in western Côte d’Ivoire that makes any talk of social cohesion futile.

“Social cohesion is perfectly possible in Duékoué - as long as these abuses, killings and kidnappings stop,” said a Guéré living at the Duékoué Catholic mission site who preferred anonymity.

A man who was displaced for months and recently returned to his hometown of Bangolo, 25km north of Duékoué, said fear reigns among Guéré. He also requested anonymity because, he said, “for now no one is free to say what he thinks”.

Asked who must reach out to start repairing the social fabric, he said: “The victor. Those on the side of the victor.”