Conflict, Crisis and Soccer in Côte d’Ivoire


At a glance, the country is divided in two by civil war, with rebels controlling the North, militias’ activity rampaging in the South, mercenaries finding employment opportunities in the West, and the UN blue helmets and French military forces placed in a central buffer called “the confidence zone.” The economy is shattered, ethnic division has been revived and full scale warfare could burst out at any given moment. The United States Fund for Peace published a report in July deeming Côte d’Ivoire as “the most dangerous country in the world.(1) ” So, how did all of this have happen? What lies beneath Cote d’Ivoire‘s electoral delay?

While political elections and DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) are the pillars of Côte d’Ivoire‘s peace process, nationality and land are the essence of its crisis. Placed at the meeting point of West Africa’s four major ethnic families, Côte d’Ivoire has been mixed and heterogeneous since it was territorially defined in 1893, counting over 60 ethnic groups. Foreign labour has come to work its fertile land first through the French colonial imposition, then with the economic incentives in the years of prosperity. Throughout the decades, workers coming in from neighbouring Mali, Guinea Burkina Faso and all the countries of the sub-region, have been ingredients of the Ivorian melting pot, which included populous French and Lebanese communities as well.

The rule of President Felix Houphouët-Boigny from independence in 1960 to his death in 1993 insured the political grip over ethnic cohesion, in a fashion comparable to Colonel Tito in ex-Yugoslavia. On the top, representatives from all ethnic groups were placed in strategic seats of power and paid off; on the bottom the president’s populist policy was “the land belongs to those who cultivate it.” Surely, a single-party system allowed only his Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) to be in power, while his own ethnic group, the Baoulé, was clearly favoured as the transformation of his native village Yamoussoukro into a Brasilia style national capital demonstrates, including a one to one scale copy of the Vatican‘s Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Nevertheless, while the germs of discontent were planted, fairly distributed economic prosperity was enough to compensate for multipartitism and tribal nepotisms. In a land of plenty, identity was only a secondary factor. All things changed with the cocoa crisis of the late 1980’s, failure of IMF policy and the political void left by the President’s death. As prosperity started shrinking and the struggle over Houphët-Boigny succession began, nationality jumped on the forefront of the political agenda.

Until the early 1990’s ivorité was an unknown concept. Coined from the opposition to counter Baoulé privileges towards national inclusion, the term would soon be twisted to discriminate to define “pure Ivorians.” Following Houphouët-Boigny’s death, Henri Konan Bedié, by virtue of being the President of the National Assembly, went to power. To insure his electoral success in 1995 Bedié, opted to liquidate his prime political adversary, former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, by means of the theory of blood citizenship. While previously being born on Ivorian soil was enough to be considered an Ivorian citizen, Bedié passed a new law requiring both parents to be Ivorian in order to obtain the ivorité status. Thus under the new law, regardless of being born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire and having an Ivorian mother, Ouattara would be considered a foreigner due to the fact that his father was a citizen of Burkina Faso. Hence, by not being an Ivorian, Ouattara consequently could no longer be eligible to run for office. While protecting his grip to power, Bedié also triggered a social-political snowball. The exclusion of one man from a political process soon became the precedent for discrimination in the intermixed social texture of the country. In the midst of economic crisis and demographic pressure, people of foreign descent, despite being second, third, or fourth generation, were forced out of their lands, deprived of their property and politically disenfranchised. Scarce resources could now be taken legitimately through new laws of segregation.

The social and political instability let to the first military coup in Côte d’Ivoire‘s history. Lead by General Robert Guei, the 1999 Christmas day blitz enabled the military to seize power without washing the streets with blood while Bedié quietly fled to France. Nevertheless, the good start of the military take over did not fulfil its promises of national reconciliation. In the post-coup elections of 2000, Guei used the same exclusion policy introduced by Bedié to prevent Ouattara to run. Nevertheless, the General was defeated by his only opponent of consequence, Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivorian Patriotic Front (FPI). Gbagbo was a two decade seasoned veteran of the opposition, the only man who dared to run against Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire‘s first multi-party elections in 1990. Elected with 58% of the vote, Gbagbo’s 2000 victory nonetheless was spineless, as only two out of the eight million people eligible to vote (in a country of fifteen) went to the ballots. Ouattara’s RDR (Gathering of the Republicans) and Bedié’s PDCI boycotted the election and soon started to contest its outcome. Additionally, the core issue of nationality remained unaltered through Gbagbo’s policies. The security situation quickly deteriorated. Clashed among opposition protestors, the military and pro-Gbagbo militias turned into massacres. The civil war was about to start.

After the social distress boiled up for years, it suddenly exploded in military conflict on September 19, 2002. Paradoxically seeking inclusion rather than secession, (as the words of their leader Guillaume Soro illustrated “we are willing to trade in identity cards for our guns”(2)) the Forces Nouvelles came out of the shadow and launched attacks against the government. Disciplined and well armed (speculations of donors include Burkina Faso, Liberia and certain European countries, while its webmaster was based in Michigan, USA Daloa(3)), the rebellion assembled into a forceful military machine dissident army members and, as a reaction to exclusion, the population’s Muslims and ethnic Dioula. Fierce fighting took place, especially in the key-cocoa industry city of in the West.

Tied by a bi-lateral agreement with former colonial ruler France (still vastly interconnected politically and economically), President Gbagbo invoked the military help promised in case of a foreign threat to the Ivory Coast’s national security. Blurred between the lines of civil war and legitimizing the lawfulness of discriminating Ivorian to the status of foreigners, France sent in its special response force Licorne mostly to protect its population and economic infrastructure, while to a smaller degree, to prevent another image staining humanitarian crisis. Initially unsuccessful in Abidjan due to the governmental army’s loyalty to the President, the Forces Nouvelles folded over to the North, and were prevented to come back down to conquer and unify the country by France’s presence which involuntarily but de facto separated the country in two. Thus, after twenty nine days of combat and with thousands of civilians displaced, the country found itself in the present condition: a Rebel- controlled North, a Government-controlled South, and an international buffer zone in the middle, with the blessing of the Security Council.

In October 2002 the cease-fire was signed, and for the following two years the long bumpy path of national reconciliation took place. First in Ghana, then in France and then in Ghana again, peace treaties were signed under the progressive supervision of the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), France and the UN. However, while the spirit of Linas-Marcoussis Accord lasted throughout 2003 with a fragile power sharing arrangement, tension remained at a standstill. In February 2004, the UN’s political mission (MINUCI) beefed up to a peacekeeping operation (ONUCI), adding forces to the side of the Licorne. While a government of national reconciliation representing all actors of the conflict was put in place, under the surface knives were being sharpened. Gbagbo transformed the student movement into a generously financed militias/death squad called the Jeunes Patriotes (Young Patriots). Military both in the North and South engaged more and more in criminal activity and human rights violations, including wide spread racketeering, political assassinations and disappearances. An institutional void started making its way into rebel territory, lacking rule of law and governmental services. In the West, mercenaries from Eastern Europe and neighbouring Liberia started pouring in, militarizing the efforts of private militias.


Village in Côte d’Ivoire

In November 2004, in the midst of diplomatic efforts, Gbagbo launched a surprise air strike against rebel sites. During the operation, the governmental fighter jets also bombed a French battalion, killing 10 French soldiers and one US civilian in Bouaké. Paris‘ response was immediate; two hours later all the small Ivorian air force was destroyed. Shortly after a UN arms embargo was imposed. In the following days, anti-French and anti-foreign actions erupted in the Southern cities and a “hunt for the whites” began. Tens of thousands Ivorians of foreign descent fled the country to neighbouring countries. Simultaneously, white women were raped, foreign properties destroyed and a general evacuation of foreign residents followed, including UN civilian staff.

A new round of talks began in Pretoria under the mediation of South African President Thabo Mbeki and the African union (AU). Throughout the spring of 2005, Ivorian opposition parties joined rebel forces in an alliance called G7, and sat at the round table of discussion with Gbagbo to find a political solution to the crisis. In the various accords a time table was scheduled for the DDR of rebels and militia (late August), presidential elections (October 30) to be shortly followed by legislative (November), and the necessary reform of the code of nationality. All conditions were confirmed by all parties in the third round of negotiations in June 2005. Unfortunately, signatures on a piece of paper proved not to be set-in-stone guarantees toward peace. Lost in mutual accusations of failure to comply with the agreements, time progressed, and none of the prerequisites went fulfilled.

In mid-July and late August, President Gbagbo appealed to the special powers granted by article 48 of the Constitution to speed up the process. While the indispensable issue of nationality was appeased by granting citizenship to people with an Ivorian father or mother, points of contention remained in the nature of campaign finance and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). In the meantime the deadlines for disarmament went void, with militias and rebels only timidly gathering materials in the internationally monitored site, while the national army started growing restless with Gbagbo’s policies of ethnicizing the high ranks. As for election, the majority of the population does not possess voter registration cards, and the registration process never started. The distribution of identity cards, which many people lost during the war, also had the same fate, thus violating the three months notice requirement for publishing electoral lists. Furthermore, the necessary budget was nowhere to be found. To sum up, the Independent Electoral Commission, the essential governing body of the electoral process that was supposed to start working in mid-July was still not operational by early October.  With less than a month until Election Day, things were not looking too bright. Indeed, on October 6 the African Union held a special meeting sketching a road map for the Ivorian crisis, in which a new transitional government is to be set in place for another year, with Gbagbo still president, but a neutral-technical prime minister with full powers. In the pragmatism of peace, there seems to be no other possible alternative.

The future of Côte d’Ivoire remains unclear. While several technical steps are indispensable to end the crisis, only a wider socio-political reform coming from the bottom can make the peace sustainable. UN Secretary General Koffi Annan stated one month before the delay, “The holding of elections will not be possible because political leaders and their parties did not cooperate.”(4)

Indeed, Ivorian leaders, rather than engaging the necessary policies for the greater interest of the nation, base their leverage on ethnicity and division for their immediate economic gains. The dance of alliances demonstrates how consolidating their grip on power trumps long-term programs. For example, when Bedié was president, Gbagbo and Ouattara allied against him; now that Gbagbo is in power, Ouattara and Bedié (enemies until five years ago for which the whole crisis began) are joining hands. In the face of paradox, the people on the ground have grown tired of the three years of crisis, and if the situation will not improve soon, they’ll start growing hungry as well.

The country is facing a turning point. On one hand there is the Constitutional deadline of October 30, the necessary internal cooperation and the decision that will be taken by the Security Council. If the political actors will not be willing to cooperate there must be a firm response of the international community with sanctions, enforcement and possible extraditions. The clock is ticking as the lack of clarity in the new transitional role of the President, Prime Minister and the armed forces commander risks to result in a constitutional vacuum that could lead to a new conflict. While security measures and peacekeeping troop movements are increasing, the situation remains volatile and ambiguous. On the other hand, there is the historical qualification of Cote d’Ivoire to the soccer world cup of 2006 in Germany, which could prove to be a constructive variable in the process of national cohesion.

Soccer and National Cohesion

The importance of soccer in Africa, just like in Europe, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere is something beyond sports, which transcends into identity, pride and a sense of belonging. After reaching the head of its qualifying round, with two games to go, on Sept 4, 2005 the Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire hosted the Lions of Cameroon in Abidjan. If the Elephants would have defeated their traditional and more successful rival for whom there is much of an inferiority complex, they would have won the ticket to participate for their first world cup ever. With tension palpable in the air and the game on everybody’s minds, poster boy Drogba of Cote d’Ivôire – who plays for London‘s club Chelsea in England – confronted Cameroon‘s Eto’o, who plays for Barcelona, Spain. The stadium Felix Houphouët-Boigny was packed when an emotional-rollercoaster of a game took place. In the end however, Cameroon came out victorious for 3-2. With only one game to go, Cote d’Ivoire now needed to defeat Sudan in Khartoum, and for the Lions, whom hosted Egypt, not to win.

Soccar Game

On October 8, the time of truth had arrived. While Cote d’Ivoire imposed itself 3-0, at half time Cameroon was also leading 1-0 and administrating the game. Victory would not be enough for Drogba and company. In the second half however Egypt stepped up its pace, and was able to tie 1-1. Hope for qualification was possible for the Elephants. Nevertheless, with two minutes left in the game, Cameroon was assigned a penalty kick in dubious circumstances. Silence fell upon Côte d’Ivoire. If the ball would have inflated the net, Cameroon would be the team to fly to the World Cup. With millions of people holding their breath, the defender ran and kicked. The trajectory of the ball followed a violent, direct line, finding its final destination into the post with a dramatic “thump.” An explosion of joy erupted beyond the Ivorian skies. The game in Yaoundé was over with 1-1 draw: Cameroon would stay home while Côte d’Ivoire, calling it a miracle, won its bet for Germany 2006.

An incredible party followed all over the Ivorian country, North, South East and West, regardless of ethnicity, political affiliation or creed. Millions of people took to the streets dressed in orange, chanting, dancing and cheering. Just as the triumph in the 1982 World Cup united Italy after the terrorism of the “years of lead,” Argentina in 1986 after the dictatorship and Germany in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the historical qualification of Cote d’Ivoire’s multiethnic team has been able to deliver to many of the Ivorian people something that the politics of hate, inflammatory media and factitious polarization cannot: hope.

The Essential Delay

The electoral delay is essential. First, while disarmament and stable security conditions have not been met, having elections now is simply impossible from a technical point of view. Secondly, poorly executed elections in 2000 were the spark that ignited today’s crisis. Thus only a truly free, fair, transparent and incontestable process (including the voter registration) can hope to prevent further instability or a military response to the outcome of the ballots. In the words of the UN High representative for the Elections Antonio Monteiro: “We will organize well done elections, or we will not have any elections at all.”(5) Third and foremost, only the Ivorian people themselves can win a durable peace; not the UN, not France not the African Union and certainly not another paternalistic leader.

While elections alone cannot bring the peace, they certainly can be the means to the greater end of consolidation of the fragile and ethnicized civil society of Côte d’Ivoire. This process must start with a nation-wide civil education and voter registration campaign reaching citizens in all parts of the country. This experience should be carried out by the predominantly youthful population, and then utilized as a spring board for future independently-led social, economical and political projects toward a new social contract and to fulfil the democratic deficit. Civil society and the grassroots need to counter-balance the ethnic hatred from the top, and the foreign interests which push to keep instability in the country. Most of all, the Ivorian people must become the leading actor in the democratic quest for sustainable solutions to the defining issues of their crisis: national identity and land distribution.

On a grey wall of the check point in the northern gates of Abidjan, graffiti in white letters asserts: “Côte d’Ivoire is neither Rwanda nor the Congo.” In the delicate days that lead to a transitional government, disarmament and future elections, hopefully this statement will prove to be true.

R.G.C. has worked in the balkans, the middle east and is presently working in West Africa

[1] ”Jeune Afrique L’Intelligent” n° 2322 du 10 au 16 juillet 2005.

[2] Christian Bouquet. « Geopolitique de la Cote d’Ivoire. » Armand Coli, Paris, 2005.

[3] Id.

[4] « -Après le 30 octobre prochain – L’ONU s’implique davantage » DNA, Septembre 11, 2005

[5] “La Transition s’impose” Derniere Heure. August 16, 2005