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A Lesson from Cote d'Ivoire

Why should African leaders and the world pay heed to the warning example of Cote d'Ivoire?

August 5, 2004

Why should African leaders and the world pay heed to the warning example of Cote d'Ivoire?

While West Africa's recent conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia took an unthinkable human toll that spilled across borders, these wars had largely specific, contextual root causes.

The Ivorian conflict — based on political manipulation of overlapping regional, ethnic and religious differences — has greater risk of replication in the region.

Along the Gulf of Guinea on the West African coast, from Cote d'Ivoire to Nigeria, countries share a similar political geography and a parallel pre-colonial history — suggesting that the civil war in Cote d'Ivoire could be a model for conflicts to come.

The pre-colonial political order along West Africa's Gulf of Guinea was organized horizontally, reflecting the region's geography. Small kingdoms dotted the coastal areas and dense forests that hugged the coast.

West Africa's most powerful kingdoms stretched from east to west in the large swathe of savanna that lay inland — the kingdoms of Oyo in Nigeria, Dahomey in Benin and Ashanti in Ghana.

To the north was a horizontal strip of largely Islamic Sahelian kingdoms, some of which still harbor resentment over 18th century slave raids by their southern neighbors.

While colonial borders were drawn haphazardly throughout Africa, nowhere else did they so defy existing political structures. The logic of colonialism — focusing on trade — placed a premium on coastal territory. In the scramble for West Africa, European powers claimed stretches of coast and pushed north.

The result was a collection of states that stretch from the coast to the Sahel, vertical entities that overlay the pre-colonial horizontal political structure.

They split ethnic groups with international boundaries and created states that are — to varying degrees — bifurcated along north-south lines.

The south was favored during the colonial period in these newly formed political units. Proximity to the coast meant a significant leg up on the north in terms of development, with easier access to investment and better infrastructure.

Proximity to the coast also meant greater exposure to Christian mission work, adding a religious dimension to the north-south distinction.

In terms of geography, the colonial legacy has been profound in West Africa. The division between north and south remains among the most salient political issues in the region. It maps onto so many other distinctions — differential development and distinct histories, as well as ethnic and religious differences.

As the situation in Cote d'Ivoire should remind policymakers, these factors are dangerous kindling that — if ignited — could lead to a political explosion.

Geography has long played a prominent role in West African politics. The stormy relationship between north and south — and Islam and Christianity — casts a shadow over Nigerian political life.

In Togo and Benin, political parties have traditionally appealed to regional bases along the north-south divide.

Significantly, while presidents Eyadema of Togo and Kérékou of Benin are both northerners, they are also Christian, disentangling regional and ethnic tensions from religion for the moment. Even in Ghana, the "northern factor" has played an increasingly visible role in politics.

In what seemed like a positive development, John Kufuor was elected president in 2000 with a prominent northerner as his running mate in an effort to ease tensions and placate newly vocal northern factions.

While the geopolitical landscape in each of the states along the Gulf of Guinea resembles that in Cote d'Ivoire, the spark that ignited the Ivorian conflict may be exceptional.

Immigrants from throughout West Africa — but primarily Muslims from the Sahelian states to the north — once flocked to this regional economic powerhouse, making nationality a point of contention.

When politicians exploited the nationality issue — barring former president and northerner Alassane Ouattara from the 2000 presidential election on the basis that he lacked pure Ivorian parentage — they tapped into the well of emotion-ridden issues of the north-south distinction.

This spark may have been unique to Cote d'Ivoire, but the underlying political tensions exist in other West African states — and could easily be exploited by opportunistic politicians.

The situation in Cote d'Ivoire should send warning signals that, even in once-peaceful and stable West African states, politicians may be willing to exploit deep political fault lines.

Particularly in Benin and Togo, countries beginning to think beyond their aging leaders, the possibility that regional tensions may be manipulated for political gain should not be overlooked.

Efforts to build cross-regional parties and to educate voters about issue-based voting, as an alternative to the traditional focus on personalities and regionalism, should be encouraged.

Development aid should target the northern regions of these countries to undermine religious extremism grounded in regional and ethnic inequities.

Finally, West African leaders should use their leverage to minimize political regionalism in neighboring countries. African troops are playing an increasingly large peacekeeping role in the sub-region when conflicts arise — a burden many countries find difficult to bear.

The economic damage such conflicts inflict sends ripples throughout the region, jeopardizing national and regional development. A lesson should be learned from the civil war in Cote d'Ivoire to forestall similar conflagrations in neighboring countries.

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