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Open Letter: Ivory Coast, the war against civilians

“The Gbagbo mafia is struggling first and foremost for power,” affirms a group of experts on West Africa, who are concerned about the “risk that the situation will escalate into a civil war”

Laurent Gbagbo is clinging to power after rejecting the results of the presidential elections, as declared by the Independent Electoral Commission, certified by the UN, and recognized by the international community, designating Alassane Ouattara as the clear winner.

There is now a real risk that the situation will escalate into civil war. In pro-opposition neighborhoods of Abidjan, numerous individuals have disappeared in the wake of operations by security forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo. News reports have shown corpses lying in the streets, while morgues have refused to release the bodies of those killed to their families. Converging accounts have led the UN to suspect the existence of mass graves and the incineration of bodies, but Gbabgo’s security forces have prevented investigations of the alleged sites. Outside Abidjan, particularly in the western region, NGOs are reporting incidents of serious violence against the civilian population.

As scholars professionally committed to a rigorous analysis of the situation, we must insist that there is no evidence for any primal hatred between supposedly rival ethnic groups, nor for that matter between local populations and foreigners, between northerners and southerners, much less between Muslims and Christians. This is not to deny the existence of sharp, long-lasting tensions, particularly over access to land. However, the interplay of intersecting interests has generally allowed Ivoirians to implement negotiated solutions to such recurrent disputes. Moreover, Côte d’Ivoire, a country with a long history of mixing, remains a trans-ethnic, cosmopolitan, multi-religious "melting pot." In any "civil" war, who would fight against whom? The answer is anything but obvious.

In the past few weeks, accumulated fears, resentment, and greed have fuelled violent clashes among different segments of the population in the west of the country. However, it is essential to stress the resilience of the overwhelming majority of Ivoirians on all sides of the political spectrum who are confronting the crisis without resorting to violence. On the national scale, Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters are just a vociferous and agitated minority who monopolize the state media they have hijacked. We should not overestimate their numbers.

Laurent Gbagbo has justified his actions in terms of the defense of national sovereignty, brandishing the specter of the country falling prey to foreign influences. This is a diversionary tactic. His political opponents are just as patriotic and just as concerned with developing the national economy in a more equal partnership with Western (or other) powers. Whatever its claims, the Gbagbo regime has hardly turned its back on the "predatory foreigners" it purports to ward off.  Over the past ten years, it has depended on extensive politico-commercial networks in France and elsewhere. Not to mention the recourse to Liberian and other international mercenaries for controlling the Ivorian population.

To the extent that there is any real ideological difference between the two camps, it centers on their conception of citizenship. The Gbagbo regime promotes an ethno-nationalist vision: only members of indigenous ethnic groups from the south of Côte d’Ivoire may claim a fully legitimate, or ‘natural’, right to civic participation – a citizenship ‘by blood’. In this conception, electors from the northern regions, assimilated to ‘foreigners’, are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Annulling the votes of districts in the north and the center of the country is thus consistent with this logic. The opposition claims a republican conception of citizenship, founded on the principal of equality and according civic rights to all those born in the Côte d’Ivoire, a far remove from the ‘divine right’ claimed by Gbagbo.

But ideology is undoubtedly not the key to understanding the ongoing crisis. The Gbagbo mafia is struggling first and foremost for power; for an exclusive hold on power, for the very enjoyment of power, with all its attendant material benefits. How, one might ask, can civilians freely and openly express dissent when the thugs of the outgoing regime exact merciless reprisals against anyone expressing overt opposition or who is even suspected of voting for the wrong candidate?

A group of experts on Cote d’Ivoire and West Africa:

Michel Agier (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales or EHESS, Paris), Emmanuel Akyeampong (Harvard), Jean Allman (Washington University in St. Louis), Jean-Loup Amselle (EHESS), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Princeton), Karel Arnaut (Ghent University, Belgium), Ralph Austen (University of Chicago), Cheikh Anta Babou (University of Pennsylvania), Georges Balandier (EHESS), Issaka Bagayogo (ISFRA- Université de Bamako), Richard Banégas (Université de Paris 1), Thomas Bassett (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Jean-François Bayart (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique or CNRS, France), Laurent Bazin (CNRS), Laurence Becker (Oregon State University), Sara Berry (Johns Hopkins University), Chantal Blanc-Pamard (CNRS), Pierre Boilley (Université de Paris 1), Catherine Boone (University of Texas at Austin), Christian Bouquet (Université de Bordeaux, France), Sylvie Bredeloup (Institut Recherche Développement or IRD, France), William Gervase Clarence-Smith (School of Oriental and African Studies or SOAS, University of London), Jean-Paul Colleyn (EHESS), Barbara Cooper (Rutgers University), Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia University), Mamadou Diouf (Columbia University), Jean-Pierre Dozon (EHESS), Stephen Ellis (Afrika-Studiecentrum, Leiden), Sandra Fancello (CNRS), Boris Gobille (Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France), Alma Gottlieb (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Sean Hanretta (The University of Florida), Joseph Hellweg (Florida State University), Gilles Holder (CNRS), Paulin Hountondji (Université d’Abomey-Calavi, Benin), Anne Hugon (Université de Paris 1), Sharon Hutchinson (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Biodun Jeyifo (Harvard), Bennetta Jules-Rosette (University of California San Diego), Ousmane Kane (Columbia), Ousman Kobo (Ohio State University), Eric Lanoue (ARES, France), Robert Launay (Northwestern University), Marie Nathalie Le Blanc (Université du Québec à Montréal), Marc Le Pape (CNRS), Barbara Lewis (Rutgers University), Bruno Losch (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement ou CIRAD, France), Ruth Marshall (University of Toronto), André Mary (CNRS), Achille Mbembe (University of Wittwatersrand, South Africa), Elikia M’Bokolo (EHESS), Michael McGovern (Yale), Marie Miran-Guyon (EHESS), Richard Moncrieff, Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (EHESS), Jacob Olupona (Harvard University), J.D.Y. Peel (SOAS, University of London), Claude-Hélène Perrot (Université de Paris 1), Ato Quayson (University of Toronto), David Robinson (Michigan State University), Ruediger Seesemann (Northwestern University), Benjamin Soares (Afrika-Studiecentrum, Leiden), Emmanuel Terray (EHESS), Jean-Louis Triaud (Université de Provence, France), Claudine Vidal (CNRS), Laurent Vidal (IRD), Leonardo Villalon (The University of Florida).

Colleagues living or having family in Côte d’Ivoire have not been included for reasons of security. 

A shorter version was published in Le Monde, January 19, 2011.

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