Thursday, April 8, 2004

COTE D'IVOIRE ON FIRE: WEST AFRICAN CHURCH AT RISK

Date: Thursday 8 April 2004
Subj: Cote d'Ivoire on fire: West African Church at risk.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal


THE CONSEQUENCE OF ETHNIC/RELIGIOUS POLITICS:
COTE D'IVOIRE ON FIRE


The present situation in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is already a national tragedy. Dr. Alassane Outtara, the former Cote d'Ivoire Prime Minister who now heads the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, has played ethnic/religious politics for personal political gain. This has torn the nation apart along ethnic and religious lines and poisoned its spirit. The hostility and distrust is now so great, and the racial identification and Islamic zeal now so intense, that one wonders if a return to war is not inevitable. It is certainly impossible to turn back the hands of time. As the 29 March 2004 editorial in the Accra Mail (Accra, Ghana) rightly noted, nations should never start on this road of ethnic politics because once it gets going, "there is no stopping it until we have bled ourselves dry". (Link 1)

WEST AFRICA AT RISK

Cote d'Ivoire (officially 38% Muslim and 31% Christian, with full religious freedom) has been a haven of prosperity in West Africa and a safe, free and prosperous home-base for many mission
organisations. Since their 19 September 2003 coup failed, the political aim of the rebels has been to change the constitution so that all the immigrant workers in Ivory Coast (around 50% of the
total population and virtually all Muslims) can be naturalised, giving Cote d'Ivoire a clear Muslim majority that will then democratically elect a Muslim government (RDR) and Muslim president (Dr. Outtara). It is suspected that because the rebels have Islamist aims, they have international Islamist support. They certainly have good supply lines for weapons and funds. At a recent rally in the rebel stronghold of Bouake, rebel soldiers were guaranteed a salary.

If Cote d'Ivoire falls to Islamic domination through civil war or constitutional coup, it will destabilise all of West Africa along that ethnic religious fault-line that runs from the Sierra Leone/Liberia border in West Africa, east through Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, southern Chad, central Sudan, to Asmara, Eritrea on the Red Sea.

It is quite possible that if Cote d'Ivoire falls to Islam, then Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria will topple like dominoes, and Sudan might find a more radical anti-peace Islamist faction rising above Bashir. It is not unreasonable to suggest that by the end of this decade, the ethnic religious fault-line of West Africa could be pushed south into the Gulf of Guinea.

This may sound terribly alarmist. However, both Nigeria and Sudan have put down coup attempts in recent days. How much more motivation will Islamists have should Islamists succeed in Cote d'Ivoire? Also, Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin, with Muslim minorities of 38%, 24% and 20% respectively, are already members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), as is Nigeria (41% Muslim).

This belt from Liberia east along the coast through to and including Nigeria, is the non-Islamic, religious freedom, evangelical Christian growth and mission-sending stronghold of West Africa. If we look at things from a more cosmic perspective, there are more than just earthly actors interested in the destabilisation of this region of West Africa. As for earthly actors, there are Islamists, there are megalomaniacs, and there are career criminals, mercenaries and arms traders who make their living in the conflict industry.

NEIGHBOURING GHANA FEELS THE HEAT

Concerning Cote d'Ivoire, the Accra Mail 29 March editorial states, "What's happening in our western neighbour, Cote d'Ivoire is too close for comfort.

"Time was when we looked westwards with envy because Cote d'Ivoire, we thought, had all the best things going for her. If you wanted a drug you couldn't find in Ghana, you tried Abidjan. If it was a special spare part for your car which was not available in Ghana, you sent an SOS to Abidjan. If it was fashion trends, you sought inspiration from Abidjan. Indeed Ghanaians used to say that plantains and other food items from that country were bigger than the Ghanaian varieties.

"Then over night, all of that went up in gun smoke." (Link 1)

Pastor Archibald Ako-Nnubeng, the Administrative Secretary of the Deeper Christian Life Ministry in Ghana, has expressed his concern that Ghana is being caught up in the backwash of Cote d'Ivoire's ethnic and religious politics.

Pastor Ako-Nnubeng has appealed to Ghanaian Christians not to "follow the ostrich's principle of burying their heads in their church activities as if everything was right". Rather, he says, be
prayerful, especially for peaceful elections, because "no one is safe from the cyclone when it strikes".

The Ghanaian Chronicle reports, "Pastor Ako-Nnubeng urged allpoliticians to tone down their language to tolerate other peoples' views." Pastor Ako-Nnubeng's fear is that "ethnic polarization and incitement by people who should have known better is gradually pushing our dear Ghana towards the precipice of an abyss". (Link 2)

Ghanaians are certainly feeling the heat and becoming greatly anxious about their own future. Consider the words of a 5 April editorial in the Ghanaian Chronicle (Accra, Ghana): "Who would have ever thought that the Ivory Coast, the bastion of stability in West Africa would today descend into the darkness and chaos of petty ethnic politics?

"Who indeed, would have predicted a decade ago that beautiful Abidjan would one day become the scene of horrendous crimes against humanity - amid the beauty and splendour of its high-rise hotels, beautiful tree-lined avenues and truly magnificent private houses? And yet today, many have fled that beautiful city.

"And the only reason they fled was that a few unscrupulous politicians are playing the ethnic card for their own parochial interests.

"The Chronicle believes in the adage that when one's neighbour's house is burning, it is prudent to have buckets of water ready, just in case one's own house also catches fire." (Link 3)

THE FIRE SPREADS

The Ghanaian Chronicle's illustration of the burning house is exceedingly apt. Ghana is due to have elections in December 2004 and reports in Ghanaian media indicate that sparks of ethnic politics have already created heat in Ghana.

A Ghanaian Chronicle editorial on 25 March said, "The Chronicle thus finds it sad and disturbing that some politicians, desperate for power, are trying to play the dangerous ethnic game in order to gain votes in the impending parliamentary and presidential elections." (Link 4)

An article on Ghanaweb.com, 5 April 2004 entitled "Northerners urged to avoid divisive politics," reports, "Mr Andrew Awuni, Deputy Minister of Information, has urged residents and the people of Northern Ghana to eschew divisive politics. 'Let us be focused on what unites us as a people,' the forthcoming elections, notwithstanding."

This current trend towards ethnic politics by some politicians in Ghana, most notably the former Ghanaian ruler Jeremiah John Rawlings, should not surprise us as the ethnic politics and violence in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire has been remarkably successful. The French-brokered, UN-supported peace deal for Cote d'Ivoire legitimized the violent action of the Cote d'Ivoire rebels and rewarded them with power-sharing. Also, the left-leaning international media has been overwhelmingly supportive of the rebels, often accepting and reporting their claims and grievances with great excitement but without analysis or investigation.

COTE D'IVOIRE REBELS PROVOKING CONFLICT

As for Cote d'Ivoire, the rebels who walked away from the government of national unity in September 2003, refusing to disarm and threatening a return to war, have been provoking confrontations with the Cote d'Ivoire security forces by defying a blanket ban on all political demonstrations that was imposed for security purposes.

An illegal, rebel-led demonstration in Abidjan on Friday 25 March turned ugly, resulting in injuries and official toll of 37 deaths. The rebels however, alleged hundreds of deaths and mass graves (without evidence), blamed the government, cried "oppression", and likened President Laurent Gbagbo (a Christian) to "Saddam Hussein", saying the international community should remove him.

The rebels then called upon their supporters to repeat the political demonstration. However, the rebel's supporters did not return to the streets of Abidjan. Sekou Kone, a rebel supporter, explained his reluctance to demonstrate again, "Our leaders should go into the street with us, to motivate us, instead of calling for marches where we are massacred and shot at," he said. (Link 5)

The rebel leaders have no doubt learnt that civilian deaths - especially when at the hands of security forces - will generate great international sympathy. It is a familiar scenario. Thankfully however, the rebel's supporters in Abidjan were not so willing to be sacrificed.

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The situation in Cote d'Ivoire is extremely serious. It truly is the first house on the block and it is burning. Every effort must be made to put this fire out quickly and decisively, and to seek the path to reconciliation, or peace, prosperity and religious freedom may just disappear from the southern coast of West Africa.


Links

1) Cote d'Ivoire: What Are the Lessons for Ghana?
EDITORIAL. Accra Mail (Accra) 29 March 2004
http://allafrica.com/stories/200403290672.html

2) Rev. Minister Warns Against Ethnic Politics
Ghanaian Chronicle (Accra) 5 April 2004.
By George Kyei Frimpong & Dominic Jale
http://allafrica.com/stories/printable/200404050709.html

3) Ethnic Politics - Matters Arising EDITORIAL
Ghanaian Chronicle (Accra) 5 April 2004
http://allafrica.com/stories/200404050707.html

4) Saying No to Ethnic Politics EDITORIAL
Ghanaian Chronicle (Accra) 25 March 2004
http://allafrica.com/stories/200403250408.html

5) Ivory Coast opposition stays home
CNN 30 March 2004
http://edition.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/africa/03/30/ivorycoast.ap/index.html