Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Cote d'Ivoire: facing the prospect of a whole new era.

Date: Wednesday 5 November 2003
Subj: Cote d'Ivoire: facing the prospect of a whole new era.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

The situation in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has taken a profound turn. In the face of rebel threats to return to war, the government of Cote d'Ivoire has acquiesced to rebel demands. While this means that "peace" reigns for now, it has serious implications for the future of Cote d'Ivoire and West Africa, particularly Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria - West African religious-fault line nations with similar demographics.


Cote d'Ivoire's problems stem from unmanaged immigration. While economic recession has led to tensions, the immigrants are not the cause of the present troubles. Neither is it the fact that the immigrants are predominantly Muslims. But for one political figure, status, ethnicity and religion could prove to be the answer to all his political problems.

This political figure, Dr. Alassane Ouattara, did not qualify to stand in presidential elections in 2000. This was not because he is Muslim - the Vice President is Muslim, the Prime minister is a northern Muslim, and there are many Muslim MPs. Dr. Ouattara's problems were related his nationality. Among the many issues was the fact that Dr. Ouattara's involvement in the International Monetary Fund and the Central Bank of West Africa were as a citizen of Burkina Faso - formerly Upper Volta. This did not rule him out of Cote d'Ivoire politics, but according to the Cote d'Ivoire constitution it disqualified him from the presidency.

Dr. Ouattara, however, knows how to play politics 21st Century style. An estimated 50% of the population of Cote d'Ivoire are immigrants from the neighbouring Islamic countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Niger and Mauritania. They share not only the same religion as the Muslims of Cote d'Ivoire, but also the same cultural and historical ties. By playing race and religion cards for personal political gain, Dr. Ouattara has managed to unite them behind him. Now all that is needed are the relevant constitutional and law changes that will enable Dr. Ouattara to stand as a presidential candidate, and allow the new citizens (nationalised immigrants) to vote him into power. These have been the demands of the rebels ever since their coup failed on 19 September 2002.


Foundations for peace were supposedly laid at the Marcoussis talks outside Paris in late January. However these foundations were faulty from the beginning. (See WEA RLC posting "Peace accord 'opens Pandora's box'".)


UN IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) reported on 23 September 2003, "The rebels, who are now officially known as 'The New Forces,' were due to have begun a process of demobilisation and disarmament on 1 August. This would have allowed the government to restore its administration to the entire country and reopen closed schools, hospitals and banks.

"However, the start of disarmament was held up pending the passage of an amnesty law and the appointment of ministers to the vacant portfolios of defence and internal security."

"And on 13 September [President] Gbagbo finally appointed Martin Bleou, a law professor and human rights activist, as minister of internal security, and Rene Amani, a former head of the government's cocoa board as defence minister. The president chose these two men from list of four candidates proposed by the prime minister.

"That should have cleared the way for disarmament to begin. However, the rebels objected loudly to what they called the 'arbitrary' way in which Gbagbo had imposed the new ministers without seeking a broad consensus." (Full IRIN report see link 2)


On Tuesday 23 September 2003, rebel leaders used their objections to President Gbagbo's appointments as their excuse to withdraw from the government of national unity, delay disarmament, and resume their threats of war. Some observers suggest that the rebels were looking for a way to avoid disarmament. As the UN IRIN report noted, the rebels have long been sharply divided over the issue.

However, not all the nine rebel representatives in the government agreed with the withdrawal. On Friday 26 September the rebels disowned one of their leaders, Roger Banchi, stripping him of his ministerial functions for defying the order to withdraw. He is the second rebel representative to defy the rebel leaders.

Banchi said he thought the rebels were "behaving like little children". He added, "Is it really worth spilling blood and igniting fires over issues such as the appointment of departmental directors and office coordinators? We [Banchi and another rebel representative, Gueu] stayed because we are serious. The politics of leaving an empty chair never pays."

UN IRIN quoted Banchi as saying, "I don't think my friends [rebel leaders] have taken the decision which the people were expecting of us. The cry of the people is so strong. Why doesn't Secretary General Guillaume Soro listen to them?" (Link 3)

This rebel action of withdrawing from the government and refusing to disarm, has put Cote d'Ivoire right back where it was - split along ethnic and religious lines, with a rebel force threatening war.


On Friday 31 October, Security Minister Martin Bleou announced that a plot had been uncovered that aimed to bring down the government by showing it as ineffectual and unable to provide security, even in the main city Abidjan. The plot involved the assassination of several significant religious and political figures. There have been no reports of arrests, and the government has appealed to the plotters to abandon the project.

One of those on the rebel hit-list was Cardinal Bernard Agre, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Ivory Coast. Armed police have now surrounded St. Paul's Cathedral in Abidjan, where Cardinal Agre lives and works. (Link 4)

According to the BBC report (1 Nov 2003), Cardinal Agre has held his post at St. Paul's Cathedral in Abidjan since February 2001, and has spoken out strongly against violence and ethnic and religious discord.

Reports of rebel threats to target Christian leaders have been circulating for some time. In February it was reported to the WEA RLC that the rebels were blaming their lack of military success (to capture all of Cote d'Ivoire) on the prayers of Christians and were therefore determined to target the church and eliminate Christian leaders.


To prevent war and bring the rebels back into the government of national unity, the government has acquiesced to rebel demands. The report from UN IRIN states:

"The government of Cote d'Ivoire has agreed to fast track the legislation of three key measures demanded by rebels occupying the north of the country as a conciliation for resuming their participation in the peace process."

According to UN IRIN (31 Oct), the three reforms are:

  • The amendment of a section of the constitution which bans citizens with a foreign parent or citizens who have spent long periods living abroad (even if they have benefited from a foreign citizenship) from becoming president.

  • A new nationality law to give full rights of citizenship to immigrants from other West African countries and their offspring, who account for 30 percent of Cote d'Ivoire's 16 million population. [The real figure is closer to 50% - EK]

  • A new property law to give full land ownership rights to immigrants who have occupied and cultivated land with the consent of local communities.
Drafts of three new laws will be discussed by parliament during the cabinet meeting in the second week of November. (Link 5)


Presently, Cote d'Ivoire is estimated to be 39% Muslim, 32% Christian (the number of evangelical believers doubled during the 1990s) and 29% traditional (Operation World 21st Century Edition). There is complete religious freedom. (Abidjan on the south coast, the commercial capital, is not only home to Cathedrals, but to the nation's largest mosques.)

If the new nationality law is passed, Cote d'Ivoire will become majority Muslim overnight, and the Church in Cote d'Ivoire will enter a whole new era.


The current BBC Country profile on Ivory Coast says that Laurent Gbagbo pronounced himself president in 2000. That is incorrect. However, the BBC Timeline for Ivory Coast is accurate and very good.


1) COTE D'IVOIRE: peace accord "opens Pandora's box".
WEA RLC Friday 31 January 2003

2) Rebel Ministers Withdraw From Government
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
NEWS 23 September 2003 Abidjan.

3) Second Rebel Minister May Break Ranks And Stay in Cabinet
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
NEWS 26 September 2003, Abidjan

4) Ivory Coast Uncovers Assassins' Plot
By Baudelaire Mieux,
31 October 2003, Associated Press,1280,-3333509,00.html

5) Government Fast Tracks New Laws Demanded By Rebels
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
NEWS 31 October 2003, Abidjan