The 2011 Ivory Coast Conflict

Perhaps the most internationally pressing and politically transforming global issue in the last year has been the Arab Spring.  A revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Middle East have challenged state rulers, resulting in revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and a civil war in Libya, effectively ending the previous regime.  Civil uprisings have also occurred in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, threatening the political entities of each country.  Because the Arab Spring impacts much of the future of international relations, it has been easy to overlook other civil uprising around the globe.  One such uprising was the Second Civil War in the Ivory Coast, which occurred in March 2011.  Not unlike the Arab Spring, the Ivorian crisis was centered much on religion, as well as historical events.

Arab traders first introduced Islam into the western Sudan from North African, and the religion spread rapidly after the conversion of local rulers.  By the eleventh century, most of the rulers of the Sudanic empires had welcomed and adopted Islam.  However, the southern part of contemporary Ivory Coast remained unaffected by Islamic movements. Powerful Muslim states such as the Mali Empire had territorial sovereignty over the northern part of what is now Ivory Coast.  Songhai, a vassal state of the Mali Empire, succeeded the former and established rule in the area between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Due to internal disputes, numerous migrations brought new peoples into the southern part of Ivory Coast, an area noted for its forested landscapes. The dense rain forest covering the southern half of the country created barriers to large-scale political organizations as seen further north. Inhabitants lived in villages or clusters of villages and practiced local traditions.  In the seventeenth century, small kingdoms of Akan people, who had split from the powerful Asante Confederation of Ghana, held control over much of the area.

One such Akan group, the Baoulé, laid claim to Eastern Ivory Coast and established a kingdom that was not guided by Islam. The Baoulé played an exceptionally important role in Ivory Coast’s history, as they resisted French subjugation more than other peoples. The descendants of the rulers of the Agni kingdoms tried to retain their separate identity long after Côte d’Ivoire’s independence.  As late as 1969, the ruler of the Baoulé people attempted to break away from Ivory Coast and form an independent state. In the mid 1800s, French presence in the region increased, as trading posts were established on the coast and in the southern parts of the country.  Conversion to Christianity ensued over much of the south, but was unable to reach large areas of the interior; Islam prevailed in the North. In 1886, to support its claims of effective occupation, France reassumed direct control of its West African coastal trading posts, and embarked on an accelerated program of exploration in the interior. Throughout the early years of French rule, French military contingents were sent inland to establish new posts. Many Northern Ivorians offered resistance.  Most notable was Samori Ture, who in the 1880s and 1890s sought to establish an Islamic multinational state stretching from Guinea to the Northeastern part of the Ivory Coast. French colonial policy was based on the concepts of assimilation and association, and French culture was held above all others.  Southern Ivorians found it economically and socially more beneficial to adopt French culture, as they dominated the commercial aspect of the colonial state. As expected when the country gained independence in 1958, it was divided religiously and culturally, which caused few problems early on.  The leadership of Félix Houphouet-Boigny, a major revolutionary figure until 1993, allowed the country to develop without religious tensions.  A series of coups ensued, ending in a 2000 election won by Laurent Gbagbo, the main perpetrator of the 2011 conflict. In 2002 a rebellion in the North and the West effectively divided the country in three parts, a rebel-held North, a government run South, and a buffer zone were all created.  Government forces carried out Mass murders of protestors.  The conflict stemmed from a series of laws enacted by Gbagbo that hindered the rights of Northern Muslim Ivorians.  The concept of “ivoirité,” a racist term that aims mainly at denying political and economic rights to the northerners, was a major characteristic of Gbagbo’s rule that distanced recently settled Ivorians.  Immigrants from Burkina Faso found it especially difficult to survive in the country, as government hostility towards them was so great.  In 2004, the fighting ended with the rebel holding the north and Gbagbo the south.

The most recent Ivorian Crisis began in March 2011, when forces loyal to Gbagbo clashed with the internationally recognized president elect and popular Northern Ivorian, Alassane Ouattara.  Gbagbo’s security forces and allied militias engaged in killings, expulsions, rape, and torture in campaign against supporters of Ouattara.  Ouattara in return reciprocated the treatment, creating a society as entrenched in violence.  Many Ivorians have been displaced by the violence, fleeing to neighboring countries and disrupting the region.  Unsurprisingly, the U.S. decided to avoid participating in the struggle.  Events in sub-Saharan Africa are not  of great importance to the U.S., and the interventions that have been carried out have, have not ended well (Somalia).  The Ivory Coast does not have oil, and cocoa crop, once the largest in the world, has declined. In effect, however, the U.S. decision not to intervene has paid off.  France played a policing role, forcing Gbagbo to step down. As a result, the U.S. was able to steer the public’s attention in other directions to suit its own political agenda.  In this case, non-intervention was apparently the right decision.  So the question is this: Will the U.S. ever intervene in sub-Saharan countries? Would it have been better to create two different countries in the Ivory Coast?

 

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