Accessibility links

What Fuels Tensions in Ivory Coast?


As the government and rebels in Ivory Coast work toward a negotiated settlement of the country's month-long conflict, some Ivorians are doing their best to defuse ethnic tensions sparked by the rebellion.

Evidence of the fighting is still visible in this neighborhood near downtown Bouake. Pieces of broken windows and smashed doors litter the small courtyard where dozens of youths from two rival ethnic groups unleashed their fear and anger on each other.

That same courtyard now serves as the location for weekly reconciliation talks between the two sides. On this day, some 50 men and women are gathered in the shade of palm trees to discuss what went wrong and how they can prevent such violence from erupting again.

According to the residents, the trouble began on October 6. That was the day the Ivorian government launched an offensive to retake Bouake, which had fallen to the rebels on the first day of the uprising, more than two weeks earlier.

Witnesses say pro-government youths from the Baoule ethnic group took to the streets to celebrate what they thought would be a loyalist victory. They went on a rampage and killed several of the rebels.

When the government failed to re-take the city, rebel soldiers began a house-to-house search seeking revenge.

Baoules are members of a largely Christian tribe based in southern Ivory Coast, which has traditionally dominated the country's government. Most of the rebels are from the Dioula tribe from northern Ivory Coast, and they are mostly Muslims.

Kofi Alphonse, a Baoule who is one of the co-leaders of the reconciliation talks, says some Baoules in his neighborhood became suspicious when they saw their Dioula neighbors cheerfully greeting the rebels when they came into the area.

Mr. Alphonse says when the rebels began searching for the Baoule youths who had killed their comrades, some of the youths began to panic, yelling that the Dioulas and the rebels were going to kill all the Baoules and take over the neighborhood.

But Mr. Alphonse, himself a Baoule, says he believes the rebels were not out to hunt down every Baoule, but only those who were responsible for the killings. He insists the violence was a misunderstanding that quickly turned into an ethnic issue.

Another Baoule man, who identified himself only as Stanislaus, agrees with Mr. Alphonse. He says he, too, would have left Bouake if he thought the rebels were about to conduct an ethnic cleansing in the city.

Mr. Stanislaus says the rebels have done nothing to Baoules who are not openly pro-government. He says the rebels do not bother him because he is not political.

The rebels themselves insist that they have no ethnic or political backing.

A month after their rebellion started, the rebels remain difficult to define. Most are believed to be soldiers who mutinied, partly to protest government plans to demobilize them. They are also demanding the resignation of Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo, who they say heads an illegitimate government.

The government says the rebels are disaffected soldiers and mercenaries who are receiving support from neighboring Burkina Faso. For many years, the two countries have had strained relations because of what Burkina Faso perceives as the oppression of Muslims in Ivory Coast.

Some news reports have depicted the Ivory Coast rebellion as an ethnic and religious conflict. But analysts and local people say although the rebels are mainly northern Muslims and the government and its supporters are mainly southern Christians, this is not a conflict based on ethnic and religious differences.

A Dioula man taking part in the neighborhood talks in Bouake, Kwaku Antoine, says he believes the conflict was created by political opportunists in Ivory Coast, who are using it to drum up ethnic and religious support. But he says he is confident the country will not fall apart, as some reports have speculated.

Mr. Antoine says all ethnic groups in Bouake have always lived in harmony. He says the reason his neighborhood created the crisis committee was to teach people not to listen to rumors that can disrupt the peace.

A meeting ends with warm handshakes and hugs among the Baoules and the Dioulas. The larger conflict between the Ivory Coast government and the rebels is far from being settled. But Mr. Antoine smiles and predicts that at least in this neighborhood there will be peace now.

XS
SM
MD
LG