The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Ivory Coast:
The Rise of Ethnic Politics

Mar 31, 1996

What happened in Rwanda last year and what currently is happening in Liberia and Sierra Leone illustrate the tragic nature of the bloody ethnic conflicts consuming many African countries.

The Ivory Coast, a multi-ethnic country bordering on Liberia, seems to have escaped this calamity. In fact, this country is often cited as an example of stability, and as one of the rare successes of decolonization in what was until recently the French colonial empire.

The country possesses considerable agricultural wealth in the form of coffee and of cocoa beans, of which it is the world’s leading producer. And it has become a base through which French capital penetrates the various other countries of the former French West Africa. The city center of Abidjan—with its office skyscrapers, its banks, its big company headquarters and its luxury hotels—seems like a prosperous capital to the eyes of the casual observer.

What is more, the regime managed to survive the death of its founder, Houphouët-Boigny, without a major crisis.

Yet this apparent stability conceals strong social tensions between a local privileged layer which has benefitted from its role as an intermediary for French capital, and a population plunged into poverty by the development of the economy, driven from the countryside into the towns.

As elsewhere in Africa, political leaders in the Ivory Coast try to hide social problems by playing on ethnic feelings. Sometimes they provoke these feelings or aggravate them to establish a base of electoral support.

The ethnic situation of the Ivory Coast is comparable to that of many countries in Africa. The country itself was a completely artificial creation. Its borders bore the imprint of the struggle at the turn of the century between French imperialism and its rivals in Africa, particularly Britain; but the Ivory Coast was given its final form, at the time of decolonization, by a French imperialism bent on carving up the relatively vast territorial entities which had been French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. France’s goal was to sabotage any possibility for its former colonial subjects to form a wider grouping.

The modern Ivory Coast is a relatively small territory, with 322,462 square kilometers, inhabited by some sixty different ethnic groups, although these sixty can be divided into four main groupings: Akan, Mandingo, Voltaic and Krou. At the same time, only part of each of these ethnic groups lives in the Ivory Coast.

For example, the Akans—to whom the Baoulés in the Ivory Coast belong—constitute the majority of the population in neighboring Ghana. The Krous—who include the Bété ethnic group—are divided between the Ivory Coast and Liberia. Some of the leaders of the ethnic armed bands currently wreaking havoc in Liberia were in fact born in the Ivory Coast, and they use the border regions of the Ivory Coast as a rear base, with the complicity of local authorities.

The Voltaic peoples live in the north of the Ivory Coast, but also constitute the majority of the population in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), and in addition to this inhabit areas of various sizes in Mali, Ghana, Togo, Dahomey and even Nigeria. The Mandingos—which include the Malinkés, the Bambaras and the Dioulas among others—constitute the majority of the population in Mali; and they also have large minorities in almost all the dozen or so states of West Africa. Because these ethnic groups live in several different countries, political leaders in these countries often call their Mandingo, Dioula or Senoufo rivals, "foreigners."

While some of these ethnic populations have a history of warfare, others lived more or less harmoniously together before the advent of European colonialism, with its policy of dividing ethnic populations.

In the case of the Ivory Coast, French colonialism traditionally relied on the Baoulés, to whom Houphouët-Boigny belonged. In the thirty years of his dictatorial reign, ethnic divisions were concealed by the dictatorship, but they nevertheless existed, reflected in the privileged position given to the Baoulés in the state apparatus.

Since the introduction of the multi-party system in the last years of Houphouët-Boigny’s reign, these ethnic antagonisms have been reinforced and, above all, brought out into the open.

How and why this happened is the subject of an article by our comrades who publish Le Pouvoir aux Travailleurs in the Ivory Coast (issue number 34). What follows is a translation of this article.

From "Le Pouvoir aux Travailleurs" (31 March 1996)

In an interview entitled "Tribalism, a reality in the Ivory Coast", given to the newspaper Le Populaire on March 27, the sociologist Lanciné Sylla attempts to explain the situation in the Ivory Coast and to propose solutions to prevent populations from suffering tragedies like those in Rwanda.

According to Sylla, the increase in ethnic politics in the Ivory Coast began during the period of one-party rule. "The PDCI one-party state was basically run by ‘geopolitics,’ i.e., the manipulation of the ethnic fibers of the nation." This manner of functioning led to a concentration "of state power in the hands of a hegemonic group or of a single man well-versed in the art of ethnic and tribal manipulations."

He insists that the advent of the multi-party system and the disappearance of Houphouët-Boigny did not put an end to this practice. Politicians from Houphouët-Boigny’s ethnic group still "tend to appeal, above all, to their group of origin to stay in power." In reaction, the leaders of the opposition parties do likewise, mobilizing their own ethnic groups. This is what explains the regional implantation of the main parties which dominate the political scene: "the FPI in the West, the RDR in the North and the PDCI ... in the Center."

This situation leaves the risk of ethnic conflicts hanging over the country. As a way to escape this, Sylla proposes an understanding between the different politicians, in power and in the opposition. "They must," he says, "be moved by a spirit of constant search for consensus and compromise for the continuity of the nation ... with democracy accepted by all concerned." According to Sylla, such an understanding between bourgeois politicians "could help to peacefully settle ethnic conflicts in particular, and political conflicts in general."

It is true that political debate in the Ivory Coast is now conducted against a background of tensions and conflicts of an obviously ethnic nature. The last legislative and presidential elections demonstrated this. In the Gagnoa region, for example, conflicts between the Baoulés and the Bétés nearly degenerated into open ethnic warfare.

It is also true that these ethnic antagonisms are produced as much by those in power, the leaders of the PDCI, as by those in the opposition who fight against them. The leaders of the PDCI have always relied on their own ethnic group. Since the birth of the Ivory Coast state in the 1960s, the government set up by imperialism under the authority of Houphouët-Boigny has always relied on tribal appeals, even if it did so within the framework of the "unitary" state, which combined politicians from other ethnic groups with the "hegemonic group," the Baoulé clan.

Today, however, faced with dissent within its own political clique and deep popular discontent, the PDCI regime appears to be completely dominated by the Baoulés who hold the main reins of power. Houphouët’s heirs are increasingly relying on tribalism to maintain their power. They surround themselves mainly with people from their own ethnic group, even from their own families. They openly present themselves as defenders of the interests of their own ethnic group or their own region; they suggest that if they lost power, their group would be victimized by others seeking vengeance. This is the logic which underlies the whole so-called "Ivoirité" policy, dividing the populations of this country into "true" natives of the Ivory Coast and "contingent" ones.

On the other hand, the politicians of the opposition combat the existing regime by using the same weapons. However "democratic" they pretend to be, the leaders of the FPI, on the one hand, and the RDR, on the other, nonetheless put themselves forward primarily as defenders of the Bétés and of the Dioulas. But it is not in the name of fraternal cohabitation of ethnic groups that they combat the government’s ethnic policy. They too rely on their own ethnic group. They accentuate the cultural differences between populations, even in cases where there is no ethnic oppression. They call for solidarity in the name of their own ethnic group and transform it into hostility toward others, particularly toward the ethnic groups of the people in power. They make no distinctions within those ethnic groups, as if the poor and oppressed within the ethnic groups of corrupt leaders were responsible for the dictatorship and the poverty which they too suffer!

The rise of this whole wave of ethnic politics is obviously related to the aggravation of living conditions coming from the economic crisis. In the background of the ethnic problem lies the present, completely desperate economic situation to which the different populations are reduced, and whose ultimate source is capitalism.

The income of the Ivory Coast, like that of most African countries, comes almost exclusively from the sale of raw materials. Their economies, already fragile as the result, are today experiencing enormous economic difficulties because of the world economic crisis. The main victims of this situation are the poor masses, "true natives" or otherwise. Wages have gone down and are often paid late, and there have been mass firings—all so that the bosses can increase their profit margin. Student grants are not paid regularly. The devaluation of the CFA franc led to a 50% cut in the population’s purchasing power and a massive increase in the price of essential goods. The living conditions of workers and the poor continue to deteriorate, with insecurity and banditry rising. All the government’s talk of "revival," "growth," etc., is just pure demagogy.

This situation, characterized by the failure of capitalism, has spawned the ethnic politics developing in the Ivory Coast. Ethnic politics, like religious fundamentalism, grows on the compost heap of poverty and underdevelopment. Demagogic politicians, of both the PDCI and the opposition, are able to mobilize people behind them on ethnic or regional bases because they take advantage of real feelings of frustration.

Contrary to what the sociologist Sylla suggests, a mere understanding or "compromise" between the different bourgeois politicians will not solve these problems. It will not even protect populations from fratricidal and criminal ethnic conflicts. In other African countries—in the Congo, Niger, Chad, Rwanda or Burundi, for example—after national conferences held with great ceremony, there was "consensus" and "compromise," and "democracy was accepted by all concerned," both the leaders of the dictatorship and their opponents! But this did not prevent the same politicians from leading their countries into bloody ethnic conflicts. Even if the current power and the opposition reach an understanding, what difference will this make? Will the living conditions of the poor masses improve as a result? Will there be more freedom?

Not at all! People like Gbagbo, Bédié, Djény, Wodie and the rest defend exactly the same interests, those of the rich. Whether they reach an understanding with each other or whether they replace each other in power, the outcome will be the same: the same exploitation, the same poverty, the same diseases and the same dictatorship, all imposed by the rich.

Ethnic politics, nationalism and fundamentalism: all of these policies are a trap into which the bourgeois politicians want to lead the working class and the rest of the poor. They are used to lead people’s struggles astray, diverting them into dead ends even before the poor begin to revolt. By stirring up the oppressed against each other on ethnic bases, by seeking to unite them behind themselves in the name of the "nation," all these people aim to use the poor masses as a springboard to power. At the same time, they divert their attention from the true causes of their poverty, preventing them from becoming aware of the role they have to play in the radical transformation of existing society. They all, in reality, serve the interests of capitalism.

The country, the nation or the ethnic group of our politicians, whether they are in power or in opposition, is not what they lead people to believe. Their real nation or ethnic group is the rich, the banks, the international mafia of which they are the local servants, or would-be servants. This is their true nation, which comprises both rich blacks from our country and rich whites—French, Americans, Germans or others—who are all united in a common desire to exploit the poor, whether they be Ivory Coast natives, Bétés, Baoulés, Dioulas or whatever.

Conversely, the workers and the poor do not have any country, nation or ethnic group. Whatever their origins and their beliefs, they form a class apart, that of the workers and the oppressed, subject without exception to the same exploitation, the same poverty, the same diseases and the same dictatorship imposed by the rich. They therefore have only their own interests to defend, the interests of the poor and the proletariat. And to do so, they must have their own independent organization, independent of these ethnic and nationalist demagogues. They must count on their own struggles.

The future does not lie in divisions along ethnic lines, nor in "compromises" between bourgeois politicians. The future lies in ridding society of exploitation and poverty, the fundamental sources of all forms of oppression, including ethnic wars. This is the only possible future which can allow the poor masses of all ethnic groups to make common use of the means which exist to democratically solve the problems they face.

Beyond its ethnic or religious diversities, the working class is a single class which lives by selling its labor power, its ability to work. It can carry out a different policy from the criminal or misleading one offered by the nationalist demagogues or others who serve the exploiters. But to do this, the working class needs to be organized; it needs to have its own political organizations independent from those of the bourgeoisie.