Ebony and Ivoirité

Transition Magazine #94, October 2oo3. Reprinted at Alternet.

Jil-Alexandre N’Dia is living the Ivorian dream.

Eight years ago, N’Dia came to America. For the last five years, along with his childhood friend Daniel Ahouassa, N’Dia has run Abidjan.net, a popular Web site that caters to migrants from Ivory Coast, the West African nation of their birth. The site offers on-line editions of the country’s main newspapers, as well as message boards, recipes, and a store where visitors can order food, clothing, and music from back home.

Abidjan.net also features on-line personals for lonely Ivorians overseas. “We’ve had it all,” N’Dia tells me over lunch at a noisy Cheesecake Factory in suburban Maryland. “Relationships, marriages, guys who get girls pregnant and disappear, the whole works.” Best of all, the site turns a profit. It’s produced on a shoestring — as plain as any page on the Web, but crammed with the content its audience craves. Abidjan.net gets most of its revenue from advertisements, many of them placed by other immigrant businesses thrilled to find such a well-defined audience.


N’Dia and Ahouassa are pleased with their venture, which grew out of a mailing list for alumni of a leading secondary school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s commercial center. Both quit promising engineering jobs to focus on the site full time. Most people who visit the Web site are based in the U.S., though N’Dia is pleased to report that they’re getting more and more hits from Ivory Coast. He’s heard that Ivorian government ministers use Abidjan.net to keep up with the news when traveling abroad.

Still, N’Dia and Ahouassa are more nerdish than nationalist. They get much more excited about servers and software than about the content on their site. Like so many twenty-something guys around the world, they parlayed a childhood obsession with computers into a career. Abidjan.net is only the beginning: They want to create the premier information technology company in French-speaking West Africa, and have already set up a consulting firm, named Weblogy, for this purpose. Ahouassa has gone back to Abidjan to drum up business. As for N’Dia, he’s still living in Washington, working out of an upscale Georgetown apartment, but his attention is wandering. He’s impatient to move on.

Unfortunately, Jil N’Dia probably won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Ivory Coast went into free-fall in September 2002, when a failed coup attempt set off armed clashes between government troops, loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo, and rebels, who quickly took hold of a large swath of territory. The conflict soon assumed the proportions of a civil war; the country split in two, with France, the old colonial power, deploying thousands of troops to enforce a series of cease-fires and peace agreements. While I lunch with N’Dia, Abidjan is under curfew and dissidents are abducted in the night. The opposition has gone into hiding; its main leader, Alassane Ouattara, is under protection in the French ambassador’s residence. Its own army a shambles, the government is employing mercenaries to fight the rebels; those mercenaries are being blamed for massacres and bombings in rebel-held territory.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Ivory Coast of N’Dia’s youth was an African success story — a leading exporter of coffee and cocoa beans, a stable country with good schools, good roads, a relatively benign government, and seemingly limitless opportunities. It was a magnet for ambitious migrants from across West Africa, and its citizens were proud to the point of vanity. Why was Ivory Coast so successful? Because the Lord smiles on His people: “Vraiment, Dieu est ivorien!” Today, the economy is in shambles, the electricity is spotty, and refugees are on the move. One indignity sums it up: Ivorians are taking shelter in Liberia.

The war has put Weblogy’s plans on hold. In Abidjan, Ahouassa is watching as what’s left of the economy implodes. With the curfew constricting work hours and production grinding to a halt, information technology isn’t much of a priority for most businesses. The war has sown chaos in this normally bustling city, long the commercial and cultural capital for all French-speaking West Africa.

Even as Abidjan falls apart, Abidjan.net is booming. Traffic is at an all-time high. The Ivorian diaspora is angry and confused, and the Web site is its barometer. All the major Ivorian newspapers post their stories to the site, which runs them unaltered. The articles are often bitterly partisan, reflecting the atmosphere of escalating paranoia back home.

“It’s true,” N’Dia shrugs. “The level is very low.” But he refuses to moderate or censor the proceedings — that would take too much effort, and besides, everyone would accuse them of taking sides. As it is, he and Ahouassa are constantly fielding complaints. As long as they’re getting criticism from all comers, though, they figure they’re maintaining a reasonably neutral line.

It’s easy to trade insults when you’re hiding behind the anonymity of the Web. But what’s happening on Abidjan.net is only an exaggerated version of what’s happening throughout the Ivorian diaspora. The drastic events back home have splintered already fragile immigrant communities. In cities around the world, and particularly in the United States, Ivorians accustomed to looking to one another for solidarity and assistance are now at each other’s throats.

* * *

In the United States, Ivorians are recent immigrants. Their numbers began to swell sometime in the early 1990s, thanks to a slowdown in the economy at home and growing disenchantment with France, the traditional destination for outwardly mobile Ivorians. Indeed, many Ivorians come to the U.S. from France, in search of better entrepreneurial opportunities and a more welcoming culture. There are probably ten thousand Ivorians in the United States today. English-speaking African communities are larger and older — Ghanaians and Nigerians, for example — but every indication suggests that the ranks of Ivorian Americans are rapidly expanding.

As is common with immigrant first waves, the Ivorians have clustered in a few cities. The largest number are in New York, the traditional point of entry; Atlanta boasts a large Ivorian population; some have settled around Washington, home to the Ivorian embassy and other international organizations; and there are clusters in smaller cities such as Worcester, Massachusetts, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. But perhaps the most active Ivorian community can be found in Philadelphia, one metropolis over from New York, where immigrants can find cheaper real estate and more plentiful opportunities to make a living.

All in all, perhaps a thousand Ivorian men, women, and children live in Philadelphia. They’re quite well educated — most have some university training — but they are also, often, starting fresh. Every Ivorian male in Philadelphia, it seems, has driven a taxi, while perhaps half the women engage in la coiffure africaine, hair braiding. They live throughout the city’s black neighborhoods, not on the worst blocks, but not on the best ones, either. They often choose places close to commercial thoroughfares like Broad Street in North Philly or West Philly’s vibrant, chaotic Fifty-Second Street. The row house apartments I visited were dilapidated on the outside, but inside they felt just like Abidjan, with tidy furniture, family photos, backlit wall ornaments, the aroma of palm oil stew, and children who emerged every now and then to be coaxed into offering a shy hello.

Depending on who you talk to, it’s either very hard or very easy to find Ivorians in America. Robert Djiriga, an evangelical pastor in North Philadelphia, tells me that the city’s Ivorians mainly keep to themselves. They live scattered across a large area, not in clumps; they don’t socialize much except at church or formal events, like funerals. Jil N’Dia assures me this is true not only in Philly. “Ivorians overseas don’t really like to get together. They actually run away from the group. One reason may be that they’re ashamed of what they have to do to survive: waiting tables, sweeping. So they hide in their corner.”

On the other hand, N’Dia admits, “the Northern traders cluster together.” He is acknowledging a crucial split in the community. It’s quite easy, in fact, to seek and find Ivorians — on a particular stretch of Baltimore Avenue in West Philly, for example, where everyone knows the Ivorian market and restaurant. The dusty grocery — a bodega, basically — is crowded with all the treasures of home: palm oil in endless varieties, dried okra, smoked agouti, bitter kola nuts, crusty baguettes (a colonial legacy), telephone cards, the latest Magic System and Meiway albums, and, for those who require true comfort, imported Ivorian toiletries like toothpaste and soap.

It’s a block that could make anyone nostalgic for Ivory Coast, but I have been warned to be careful on Baltimore Avenue; many of these people are lying. I’ve heard that many of these Ivorians, like the ones on 116th Street in Harlem, are really originaires of neighboring countries. Ivory Coast’s relaxed immigration policy and economic prosperity made it easy and desirable for étrangers to claim they are Ivorian. Now the diaspora is overrun with impostors. Or so they say.

* * *

To hear some people speak of it, Ivory Coast itself is a nation of impostors. And it’s true that in the 1990s, the question of what it meant to be Ivorian took center stage in the country’s politics. A brand new coinage found its way into nearly every debate: ivoirité. A slogan, a watchword, a normative category, ivoirité has created a new taxonomy of belonging: there are “Ivorians by circumstance” and “Ivorians by descent.” At the pinnacle, with the most ivoirité, are the Ivoiriens de souche multiseculaire — Ivorians of indubitable, multigenerational descent. At the other end of the scale, there are foreigners and “people who present themselves as Ivorian.”

In a country like Ivory Coast, not much is indubitable. As nations go, Ivory Coast is a fairly recent invention; like most African countries, its borders were imposed externally, by the colonial powers, and masked a profusion of ethnic groups, languages, and ways of life. Adding to the confusion, Ivory Coast, unlike most African countries, is a nation of immigrants. In fact, without immigrants there might have been no nation at all; until recently, the territory was mostly forest.

Over the last few centuries, Akan people — relatives of the Ashanti — moved in from the kingdoms to the east, while others trickled in from what is now Liberia in the west. The northern savanna was somewhat more hospitable. It once constituted the southern frontier of the old Mali and Songhai empires, and the people who settled there included Peul and Malinke, along with the indigenous Senoufo and Tagwana. Dioula emerged as a common market language for these people, and eventually it designated a kind of hodgepodge ethnicity. The so-called Dioulas were often but not always Muslim, and many could claim relatives across colonial frontiers in Mali, Guinea, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso).

In 1960, at independence, Ivory Coast was booming. Its new president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, had been the colony’s leading political figure. A Catholic and a Baoule from the south of the country, Houphouet had risen to power through the Syndicat Agricole Africain, representing the new landlords and custodians of national wealth. This was an ethnically mixed class: Houphouet’s close associate, Soungalo Djibo, for decades the mayor of the second city Bouake, was a Voltaique.

Recognizing the secret of his country’s success, Houphouet promoted a kind of self-interested Pan-Africanism. He opened his country to African migrants, and they came by the tens of thousands. They came from every country in the region, to cultivate, build, trade, cook, clean house, and drive taxis. Houphouet extended the franchise to immigrants, and a few held positions in his government. Naturally, immigrants were happy to stay. Children and grandchildren were born and raised in Ivory Coast. Intermarriage was common. Citizenship was not a major issue: national identity cards were easy enough to get, and most people didn’t need passports, which were used only for travel outside West Africa, anyway.

The president justified his expansive approach to immigration with a quasi-official ideology of nationhood that celebrated hospitality, peace, and dialogue as the central Ivorian values. Each of these terms had a clear political meaning. Peace required a deeply conservative political order, built on a single party, run by a paternal autocrat. The preferred method of decision-making was dialogue (as opposed, say, to competition), which meant that conflicts were resolved by the president, who usually consoled the loser with an envelope full of cash. And hospitality was the correct response to the massive influx of immigrants, which enriched the whole country in general — but especially the party’s elite. Houphouet made sure that every part of the country received at least some of the largesse.

* * *

“There’s a crisis of confidence,” Eric Edi tells me. “The atmosphere is polluted.”

He’s describing the impact of Ivory Coast’s expanding conflict on the community in Philadelphia, which he calls the “nerve center” of Ivorians in the United States. A lean and lively man in his thirties, Edi is writing his dissertation and teaching at Temple University. On a miserable November evening — two months into the civil war — we’ve taken refuge in his office in the Africana Studies department, down a long corridor where the doors and bulletin boards are papered with Afrocentric lecture announcements, Kemetic names, and hieroglyphs. Edi is more of a socialist, though, with the mind of an organizer and a keen sense of his responsibility as an intellectual.

Each day, he fears, the civil war is driving Philadelphia’s Ivorians to greater extremes of distrust and recrimination. A visible casualty has been the community life that used to flourish on Baltimore Avenue. The first time he went there, Edi remembers, “I felt like I was in Ivory Coast: I’m no longer lost, I’m among my Ivorian brothers. But today there are Ivorians who won’t go to West Philly anymore.”

It’s true that Baltimore Avenue doesn’t try to conceal its sympathies. Just behind the counter in Mr. Toure’s Baltimore African Market hangs a commemorative ribbon honoring the Rassemblement des Republicains (RDR), an opposition party which draws its support from the north. The ribbon is small, but not discreet. Meanwhile, the restaurant down the block has become a headquarters of sorts for Ivorians critical of the government. When I arrange to meet the head of the Ivorian Muslim community, a circumspect man named Camarate, he arrives in a group that includes the second-in-command of the local RDR cell. They are bitter and frustrated, and they don’t trust President Gbagbo. And though they claim that the RDR is not yet willing to support the rebels, it seems like a matter of time. “Our people have been mistreated,” one man tells me, “and now comes a group that treats them properly. How can I not support that group?”

Therese Doumbia won’t shop on Baltimore Avenue. Madame Doumbia is a doyenne, a pillar of the community. A small, spry woman of about sixty, she works as a home care nurse; she has lived in Philadelphia longer than most. She and her husband support President Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) — once, during a visit to the United States, Gbagbo even stayed at their house. (Madame Doumbia claims the president calls her “la tutrice,” and Philadelphia his American home: “He found true human warmth here.”) Until recently, the Doumbias still did their shopping on the Avenue. “But finally, my husband got too angry,” Madame Doumbia admits. Now she takes her custom to a Nigerian store.

This disappoints Eric Edi. Among immigrants, he argues, “the whole point is mutual assistance! If your brother is here and has a store, that’s where you buy your phone card!” He’s watching the whole apparatus of immigrant solidarity come undone. Edi’s own attempts to resurrect the Delaware Valley Ivorian Association ended in failure. The organization had unraveled in the late 1990s; in early 2002, Edi convened a committee to relaunch the group as a bulwark against the divisions being sown back home. There were northerners and RDR members on the committee, people Edi considers his friends, but they’ve stopped returning his calls. The northerners are judging him, he feels, because of his southern name.

But then Edi isn’t completely neutral, either. “We support what is in place, which is the Republic,” he says. “No matter who the sitting president is. The problem is not whether the president is good or not. It’s whether we, Africans, know how to respect our own rules.” It’s a question of patriotism; ivoirité is not the issue.

But I sense very little distinction between patriotism and ivoirité when I visit Danielle Azaud. A charming woman in her thirties with two small children, Azaud welcomes me into her tidy living room, where she serves me a traditional Ivorian drink: instant coffee. She has just led a revolt against the Philadelphia Ivorian Women’s Association. Her new Association of Patriotic Ivorian Women already boasts fifty members, including Madame Doumbia. She claims to have members from all the political parties. “These days,” she says, “it’s not about parties, it’s about the country.” That is, it’s the country that has a problem. “Ivory Coast is a welcoming country,” she insists. “The Ivorian forgets himself. He prefers that the foreigner be better off than he. Now our sisters who want to sell in the markets aren’t allowed to set up shop” — because foreigners, she believes, have taken over trade. “That’s why all of this is happening.”

Fanta Bamba leads the rump faction of the Philadelphia Ivorian Women’s Association. She claims that her organization is still doing well; she, too, claims fifty members, and assures me they come from all regions. When I ask her which side she’s on, she demurs. “What is happening is happening to us all,” she says. “That northerners are being killed is bad for southerners, too. Nobody gains.”

For now, the rival women’s groups perform basically identical functions: members raise money by the tontine system, rotating meetings from home to home and contributing each month’s dues to the hostess; the revenues cover the costs of childbirth and funerals, and the members offer new arrivals shelter and useful advice. But the schism keeps these women from achieving critical mass. Despite their political differences, all the Ivorians I meet in Philadelphia agree that the conflict is hurting the community’s material prospects. And its reputation: “It hurts when you see the Council of Malians, the Senegalese, the Eritreans all meeting regularly,” Eric Edi complains. “Now in Philadelphia when they speak of Ivorians, they say, ‘Oh, those people with the political problems.’ That hurts.”

The Philadelphia Ivorians realize the irony of their situation — debating immigration at home even as they struggle to advance as immigrants abroad. Northerners call it hypocrisy. “How can you go around accusing people of being foreigner this, foreigner that,” asks one man on Baltimore Avenue, “when you’re a foreigner here yourself?” Government supporters, on the other hand, stress the immigrant’s duty to adapt, to assimilate, and above all to respect the laws of the land. Immigrants, they say, should know their place. Even in the “land of freedom,” rules are rules. One benefit of having traveled so far, many Ivorians tell me, is the sense of perspective it gives them. Overseas Ivorians have a duty to offer guidance to those in the thick of the crisis back home. Eric Edi dreams of convening a symposium of Ivorian Americans that could put the full authority of the diaspora behind its recommendations for solving the conflict. But what recommendations would those Ivorian Americans make?

* * *

The story of Ivory Coast’s unraveling begins, as stories of national decline often do, with the death of the patriarch. Felix Houphouet-Boigny died on or around December 7, 1993. His age was the subject of considerable speculation, but he was probably in his early nineties. Houphouet’s life had always been staged to maximize symbolic effect, and his death was no different: Though rumors of his passing had circulated for days, it was announced on Independence Day, forever linking the memory of father and fatherland.

Houphouet’s death thrust a nasty battle for succession onto the national stage. Henri Konan Bedie was speaker of the national assembly and a senior figure in the Parti Democratique de Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI), the governing political party; Alassane Ouattara was prime minister. In the event of the president’s death or incapacity, Ivory Coast’s constitution gave the presidency to the leader of the parliament. But the constitution had been ratified long before Ivory Coast ever had a prime minister. Houphouet had only created the position in 1990, when government mismanagement of the cocoa harvest sent protesters into the streets calling for reforms. Ouattara was an economist and banker who had spent most of his career abroad, notably as an officer with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. Ouattara was a pure technocrat, a political unknown who was not even a card-carrying member of the ruling party. His selection as prime minister was meant to convey a fresh start, and it was popular with international investors, as well as many Ivorians.

But not, as it happened, with Henri Konan Bedie. Bedie was the golden boy of the PDCI, an indomitable apparatchik who came to prominence in the go-go 1970s. People said he had purchased his graduate degree, and he was famous for throwing parties to celebrate increases in his personal wealth. He embodied the party elite, and as head of the legislature he commanded a network of sycophants and opportunists. Whenever Ouattara went after the arteries of patronage, he found Bedie in his way. It was no different after Houphouet’s death. Ouattara insisted that he was effectively the second-in-command, and that the presidency should fall to him. Both men scrambled to gain the backing of influential supporters, especially among the armed forces. Twenty-four tense hours later, Bedie barged into a television studio to broadcast his acceptance speech to the nation — and to the world. France, still Ivory Coast’s primary benefactor, sent its congratulations, and the matter was settled.

Defeated, Ouattara resigned his portfolio and returned to Washington, becoming the third-highest-ranking official at the IMP. Meanwhile, Bedie quietly set out to erode Ouattara’s reforms. The old spoils system returned, along with extravagant public expenses. He also promoted a cult of personality, funding the establishment of Bedie-themed organizations across the nation. But the old system had depended on prosperity and social peace, and Bedie now faced a fractious, increasingly impoverished populace — and a newly independent press. There were protests, strikes, and most of all, a constant stream of critical stories in the newspapers. Bedie won a new five-year term in the first post-Houphouet presidential elections, in 1995, but the victory was tarnished; anticipating fraud, all the main opposition parties had boycotted.

One of those parties was especially worrisome. The Rassemblement des Republicains (RDR) was founded by reform-minded ministers from the old governing party. Their attacks were particularly effective, since much of the membership knew the PDCI’s corrupt ways firsthand. Ouattara was the RDR’s inspiration — and its leader in exile. His name lent the party considerable weight, and not only for his reputation as the country’s premier reformer. For Ouattara was another kind of pioneer: He was the first major political figure to hail from the country’s north. By ethnicity, Ouattara was Dioula; by religion, Muslim. This promised him a sizable natural constituency. It also provided Bedie with an opening.

The government accused Ouattara of “dubious nationality.” Though his father was born in the ancient town of Kong, well within Ivory Coast’s colonial-era border, his father’s family hailed from Upper Volta. The PDCI challenged Outtara to prove the authenticity of his birth certificate and to tell where his parents had been born.

The attack on Ouattara’s origins was a political masterstroke. It put Bedie’s chief rival on the defensive, and it invented a political issue that had nothing to do with politics. Rather than denounce Ouattara as a reformer — the regime was still solicitous of foreign investment, after all — Bedie’s cronies could vilify him as an outsider. The clear implication was that origins were more important than actions. Call it the triumph of identity politics. Bedie’s people called it ivoirité.

The PDCI moved to revise Ivory Coast’s electoral code. The key clause was eligibility to run for office — especially for president. Candidates were always required to be “Ivorian.” But Bedie’s legal maneuver restricted eligibility to persons “Ivorian by birth, of father and mother themselves Ivorian by birth.” This was a slightly absurd requirement: the parents of anyone old enough to run for office would have been born before independence — that is, before the territory acquired firm borders. Indeed, many in that older generation have no official record of where (or when) they were born.

The revision also failed in its immediate purpose of excluding Ouattara. He was born in Dimbokro, in the center of the country; his father in Kong, in the north; his mother in Odienne, in the northwest, and all of this was documented. But Bedie’s team then accused the Ouattara clan of possessing false documents. They even alleged that his mother was an impostor — that the real Madame Ouattara was a Burkinabe who had died some years earlier. This approach — attacking the family — did not take well with public opinion, even with people who didn’t much like Ouattara.

In fact, the “father and mother themselves” provision made a political issue out of everyone’s parentage — including Bedie, whose origins were, if anything, murkier than Ouattara’s. Some said Bedie was the son of Houphouet-Boigny himself; in any case, his father’s identity had always been a mystery. When a team of reporters from an opposition newspaper headed into the Baoule heartland in search of the president’s birthplace, their investigations — journeying from village to village, interviewing elders — pulled them closer and closer to the Ghanaian border. The reporters were arrested before they could get there.

Yet despite the glaring inconsistencies, the focus on origins had the merit of keeping Ouattara, who quit the IMF in the summer of 1999 to take over the RDR, entangled in a giant judicial runaround. And it struck a powerful chord with the populace. The efficacy of the ad hominem attack on Ouattara and the general questioning of those of “foreign origin” made ivoirite the touchstone of Ivorian life — easy to denounce when employed by one’s enemies, but difficult to resist. The police, who were relying more and more on bribes to augment their salaries, often preyed on Northerners. In a time of shrinking resources, weeding out the “foreigners” made it easier to ration civil service jobs, school admissions, and business licenses.

When General Robert Guei overthrew Bedie in a bloodless coup on Christmas Eve, 1999, he declared ivoirite a divisive distraction from the country’s real issues — particularly the economy. It was the first coup in Ivorian history, but, frustrated with the incompetence of the Bedie regime, few Ivorians complained. They dubbed Guei “Papa Noel” and welcomed his promise to “sweep the house clean.”

Within months, however, Guei had lapsed into the grand tradition of “temporary” military rulers and announced his intention to run for the presidency himself. His denunciations of ivoirite abruptly ceased, and the pestering of Ouattara began anew. Guei initiated a new angle of attack: Ouattara had used a Burkinabe diplomatic passport during part of his early career. A new constitution, adopted under Guei, barred anyone who had “prevailed himself of another nationality” at any time from running for president. As the September 2000 elections drew near, the Supreme Court reviewed all of the candidacies and found Ouattara ineligible. It also found procedural reasons to exclude other major candidate, save Guei and Laurent Gbagbo, a longtime leftist critic of the government and leader of the FPI. The bet, clearly, was that Guei would beat Gbagbo in a carefully controlled electoral setting.

In fact, Gbagbo won, despite Guei’s blatant attempt to steal the election (Guei was thwarted by a popular uprising). The general unrest provided cover for abuses, apparently by security forces, against northerners and immigrants, even though these communities had been largely excluded from the electoral process. The discovery of a mass grave of Dioulas in the sprawling Abidjan suburb of Yopougon raised ethnic tensions to a new level. Once Gbagbo’s election was recognized, despite its flaws, by France and other countries, he too promised an end to division. But while Gbagbo held a lengthy “National Reconciliation Forum” in 2001, he maintained the pressure on Ouattara, speaking constantly of the legitimacy of institutions and the sanctity of the electoral process. He also encouraged the spread of a virulent strain of ivoirité among FPI youth leaders, evangelicals, pro-government academics, and the pro-government press.

* * *

Paradoxically, the civil war came at a time when Ivory Coast’s political leadership seemed close to ending its vendettas. In January 2002, the four freres ennemis — Gbagbo, Bedie, Guei, and Ouattara — had come together for a handshake in Yamoussoukro, Houphouet-Boigny’s birthplace. A few months later, the government announced that Ouattara would receive a new certificate of nationality — the first step in a possible political rehabilitation. But the effects of ivoirite had spread so far into the daily life of ordinary people that no grand compromise among the political elite could bottle them up again. Ten years ago, Ivorians weren’t northerners or southerners. You came from a specific town and ethnic group: you were Agni from Abengourou, Yacouba from Man, Tagwana from Katiola. Now you are nordiste or sudiste. If you are somewhere in between, you have to make a choice.

When the war began, on September 19, 2002, it appeared at first to have nothing to do with ivoirité. Junior officers from the Guei era, facing demobilization and the attendant loss of pay and pensions, took up arms in protest; at the same time, anti-Gbagbo officers exiled in neighboring countries staged a return, fortified with impressive resources in weapons and money — origins unclear. The revolt failed in Abidjan, where two nights of rioting and opportunistic violence saw the deaths of General Guei, death-squad attacks on the homes of Ouattara (who fled to the French ambassador’s residence) and other opposition figures, and the assassination of the Interior Minister. But in the north, revolts in the major cities succeeded, and the rebellion spread rapidly. Within a month, a ceasefire line split the country neatly in two — the north offering the rebels safe haven and general public acceptance, the south loyal to Gbagbo and his government. Not by coincidence, the frontier created by the military stalemate followed the divisions wrought by ivoirite. Whatever the causes of the original uprising, Ivory Coast’s civil war became a war fought over ivoirité.

* * *

Or was it part of the War on Terror? “The hour of patriotism is upon us,” President Gbagbo warned immediately after the coup attempt, blaming “foreign terrorists” for starting the war. Pro-government papers compared the coup attempt to September 11 and appealed to George W. Bush for military assistance. (One widely circulating rumor maintained that al Qaeda had taken refuge in the rebel-held north.) Loyalists denounced France’s efforts to find a political solution to the conflict that would address rebel demands, and took to flying the American flag at political rallies. In March 2003, an interim “reconciliation government” was brokered, with great difficulty, by France and Ivory Coast’s neighbors. But the country remains on the edge — economically depleted, traumatized by war and abuses, and riven with suspicion and recrimination.

It’s a nasty situation for Ivorians of “dubious nationality.” If you have a northern name like Cisse, Toure, Kone, or Traore, the presumption is not simply that you’re a foreigner, but that you’re a terrorist — or at least, a sympathizer. “We will clean the shanty towns!” Gbagbo announced, and soon migrant neighborhoods across Abidjan were being burned and bulldozed.

In Philadelphia as in Abidjan, the rhetoric has taken an ugly turn. The community is divided as never before. And on the message boards at Abidjan.net, rants and attacks are more common than debates. Posters call one another “cowards” and “whores.” Ethnic and religious insults are everywhere. One self-styled “anti-immigrant patriot” calls himself “Le Pen,” a sinister African homage to France’s most famous racist. Amid the mutual distress at the country’s collapse, there is a temptation to discern a silver lining. Like it or not, ivoirite lurks at the heart of what each side hopes the country will learn from its tribulations. Those who oppose Gbagbo see the chickens coming home to roost: now, they hope, the effects of the ideology will be plain to see, and it will finally be put to rest. Loyalists, who won’t use the word ivoirite, act nonetheless on its assumptions. War, they say, sorts out the true from the false — patriots, citizens, Ivorians. Even a moderate loyalist like Eric Edi, the academic, says the war has the benefit of “showing who is who.”

In better days, it was said that God was surely Ivorian. Now, it seems, God has to take a side. Ivorians on both sides of the divide are seeking an explanation in religion. Throughout the Ivorian diaspora, imams have been under pressure to endorse the northern cause. One imam has lost the trust of his flock by calling for moderation and skepticism toward all political parties. He can no longer make the rent on the apartment that serves as his mosque; his congregation has disbanded.

The other side rings with millenarian tones. Fundamentalist churches have spread in the community — President Gbagbo himself, ostensibly a socialist, is born-again. In Philadelphia, many seekers after moral clarity turn to Robert Djiriga, the evangelical pastor, who leads a storefront congregation called “Christian Succor: The Path of Love and Redemption.” I meet him at his apartment in a crumbling rowhouse off North Broad Street, where he lives with his wife and grown daughter. It’s a cozy flat, where religious icons compete with the television and the computer for pride of place. The pastor, like everyone else in the community, spends late nights surfing the Web, including Abidjan.net. A warm man in his fifties, at ease in a black tracksuit and sweater, he offers me a Diet Pepsi before we delve into the conflict and its causes.

Pastor Djiriga hails from Lakota in the south, and once owned a plantation in the quiet coastal town of Fresco. In his student days, he was a campus activist, first in Abidjan and then in France. He practiced law for many years in both countries before moving his family to America in 1992. Even now, he helps out occasionally at a downtown Philadelphia law office, though he’s also had to drive a cab. The call to God is what animates him: He studied ministry in a Pentecostal school and established his own congregation. It numbers about sixty souls, most of them Ivorian.

The pastor’s intellectual background is apparent in his careful description of the diaspora and the way its political life mirrors the developments back home — the partisan bickering, the quarrels among Gbagbo, Ouattara, and Bedie. But he also warns me, over and over, about false Ivorians in the community’s midst. “Many of our African brothers here spent time in Ivory Coast,” he says. “Now they present themselves as Ivorian.” It’s difficult to build links to Muslim spiritual leaders, he tells me, because so many of the local Muslims are actually “brothers from other countries.” Most of all, anyone who fails to oppose the rebellion cannot be a true Ivorian. “People identify them as terrorists,” he declares. “Real Ivorians can’t accept an attack on the country.”

I ask the pastor how he explains the country’s troubles to his flock of anxious compatriots, who, he tells me, are upset and depressed.

“The spirit of rebellion is a spirit of Satanism and witchcraft,” he answers. “Satan himself was a rebel! The Lord has revealed to me many things about Ivory Coast. God does nothing by chance. There is a time for purification, and that’s what is happening right now.”

Purification can take time. The devil is ingenious. “If there is more bloodshed, well, that is universal suffering,” the pastor says. It will have to be accepted. “We must pray.”

Advertisements