2006/12/10

THE FRAGILITY OF MULTI-ETHNIC AFRICA

Alex Campbell

Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria have both been regarded as beacons of hope for the African continent. spent the latter part of the twentieth century as a benchmark for unity and prosperity; Nigeria’s massive oil reserves indicate that Africa’s most populous nation can reach unprecedented economic heights. However, strong religious division and tension have severely impeded the promise that these two countries have shown, and threaten to jeopardise what was once a bright future.

National hero and longtime benevolent dictator, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, preached harmony and tolerance to Côte d’Ivoire’s population strictly divided the Muslim North and Christian South. For his 32 years in power, Ivorians listened, and their country became well known for its culture and stability - the coastal city of Abidjan was known as the ‘Paris of Africa’. Unfortunately, after Houphouet-Boigny’s death in 1993, the bond between North and South became more and more brittle. Tensions rose during a military coup in 1999 by General Robert Guei, who was soon usurped by the openly anti-Muslim Laurent Gbagbo. Events culminated in 2oo2 when Northern rebels seized control of half of the country, resulting in a civil war that, despite a 2oo5 peace treaty, certainly does not appear to have ended.

For Nigerians, ‘civil war’ evokes memories of the 196os, when the Biafran tribe that resides near the oil-rich Niger Delta tried to secede and become its own nation. After the war came an awful cycle of military coups and brutal dictatorships that ended in 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo was elected democratically. While Obasanjo has made courageous efforts to reform the country’s system of government, civilian rule has done little to improve the extremely frail relationship between its some 7o million Muslims and 55 million Christians, who are similarly divided between North and South. While its constitution stresses the importance of a secular state, 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states have implemented Islamic law causing many Christians and indigenous people to flee to the South. Violence continues to gradually escalate and shows no signs of ceasing.

Both countries have reached major crossroads. was due to have elections this October, but these have been postponed to October 2oo7, while a United Nations (UN) resolution has shifted power from President Gbagbo to the prime minister, Charles Konan Banny. At a time when the need for strong leadership is so high, the Côte d’Ivoire’s only recent unifying force has been its football team, which caused a temporary agreement between the feuding factions in the summer to allow the nation to watch the World Cup in peace. An appalling and tragic oil dumping fiasco has led to large-scale protests against the government, and shined the spotlight on Gbagbo’s inept and intolerant regime. While the UN resolution is apparently somewhat watered down, Konan Banny still holds the absolutely crucial power of setting up next year’s election; there is severe doubt that a civil and bloodless election can be held.

Nigeria is also stumbling towards an election in 2oo7. The promise of free and fair elections looks doubtful, as Obasanjo, who cannot constitutionally run again, appears intent on preventing Vice President Atiku Abubakar from attaining the presidency; Abubakar’s supporters have been jailed and his headquarters broken into. Each claims the other is corrupt, which should be no surprise in a country where 33 of 36 state governors are currently under investigation for corruption. Partisanship continues to be the trend, and there is evidence that it will be very difficult to have a peaceful election. The press, which has been liberalised by Obasanjo, has been hit by violence that, according to Reporters Sans Frontières, has created a “prevailing culture of brutality.”

The stress of poverty has certainly exacerbated the situation in both countries. Nigeria has suffered from a gross mismanagement of oil, and despite possessing 1o% of the world’s oil reserves, its population still lives in staggering poverty, while widespread corruption is severely hindering reform plans. In Côte d’Ivoire, staunch nationalism, which has come hand in hand with the ethnic conflict, has ripped apart its famed cocoa producing industry, driving away working-class immigrants, particularly from Burkina Faso and Mali, and leaving the economy severely unstable. Poor conditions and intolerance tend to feed off of one another; this makes the push for unification among Christians and Muslims decidedly more complex.

Both countries are in desperate need of tolerant and diplomatic leadership in the upcoming months. Onee reason why the rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire mutinied was that their main representative, Alassane Ouattara, was not allowed to run for election in 2ooo, and has since been ostracised from the political scene. Whether he is able to run in 2oo7 will be a major issue that could make or break the tense peace. Konan Banny appears most able to instill stability, as both sides recognise and respect him. Whether the former banker’s neutrality will be enough to protect both sides remains to be seen. In Nigeria, the responsibility lies on Obasanjo’s shoulders. While Obasanjo has shown the will and desire to improve economic and political conditions, his row with Abubakar is certainly troubling; Ivorians will be the first to tell you that oppression of the opposition is extremely detrimental to relations in a divided country. The recent death of the Sultan of Sokoto, the spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims who has often mediated when Islam and Christianity have quarreled, also hurts. His son, Mohammadu Sada Abubakar, has assumed his father’s spiritual role; his initiative will be essential, as Northern Nigerian Muslims need guidance at a time when their President is a Southern Christian.

These are extremely nervy times in West Africa. Neither Nigeria nor Côte d’Ivoire can afford anything other than peaceful, democratic elections in the upcoming year. For self-belief, clemency, and composure to overcome hatred, a lot must occur. The good news is that both nations have seen enough turmoil since the end of colonial rule to understand what is at stake; time will tell whether their leaders will do enough for cooler heads to prevail.

Sources

‘L’ONU Pourrait Donner les Pleins Pouvoirs au Premier Ministre Ivoirien,’ Le Monde, 24 October 2oo6.
‘Capping the Well-Heads of Corruption,’ The Economist, 19 October 2oo6.
‘Falling Out, But Not Yet Apart’, The Economist, 2o May 2oo4.
‘Destroying the Inheritance’, The Economist, 7 December 2ooo.
‘Nigeria Gets New Islamic Leader’, BBC, 2 November 2oo6.
‘Ivorian Leader Hails UN “Victory’”, BBC, 2 November 2oo6.

ALEX CAMPBELL, from Andover, Mass., USA, and will soon begin journalism school at Northwestern University.

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