Ivory Coast: Regional Storm Brewing?

Allegedly a question of rebel army commanders disagreeing with central government policy, the conflict in the Ivory Coast is far deeper, involving neighbouring countries in one of the most ethnically divided regions in Africa, which could be waiting to explode.

Heavy fighting continues in northern Ivory Coast between the army loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel troops. The important commercial centre of Bouake is in the hands of the rebels, who have fought off several attempts by government forces to retake the city, as foreign nationals have been allowed out, protected by a joint French-US force. There were an estimated 600 French and 200 US citizens in the city.

The foreign troops are not taking sides in the conflict. Christian Baptiste, a French Army spokesperson, declared that “This violent crisis is an internal affair and the concern of our political authorities is that our citizens as well as those of the international community don’t pay the price”.

Quite how internal the affair is, is open to question. While President Gbagbo uses the crisis to increase his presidential powers, declaring a state of war, there are rumours that the rebels include many nationals from Mali and Burkina Faso.

Western Africa, another victim of the colonial practice of drawing lines on maps, is one of the most ethnically divided regions of Africa, if not the planet. The two most populous Moslem peoples are the Hausa, located between Nigeria and Niger and the Fulani, spread out from Senegal to the Cameroon. Most of the groups and sub-groups in the region practise local variations of Islam, some far removed from the teachings of Mohammed.

Ethnic lore has more significance for the populations than national laws. Most disputes are settled by customary law, at the village or tribal level, outside the national courts. In Northern Nigeria, a mixture of the Hausa customary law, Al’ada and the Sharia, rule family disputes.

Each ethnic group or sub-group has its own practices, and these groups live across, not within, national frontiers, using natural barriers as their borders, creating the grounds for inter-ethnic struggles, which transcend into what ends up being regional or even national conflicts. The existence of oil or other mineral resources in some regions, such as the southern Senegalese region of Casamance, exacerbates the tensions.


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