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Grassroots Approach Works to Keep the Peace in Cote d’Ivoire

January 28, 2011

Participants observe activities of the Solidarity Event in Minankro

Tensions are high in Côte d’Ivoire with incumbent president Gbagbo refuses to concede to his rival Alassane Ouattara, who was declared the winner by the IEC. Cases of Ouattara supporters and a lesser number of Gbagbo supporters “disappearing” are on the rise and instances of violence have broken out in the capital and beyond.

Political crisis is, unfortunately, familiar to Ivoirians. Civil war broke out in 2002 between the largely Muslim north and the largely Christian South. The war ended as recently as 2007, when the Ouagadougou political accord was signed. Much of the underlying causes for the war remain unresolved, however, and other conflicts have arisen as a result of it.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of belonging. Who is and who is not an Ivoirian. With its abundant natural resources, Côte d’Ivoire has long been West African success story, drawing immigrants from all over the region but particularly from Burkina Faso. Many native Ivoirians resent this immigration; recent immigrants and those with longtime roots in the country are all called “foreigners.” This sentiment is easily manipulated by politicians. Indeed it was this concept of Ivoirité that delayed previous elections. Controversy arose over voter lists, with the nationality of one million Ivoirians being contested. Even now accusations regarding Ouattara’s heritage are used as rationale against his eligibility to hold office.

On a grassroots level these tensions are most often expressed through land conflict. Identity has real consequences when citizenship entitles land ownership. Land conflict has only been exacerbated by the return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) who fled their homes during the war.

Recognizing that peace achieved at a macro level is unsustainable unless reflected at the micro level, Search for Common Ground embarked on a project to address conflictual issues  in eight targeted locations: Bouaké (Vallée du Bandama), Guiglo (Glopaoudy), Bin Houyé, Zouan Hounien, Danané, Tabou, Soubré, and Sassandra (Bas Sassandra). These areas are historically violent flashpoints due to their location along the North-South border.

SFCG’s approach was multi-faceted and included conflict management trainings, solidarity events, dialogue sessions, participatory theater and exchange visits between community leaders. These local level activities were also reinforced by our radio programming which is broadcast nationally.

Targeting community, religious, youth and women leaders, the project was guided by the theory that linking “key” people with “more” people will improve social cohesion in Côte d’Ivoire. Thus far it is a theory that has proved true. The project ended in September, right before the current electoral crisis. The escalating tensions have lead to violence in many areas but the locations targeted by this project have been largely peaceful. Five of them, those that experience the worst violence in 2002 have experienced far less violence than other communities and certainly less violence than would be expected, given their previous divides.

Celebrating solidarity in Katouo

Civil society leaders who participated in the project, especially women, were found to have played a large role in sensitizing their communities away from violence. One of SFCG’s goals was the creation of a network of committed peace builders who can support each other in both crises and day to day conflict. The actions of these women and other civil society leaders who have worked together to maintain peace in their communities demonstrates the potential of such a network. In Guiglo, the village chief was initially very wary of involving women in conflict management but his opinion was changes after the trainings. Not only does he see the benefit of involving women but says he would not try to resolve a community conflict without them.

Across locations the majority of participants acknowledged a decrease in tensions and violence over the past year and felt that SFCG had made a marked difference in their communities.

A female community leader remarked:
“I personally always say this: Thank to SFCG I can now greet people from other political parties that I have quarreled with before. With their wise words, we have succeeded in bringing ourselves together, to talk to each other, to advise each other, and today we are very happy for their presence in the community.”

The Deputy Mayor of Danane found that “SFCG has allowed to population of Danane to establish a platform for social cohesion.”

This gets to the heart of the project’s goal and SFCG’s role in Côte d’Ivoire: to provide opportunities and space for moderate voices to be heard. In a time of crisis, when extremist rhetoric is amplified and rumor abounds, this role is even more important and has proven effective at reducing the propensity for violence. Violence and bloodshed happen at local levels and it makes sense that the tools to combat them are also found, not at negotiating tables, but at the grassroots.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. apeaceofconflict permalink
    January 28, 2011 11:48 am

    I think addressing the root issues is so incredibly important. This conflict will not just magically go away if Gbagbo is out of office, as there are many underlying tensions that will continue. The justice system and land rights are hugely problematic in this country. Thank you for your efforts!

    • January 28, 2011 11:55 am

      Thank you! Gbagbo’s departure is definitely not a panacea for the existing tensions in Cote d’Ivoire. Poor leaders can exploit tensions and divides but we hope that our programming can bring greater awareness at the community level of how to cut through rumor and manipulation so that people can address the underlying problems.


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