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Bringing Côte d’Ivoire’s Divided Communities Together in Search of Common Ground

2012 August 3

By Jamie  Pleydell-Bouverie

It has been over a year since Côte d’Ivoire’s violent post-election crisis was brought to an end by the arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo and the ascension to power of his long-time rival, Alassane Ouattara. The crisis resulted in at least 3,000 civilians killed, more than 150 women raped and over 400,000 refugees and internally displaced persons.

I was working for Human Rights Watch’s West Africa division at the time of the crisis, where I documented some of Côte d’Ivoire’s horrors, took testimony of unspeakable atrocities and came dangerously close to losing my faith in human nature. Reviewing video footage of a man and two women being burned alive whilst being mocked by a large crowd of spectators has unfortunately proved to be one of my more abiding memories. Hence, my arrival at Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in Abidjan six weeks ago was accompanied by no small degree of scepticism regarding the potential for Ivorian society to heal its wounds and overcome its many divisions.

Côte d’Ivoire has been a divided country for years – politically, ethnically, and geographically – made most manifest in the years 2004-2007 when the UN maintained a buffer zone across the country, splitting the territory north from south.

It is hard to find an ethnic group in Côte d’Ivoire that does not have an assumed political affiliation. Ethnic groups originally from the south and west are “pro-Gbagbo” whilst those from the north are “pro-Ouattara”, along with the West African diaspora.  In reality, the situation is not so stark. Yet such a general truth is easily distorted into a definitive certainty in the collective consciousness of society during periods of political and social upheaval.

The challenges of reconciliation and social cohesion – the two main goals of SFCG in Côte d’Ivoire – are formidable. There is a total absence of impartial and even-handed justice for crimes committed during the crisis. Meanwhile, violent attacks continue to plague the West of the country. Reflecting on the unpromising status quo in the country, the omnipresent Jeune Afrique led with a cover story last month entitled: “Côte d’Ivoire: La Reconciliation Impossible?”

The work and philosophy of SFCG in Côte d’Ivoire demands a negative, though nuanced, answer to this question. This is not to succumb to naïve optimism. The current situation is such that a truly reconciled Côte d’Ivoire is unlikely to be achieved in the short or even medium term. But what may not be attainable in macrocosm may be possible in microcosm. What has struck me more than anything else over the last month is the proactive and steadfast commitment to peace and reconciliation at the level of individual communities. It is here where promise lies, since reconciliation and social cohesion are processes almost invariably fostered from society’s base: They cannot be imposed top-down by a government or a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is upon this premise that SFCG is pursuing its goals in Côte d’Ivoire.

Over the last month I have been working in Abobo and Yopougon, the two communes of Abidjan most affected by the post-election crisis. Following preliminary research projects aimed at understanding the societal and conflict dynamics in both communes, we embarked upon the first step of SFCG’s project “J’aime Mon Pays” – bringing together community leaders in Yopougon for a two-day workshop on conflict management and social cohesion.

Striving to attain a political, ethnic and religious balance, we chose 20 participants, each a leader of a major sector of society. These included traditional and community chiefs, political party representatives, religious leaders, NGO presidents and leaders of youth and women’s associations.

The results of the workshop were extraordinary. Visible bonds were struck between the participants, forged by their collective aspirations to attain a cohesive, peaceful, and reconciled society. As I watched an Imam joke with the leader of “The Movement for the Support of Gbagbo’s Actions”, I recalled meeting the Imam a week before. As we walked past the mosque he had pointed to a mound of earth: “Une fosse commun” – a mass grave – he informed me, before describing the grisly attack by pro-Gbagbo militia.

Here were two men on opposite sides of the socio-political and religious spectrum. One was pro-Gbagbo, the other pro-Ouattara; and in between this division laid a recent history of acrimony, violence, and slaughter. It would be amazing, under most circumstances, to see such people talking to each other. Yet we had provided a context in which all of our assembled leaders shared a very valuable commodity when it comes to conflict transformation: common ground.

After the workshop, the Imam told us softly that he had learnt most from our discussions of reconciliation, and that he would be returning home with the necessary tools to work on the ground in his community to promote social cohesion. Ange Franck Gorghi, secretary general of a pro-gbagbo coalition of “Young Patriots” for Reconciliation and Peace, stated that his now nuanced understanding of conflict as something to be transformed rather than prevented will help him reach out to his largely ostracized pro-Gbagbo comrades and bring them together in the name of reconciliation rather than bitterness and subversion. His final words stayed with me: “To all my comrades, I say that we must be dignified in our pain. We all share responsibility for Côte d’Ivoire’s crisis… and reconciliation alone can permit Côte d’Ivoire’s youth to involve themselves in the socio-economic fabric of society so that they can realise their futures.”

Any lingering doubt I had about SFCG’s efficacy in spurring communities to unite together in the name of peace and social cohesion was most certainly dispelled by the end of the workshop. Fostering harmonious relations, mutual respect, understanding, and trust amongst community leaders is invaluable since they are so well-positioned to reach out to society’s base and elicit peaceful cohesion in their communities.

Having united and trained 20 leaders in the basic tools of conflict analysis, management and transformation, SFCG also acquired 20 new partners. With our continued help, they will now work in their communities to reconcile their disparate groups and strive to heal some of the profound wounds of yesteryear.

Côte d’Ivoire faces a long, uphill struggle before it can claim to have rediscovered the stability and harmony that it showcased in the 1970s and 80s. A plethora of challenges remain and there will undoubtedly be setbacks. Côte d’Ivoire’s history certainly teaches us to be cautious with optimism. But there are reasons to hope for a brighter future in this war-scarred country. At the community level, there is clearly no lack of will for peace, stability, and cohesion. The readiness of countless Ivorians – even victims of the crisis and those who have lost loved ones – to turn a new page in the history of their nation is palpable. This teaches us of the immense value of bringing communities together in search of common ground.

Jamie Pleydell-Bouverie is a M.A. candidate for International Relations and International Economics at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He earned his B.A. degree from Cambridge University, where he graduated with First class honors in Theology and Religious Studies. He has since worked for Human Rights Watch in Dakar, Senegal. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Bologna Center Journal of International Affairs, the most recent edition of which was published in May 2012.

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