Background: Côte d’Ivoire at a Crossroads

Côte d’Ivoire stands at a crossroads in its history, with its citizenry hoping for peace, justice and prosperity but fearing a return to war and civil unrest that has plagued the country on and off for more than a decade.

On January 5th, 2017 about 8,500 former soldiers began violently demanding the payment of up to $20,000 in unpaid bonuses—10 times what the average Ivorian earns in a year. At the same time, civil servants went on strike for better pensions and unpaid wages. While the president has conceded to the demands of the soldiers, he is threatening to fire the strikers if they don’t go back to work.

These struggles are just the latest in a series of violent bursts that have rocked the country on its road to recovery from a brutal civil war that raged from 2002-2007. Six years ago, 3,000 people died and 500,000 more fled their homes when violence flared after a highly contested election.

At the same time, the West African nation has embraced a new constitution that purportedly aims to bolster democracy, social cohesion and rule of law. While some Ivorians welcome this step, others want their government focus instead on ending the ongoing violence and rapidly rising cost of living.

Recognizing that Côte d’Ivoire is at a critical turning point that will affect millions of lives, in 2015 AJWS began supporting social change organizations there that are leading the charge for a safer, more secure, and more just Ivorian society. These courageous groups have stood their ground in the face of political violence and government repression, encouraging Ivorians of every age, ethnicity, and political persuasion to educate themselves about the issues, speak out against injustice, and exercise their rights to vote. They are hopeful that their calls for justice, accountability, and basic freedoms will prevail.

A History of Civil War and Political Violence

The conflict in Côte d’Ivoire stems from decades of tension between people in the country’s South and the North and other zones; which are divided along ethnic and religious lines. The South is predominantly Christian and largely populated by ethnic groups indigenous to the country. The East, the West and the North have a largely immigrant population—most of whom came from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea in the 1970s and 80s to work on Côte d’Ivoire’s growing cocoa plantations.

Politicians from the South and central region have long controlled Côte d’Ivoire’s central government and shaped legislation to support their claim to power based on the idea that only “real Ivorians” should hold office. For example, in the mid-1990s, the government passed a law requiring that anyone who wishes to run for president must have both parents born in Côte d’Ivoire—thereby preventing many northerners from running because they have parents from Burkina Faso. The legislation blocked Alassane Ouattara, a key northern leader, from running in the 1995 and 2000 elections, which increased the anger and frustration of northerners. In 2002, civil war erupted between armed groups in the north and forces supportive of Ouattara and the Ivorian army in the south—claiming the lives of more than a thousand civilians and hundreds of fighters.

The war officially ended in 2007, when then President Laurent Gbagbo—a southerner—signed a peace deal, conceding that Ouattara (the northern leader) would be allowed to run in the 2010 elections. In November 2010, Ouattara defeated Gbagbo in a hotly contested run-off, but Gbagbo refused to step down. Then, a military and political crisis ensued between the national army supporting Gbagbo and an armed group fighting for Ouattara, killing thousands and displacing half a million people. The conflict ended on April 11, 2011, when Ouattara’s forces seized power and arrested Gbagbo. Today, Ouattara is president, while Gbagbo is being tried for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Although the armed struggle ended, many Ivorians are discontent with Ouattara’s leadership. Many civil society groups criticize his focus on the country’s economic development at the expense of social and human rights concerns.

Youth Demand Democracy

A generation came of age during these years of war since 2002, and many Ivorian youth are now fed up with the fighting and the political divide that plagues their country. A growing nonpartisan and informal movement—largely led by youth—has emerged, calling for democracy and unity in Côte d’Ivoire. Among those leading this call are two organizations supported by AJWS: Center of Education for a Sustainable Society (CESD), and the Ivorian Observatory for Human Rights (OIDH).

Launched by a group of student activists in May 2011, CESD has trained hundreds of young people to play an active role in the democratic process through civic education, organizing, and mentorship. In a sign of their commitment to nonviolence, they recently spearheaded a campaign to promote peaceful elections in four regions of the country, with a focus on towns where violence flared in 2010 and 2011.

According to CESD staff, the center encourages youth to think beyond the divisive political and ethnic lines. “Some [youth] have decided to leave their party in denunciation of anti-democratic practices… [many have] joined civil society or taken a position on social media,” one staff member said. The increasing willingness of youth to take a stand—either from within, or outside of, political parties—is what makes CESD leadership most proud.

OIDH, founded by young adults in 2014, works to rout corruption in the criminal justice sector. It has fearlessly denounced the double standard in punishing the perpetrators of war crimes committed during the 2010 and 2011 post-election crisis, in which many Gbagbo forces have stood trial while Ouattara’s government has blatantly failed to arrest its own forces implicated in massacres and other abuses. With support from AJWS and other funders, OIDH has also documented grave human rights violations in prisons in several regions of the country and contributed reports to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

A New Constitution and a New Wave of Violence

In 2016, the government decided to hold a referendum vote on several key changes to the Ivorian constitution. On November 8, 2016, Ivorians voted in a new two-term limit for the President, added a Vice President post, and created a Senate. The new constitution also included a provision that candidates for president must have only one natural-born Ivorian parent instead of two, which would allegedly lessen discrimination against northern candidates. While these changes could create a more democratic government, some Ivorians, including AJWS grantees, fear the measures could also be manipulated to entrench the control of the ruling political coalition.

Although the new Constitution passed, it was not a peaceful vote. On the day of the election, violence erupted at around 100 polling stations nationwide—often initiated by members of Gbagbo’s old party who feared the new Constitution would vest too much power in Ouattara’s party. Seeking to repress this dissent, the government prohibited protests in many areas and its security forces cracked down on demonstrations in the lead-up to the poll. While no one was killed, the incidents laid bare the deep ethnic and political divides that continue to affect Côte d’Ivoire, raising fears for its future. Ultimately, 93 percent of voters cast their ballot in favor of the new constitution—roughly 10 percent of the country’s population.

With AJWS’s support, both CESD and OIDH played important roles in garnering youth participation in the vote, shaping the provisions on the table, and checking the pulse of the population in the lead-up to the polls. When the government announced its plan to hold the referendum, CESD and other civil society groups advocated to include new provisions to ensure checks and balances in government and greater involvement of youth in governance. CESD also attempted to hold a debate between opponents and proponents of the new constitution—though the latter was thwarted due to security concerns.

OIDH surveyed more than 600 citizens throughout the country to gather data on what issues mattered to them. They found that 83 percent of respondents were more interested in measures that would reconcile the political divide and lower the cost of living—rather than the constitutional amendments—findings that indicate the government is out of touch with the people.

Change is Possible

The referendum is not the only indication that Côte d’Ivoire may finally be moving toward true and inclusive democracy. In December 2016, a new slate of independent candidates ran for office—and won—in the National Assembly elections, which the leadership of both CESD and OIDH view as a hopeful sign for Côte d’Ivoire’s future.

“The rise of independent candidates [is] a call to accept freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and…democracy within all political parties,” says one member of CESD.

OIDH’s director is similarly inspired. “The high turnout and… significant win by independent candidates sends a strong signal: The people of Côte d’Ivoire want to choose for themselves and will no longer bend and comply with decisions imposed by the leaders of political parties.”

He went on to say that by voting for independent candidates, many voters have shown that they “do not belong to a political party and do not identify by region, religion, or gender. What are they asking for? The right to exercise their civil liberties and participate in public discourse. It’s the birth of a new and liberated consciousness. This will keep growing because Ivorians are seeking change.”

AJWS intends to support Ivorians in attaining that change, no matter how long it takes. We’re in this for the long haul.