Africa: Côte d'Ivoire A Xenophobic Nation? No Way, Says Justice Minister

7 September 2001
interview

Durban, South Africa — The full title of the United Nations World Conference against Racism includes Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Although the dominant issues have been the Middle East question and slavery, xenophobia has briefly reared its ugly head.

One African country that has been accused, in recent years, of failing to curb the growth of xenophobia is Cote d’Ivoire, a country which is home to millions of other West Africans, who make up more than a quarter of the Ivorian population.

In its heyday, when Cote d’Ivoire was an emerging cocoa- and coffee-producing nation, the late President Felix Houphouet-Boigny encouraged his neighbours to migrate across borders to work in Cote d’Ivoire and help the country prosper. For decades, Cote d’Ivoire became the west African eldorado and was a magnet for aspiring Burkinabe, Malians, Guineans, Senegalese and others from Niger, Nigeria and Ghana.

But the death, after more than thirty years in power, of Houphouet-Boigny, coupled with the collapse of the world markets for cocoa and coffee, meant austerity for the previously prosperous Cote d’Ivoire.

A creeping resentment of immigrants -- which had been kept under wraps during the long Houphouet era when it was useful for him to have the support of his west African neighbours at election time in Cote d’Ivoire bubbled to the surface. Xenophobia erupted into open confrontation and the concept of 'Ivoirite’ (Ivorians first) was born and, many say, fostered by Houphouet’s successor, President Henri Konan-Bedie.

Observers accuse the current Ivorian leader, Laurent Gbagbo, who was elected in 2000 after the incumbent military leader, General Robert Guei tried and failed to steal the ballot, of not doing enough to fight against a rise in the tide of xenophobia in Cote d’Ivoire. Gbagbo’s election was contested by many Ivorians from the north, who are predominantly Muslim and supported the rival candidate, a Muslim northerner and onetime prime minister, Alassane Ouattara, who was disqualified and unable to stand for the presidency on the grounds of nationality.

The Ivorian leader has sent his Justice Minister, Siene Oulai, as head of delegation to the World anti-Racism Summit in Durban.

allAfrica.com’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton caught up with the minister to hear his views on the conference. Later we hear the Ivorian stance on the contentious issue of slavery and reparations, and African slavery, which has received much less publicity. But first Siene Oulai’s responds to accusations that his country, Cote d’Ivoire, has become xenophobic.

(Siene Oulai is the Minister of Justice and Public Liberty in Cote d’Ivoire and Keeper of the Seals.)

Q: Cote d’Ivoire has been accused of being a xenophobic country. Is it?

A: Being accused does not necessarily mean that we are guilty of xenophobia. I am surprised, like many Ivorians, that we are being accused of xenophobia. Cote d’Ivoire has a population of 15-16 million people. 26 percent of that population is made up of foreign immigrants. Now that’s a big chunk of the population. In west Africa, we are the country with the biggest immigrant population, followed by Senegal.

So, are you suggesting that we, the people who have welcomed all these foreigners onto our land, are xenophobic? I think not.

In every country, there are problems among the indigenous population, those who are fro the very same country.

So, I think it’s a little excessive to call Cote d’Ivoire a xenophobic country. I mean we live with foreigners, who have their own villages, cultures, traditional leaders and that is since the year dot. There have never been problems of xenophobia in Cote d’Ivoire.

We have taken up the challenge to convince the world that we are really against xenophobia. There have obviously been incidents, as there are incidents of xenophobia in all countries.

With a ratio of foreigners making up 26 percent of the total population of Ivory Coast, you would expect that there would be situations of pressure, of friction and there would be some incidents. But the government is totally against xenophobia and does everything in its power to combat such incidents. Yes, we have a problem, but people make it sound much more brutal than it is.

Q: What about the emergence of 'Ivoirite’, the concept of Ivorians first, which has caused so much harm? People of Burkinabe origin for example, from across the border in Burkina Faso, but who were born in raised in Cote d’Ivoire, have been leaving in busloads, because they say they are being singled out and victimized, just because they are Burkinabe.

A: Yes, it’s true that some Burkinabe have left Cote d’Ivoire. But was it because they were driven out by Ivorians? We haven’t chased anyone out.

Q: Well that’s what they say. The Burkinabe say they were being persecuted?

A: Persecuted, persecuted? Who says so? Persecuted how and for what? You know, this sort of language is bandied about liberally, but no one can tell us precisely how the Burkinabe are being persecuted in Cote d’Ivoire.

I mean it’s not only Burkinabe who live in Cote d’Ivoire. There are two million Malians living in Cote d’Ivoire. There are one million Guineans and 700.000 people from Niger. There are 600.000 Senegalese, not to talk about the Lebanese and the French.

So, in what way are the Burkinabe persecuted in Cote d’Ivoire? We need to be told.

Q: So, Minister, are you saying that there is no xenophobia in Cote d’Ivoire?

A: I’ve just said that every country recognizes that there is some xenophobia in some areas. But it is certainly not government policy in Cote d’Ivoire. We are fighting this sort of behaviour. This should be recognized. Cote d’Ivoire is making an effort to ensure that xenophobia is not a common practice among Ivorians.

Q: What concretely is the government of President Laurent Gbagbo doing to combat xenophobia in Cote d’Ivoire?

A: We are doing all sorts of things. Indeed, if you are following events in Cote d’Ivoire you would be aware that we are preparing a forum. This forum would include all the peoples of Cote d’Ivoire, Ivorians and all others who live in our country. We will gather together to discuss, debate and familiarize ourselves with our problems.

We all live here together. We share the same problems; the economy, insecurity, education and health. The problems are the same for all of us. These are not problems for only the Ivorians, or only the foreigners. So, we are organizing a forum to talk about all these things with all the people who live on our territory.

Q: You said you’ve been holding talks with the head of the Burkinabe delegation here in Durban. Did you discuss these problems and the Reconciliation Forum? And is there a date for this forum?

A: Yes, the Ivorian and Burkinabe delegations have met. When we came to Durban, we heard on Radio France Internationale that the Burkinabe were supposed to have made anti-Ivorian declarations and statements. We heard this before we got to Durban.

So the Ivorian government made contact with the Burkinabe government which reassured us that Cote d’Ivoire is a brother country and that there was no mileage to be made out of attacking each other at a conference that is meant to be addressing the problems of racism and fighting xenophobia. That’s why I called for this meeting with the Burkinabe in Durban, so that we could talk about these neighbourly problems.

Our credo is peace. Whatever is being written in the newspapers in Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso has nothing to do with government action.

Q: Now you’ve said that Durban is not quite the right setting for talking about these neighbourly problems, so when is a good time and where will you talk?

A: If I’m not mistaken, President Laurent Gbagbo is planning a trip to Burkina Faso in the months to come. Why? Because we are neighbours and it’s in both our interests to talk. So it’s very much part of our policy of regional reconciliation and integration.

Q: And will the accusations of xenophobia against Cote d’Ivoire be at the heart of this reconciliation forum?

A: Yes, of course. I told you that NO subject will be taboo.

Q: But will this issue be a priority?

A: No, not a priority, but one of the many subjects that we will be discussing.

Q: Moving now to one of the issues that has dominated the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, could we talk about the debate on the slave trade and specifically reparations. What is the position of Cote d’Ivoire?

A: It is a question or terminology. There is talk of reparations and restitution and, semantics apart, all these words mean the same thing. How to heal the wounds of Africa if the real issue. It is along those lines that we are thinking. It is true that Africa’s position hardened. And we, Cote d’Ivoire, on this question, we are certainly taking a hard line.

Q: And what would that be?

A: Reparations. We would like to see reparations as victims of the slave trade. Now we’re not talking about financial compensation. No. We don’t want cheques. And for Ivory Coast the whole issue of an apology is neither here nor there. It is not important. But the slave trade must been recognized as a crime against humanity. France has already recognized it and I think the other European countries should do the same.

Once that is done, the apologies and sorry, well those are just words. But what is important is that somewhere in the global conscience, it must be remembered that once a time in our history an evil, a crime against humanity was perpetrated against a group of people.

There are other examples in this world, this is not the only one.

Also, we would like to see development in Africa and see the means that would enable this. The transfer of technology. Debt cancellation. After all, it’s our money going to Europe and to America that comes back to us as debt payments. This is another form of slavery.

It is the West that fixes the markets for raw materials. This is just the continuation of another form of slavery. This has to stop so that we Africans can move forward. I repeat we don’t want cheques, but we need some redress.

Q: The African bloc represented here in Durban is made up of countries with very different histories, and of course there is the pressure from the African Americans who want financial reparations, so how did you reach a consensus?

A: Because we agree on the essentials, the same concept. How does Africa get restitution for what happened in the past? That is the problem. So, there may be quibbles on the definition of words, a problem of approach. But when we get past that, things will move forward.

Q: There is deadlock on slavery and reparations. Do you think we might see the European countries quitting the conference after the walkout by the Americans and Israelis over the Zionism issue?

A: You know what, the European Union countries are a very pragmatic group, very pragmatic. This document needs a certain amount of negotiation. And neither side, the Europeans and the Africans, wants to approach the negotiating table from a position of weakness. And that’s why there has been the horse-trading and negotiating and the impasse you’ve been witnessing. But I think the EU will not pull out. The European Union has too much of a responsibility towards Africa to walk away from the negotiating table.

And Africa also has ties with Europe that need to be cultivated.

What is important here is that we must not allow ourselves to fail. We have to leave Durban knowing that an important step has been taken for humanity, for Africa and for the countries that suffered from this calamity, slavery.

Where I come from, we say you must not fear the eyes of a lion once you have slain him. The world fought against slavery and won the battle. We fought against colonization and we overcame. The world fought against apartheid and won that struggle.

And today, we are frightened of words? No, we will have to reach a consensus.

Q: The focus has been very much on the trans Atlantic slave trade, but not much has been said about Arab enslavement of Africans or African slavery, which still exists in countries such as Sudan and Mauritania. Why?

A: Oh yes, this has been discussed. Perhaps not Arab slavery of Africans, but certainly African slavery has been discussed. But you know what, if the focus has not been on African slavery, then it’s for a reason. It’s like apples and oranges. I mean you can’t compare the trans Atlantic slave trade with slavery in Africa. We are talking about the organized forced exportation of people for four centuries.

In Africa, you’re talking about 'subsistence slavery’ between neighbours. One people would go to war against their enemy. They would take prisoners and then make them work on their plantations or work as domestic servants. But nothing to the degree of the trans Atlantic slave trade. We must really keep things in perspective. That simply can’t be compared with buying people and sending them across the seas forever, to another land.

Of course, we’re not just going to cross our arms and do nothing about slavery in Africa. But, really we cannot adulterate and dilute the question of the slave trade, over a long period with millions of deportees and in which so many people lost their lives, with African slavery.

Anyone who wants to cloud the main issue, by bringing up African slavery, well we simply won’t agree with that.

Q: But how can there be a Racism Conference, which includes Related Intolerance in its title, here in Durban and yet African slavery, which is happening in the 21st century, is hardly an issue?

A: We condemn it. We must condemn it. Yes there was slavery in Africa, yes there is still slavery in Africa and those countries still practising slavery must stop. And one day soon we Africans must get together to talk about it. But you can’t compare the two.

And our immediate problem is to establish why and make sure there is acknowledgment and recognition for what happened to Africa five hundred years ago.

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