A Religious War in West Africa?

Significant events in West Africa have a habit of being overshadowed by the Middle East: in 1967, the Six Day War kicked off days after Biafra declared independence from Nigeria; in 1990, the fall of the dictator Samuel Doe of Liberia and subsequent civil war was overshadowed by the invasion of Kuwait. Now, with battles in Falluja and Mosul underway, dramatic events in the Ivory Coast are going under-reported. But don’t worry; Pat Robertson’s got his eye on the ball:

CBN.com – (CBN News) – While the eyes of the world are on Iraq, a political and religious crisis is playing out in the African nation of Ivory Coast. Dozens of Western nations are scrambling to rescue their citizens in what is described as the largest evacuation in Africa in recent times. And at the heart of the conflict are the French, a group of Muslim rebel soldiers and a Christian president.

So who are the good guys?

[President] Gbagbo and his wife are born-again Christians, and have actively promoted national reconciliation efforts between Christians and Muslims throughout the country.

Gbagbo said, “I know that we are in a difficult situation right now, but I know that with the help of God and the prayers of people around the world, we shall overcome this crisis.”

And that’s all we need to know about Gbagbo. And since Pat has previously shown his discerning Christian judgement by supporting Rios Montt, Sese Seko Mubutu and Charles Taylor, I’m sure alarm bells shouldn’t start going off at all. The Revealer rounds up a few other American Christian statements on the conflict:

World Evangelical Alliance frames the fight as a “decisive hour” in a battle between Christians and “demonic” Islamists. Mega-site Crosswalk focussed only on Christian victims of violence. And even Christianity Today, home to fine and respectable journalism, spun the story, at its beginning at least, as one primarily of anti-Christian persecution, with no mention that the government in power is “Christian,” at least to the extent that such a claim helps it mobilize mobs to attack Muslims.

According to Elizabeth Kendal of the WEA Religious Liberty Commission:

Evidence abounds that the rebels have received training, funds and arms from Burkina Faso, Libya, al-Qaeda and other Islamist networks. The rebels’ agenda is not only political (a coup to install their choice of leader) but Islamist. They have threatened to ‘slaughter’ some Christian leaders and pastors.

…Ivory Coast has been a haven of peace, liberty, stability and prosperity in West Africa. Because it has full religious freedom it has been the base of much West African Christian mission. The integrity of the nation is now at stake. But the conflict has implications beyond Ivory Coast: if these rebels succeed in Ivory Coast then what is to prevent similar foreign and network sponsored Muslim rebels revolting in other ethnically and religiously mixed nations such as Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. The rebels have blamed their lack of success so far on the prayers of Christians. Let’s have the same confidence in the power released through our prayers that they have! Let’s pray!

Kendal’s article incorporates previous statements she has made on the Ivory Coast over the past couple of years (including the rather over-egged “domino theory” that ignores differences between the countries of West Africa and the diversity of Muslim traditions), one of which was an article for ASSIST last year. In fairness, she does know a fair bit about the country:

Cote d’Ivoire’s problems stem from unmanaged immigration. While economic recession has led to tensions, the immigrants are not the cause of the present troubles. Neither is it the fact that the immigrants are predominantly Muslims. But for one political figure, status, ethnicity and religion could prove to be the answer to all his political problems.

This political figure, Dr. Alassane Ouattara, did not qualify to stand in presidential elections in 2000. This was not because he is Muslim – the Vice President is Muslim, the Prime minister is a northern Muslim, and there are many Muslim MPs. Dr. Ouattara’s problems were related his nationality. Among the many issues was the fact that Dr. Ouattara’s involvement in the International Monetary Fund and the Central Bank of West Africa were as a citizen of Burkina Faso – formerly Upper Volta. This did not rule him out of Cote d’Ivoire politics, but according to the Cote d’Ivoire constitution it disqualified him from the presidency.

Dr. Ouattara, however, knows how to play politics 21st Century style. An estimated 50% of the population of Cote d’Ivoire are immigrants from the neighbouring Islamic countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Niger and Mauritania. They share not only the same religion as the Muslims of Cote d’Ivoire, but also the same cultural and historical ties. By playing race and religion cards for personal political gain, Dr. Ouattara has managed to unite them behind him. Now all that is needed are the relevant constitutional and law changes that will enable Dr. Ouattara to stand as a presidential candidate, and allow the new citizens (nationalised immigrants) to vote him into power. These have been the demands of the rebels ever since their coup failed on 19 September 2002.

Kendal does, however, gloss over very real problems with Gbagbo that are reported by the Washington Post‘s old West Africa hand Douglas Farah (Farah is the author of Blood from Stones, about al-Qaeda’s financing from the West African diamond trade. Farah’s claims were rejected by the 9/11 Commission)

In late November 2000, the newly elected Gbagbo met privately with the ambassadors of France, the United States and Britain. With his country teetering on the edge of civil war, Gbagbo agreed to allow the main opposition party, excluded from the presidential contest and made up mostly of Muslims from the north, to participate in scheduled parliamentary elections.

Gbagbo had narrowly defeated a despised military officer in violence-marred elections in which less than 30 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. His openly anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric and promises to purge Ivory Coast of foreigners were largely lost in the chaos of the moment.

Gbagbo promised to announce the agreement in a televised address to the nation. But a cabinet minister appeared instead to announce that the opposition was banned and also to challenge the right of its members to citizenship. It was the first step in Gbagbo’s effort to undo four decades of policies that had successfully encouraged racial and religious harmony.

… I was in Abidjan the next day when angry Muslims took to the streets to protest, only to be met by armed, government-sponsored mobs that rampaged through Muslim sectors of the city. They systematically attacked immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and other impoverished countries who had been invited into Ivory Coast as laborers. Human Rights Watch documented the atrocities of Gbagbo’s forces, including massacres of unarmed youths buried in common graves, rape, torture and the razing of mosques.

As for the rebels, the American Christian “Islamist” characterisation is somewhat inaccurate:

The rebels who control the northern half of the country are not the solution. They are an unsavory mix of disgruntled Ivorian officers, remnants of Charles Taylor’s thuggish security forces and other guns-for-hire from around the region. Criminal networks trafficking in weapons and diamonds span the border area of Ivory Coast, Liberia and Guinea, creating what one senior Pentagon official called a “fluid mass of anarchy.” But the rebels gained a foothold because of Gbagbo’s single-minded determination to split his country along ethnic and religious lines while entrenching himself in power.

The Revealer also notes that

Gbago has framed the conflict as a holy war, with Ivory Coast “native” Protestants on one side, and foreign Muslims and godless French Catholics on the other. One evangelical preacher took to Ivory Coast state radio to declare that French President Chirac is “inhabited by the spirit of Satan”, after French peacekeepers destroyed the Ukrainian gunships Gbago’s forces had used to terrorize Muslim civilians and attack the peacekeepers, as well as American aid workers.

However, Protestants are just part of the Christian equation. A few days ago the BBC reported that

Cardinal Bernard Agre said last week he had seen young girls decapitated by the French army – a charge President Gbagbo said he believed to be true.

…French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the “outrageousness” of the claims “strips them of any credibility”.

Agre was speaking in Rome, where he was attending a long-arranged meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Family (and during which he spoke privately with the Pope). Agre appears to be a moderate and intelligent figure, and his report of French atrocities deserves to be investigated as vigorously as the crimes of US soldiers in Abu Ghraib (although, to be precise, Agre did not say he saw girls being decapitated. What he said on Vatican Radio [reported by the AFP] was that “I have just come from the hospitals. It’s unbearable, these young people decapitated by the French army.”). However, unlike Kendal, Agre is willing also to denounce corruption in Gbagbo’s government and he appears to reject the “good Christian vs evil Islamist” caricature. According to the Catholic World News:

Cardinal Agre denied that there is great tension between the Muslims of Ivory Coast, who constitute about 38 percent of the population, and the Christians who make up 28 percent. In fact, he suggested that the perception of such a conflict is caused by “prejudices that are unfortunately inflamed by the French press.” While the Muslim population is located primarily in the north of the country, and the Christians in the south, there is no major geographical divide, he said. “We are all united in wanting peace to return to the country,” the cardinal said.

3 Responses

  1. God Bless Executive Pay.

    Thanks for the work, Bart.

  2. President Gbagbo’s crimes in pictures
    Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

    Please visit our website and see President Laurent Gbagbo’s crimes in pictures!

    http://cipdtf.ruwenzori.net/English/GbagbosCrimesInPictures/

    Warning: Many of these pictures are very horrific!

    Respectfully yours,

    Jacques KOULIBALY

  3. […] support for Gbagbo is long-standing – I wrote about it on this blog back in 2004. One of his two wives, Simone, has also been playing the religion card with some enthusiasm; […]

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