Les malentendus

One of the key words that bring a wry smile for followers of Ivorian politics is ‘malentendu’. The fiercest political disagreement or falling out of yesterday is today simply excused as being all down to a mere ‘misunderstanding’. The word crops up frequently, perhaps not surprising in a country that after Houphouet-Boigny saw Gbagbo allied with Ouattara against Bedie (1995), and then Gbagbo allied with Guei against Ouattara (2000), and then finally Ouattara allied with Bedie against Gbagbo (2010). It’s fair to say that there are a number of political characters characterized by two local sayings: that one should ‘dry your clothes where the sun shines’, or that ‘birds don’t stay in the tree when it falls’.

I was prompted in these thoughts by reading a review of a new book on ‘Ivoirite’. Apparently, Ivoirite was all a ‘malentendu’ and that the intellectuals in the 1990s were only thinking pure helpful thoughts without any exclusionary intent.

I wonder if malentendus can survive the internet age – it’s fair to say that the assumption of ‘la memoire courte’ (short-term memory) is more difficult where you can access the political pronouncements of yesteryear on YouTube, and newspaper articles can be searched and read far beyond the old lifespan of the daily paper. I tend to think the Ivorian public is more intelligent than their politicians sometimes give them credit for. But you can be sure that if Gbagbo and Ouattara ever smoke the peace pipe, the past events will be described as a malentendu. It’s a useful tool to sidestep any discussion of someone being to blame for something. Everyone was innocent.

The idea makes one rather cynical, and hints that perhaps it was really just a political game, and that alliances and positions change to suit the times. No-one is apparently guilty of making a mistake, or needing to ask for pardon. It was all down to a simple misunderstanding.

When you see fierce political debates today – those for and against the ‘Appel de Daoukro’, those on both sides of the FPI divide – tell yourself that in future years these will simply be described as a malentendu.

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