Are Ivorians racist?

A reader of this blog asks ‘People say Ivorians do not welcome strangers. Is this true?’ More bluntly, a taxi driver in Freetown recently asked me: ‘Is it true that Ivorians are racist?’ The question is surprising when you consider that the first two lines of the national anthem (‘L’Abidjanaise‘) are:

Salut Ô terre d’espérance!
Pays de l’hospitalité.

Officially then, Cote d’Ivoire is the ‘land of hospitality’. When Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and other footballers sing the national anthem, that’s what they are saying.

Why would anyone think otherwise? Well, countries only tend to hit the headlines when bad things happen, and the Ivorian crisis certainly gave the country a high profile in the first decade of the 21st century. The crisis was marked by a strong focus on ‘identity’, including whether Alassane Ouattara was Ivorian enough, and whether the country as a whole was under threat from foreigners (mainly migrants from the Sahel, but in November 2004 also the French).

That side of the political spectrum was exploiting a useful device that made sense to many people in the context of the economic decline since 1980, and in particular the shortage of land in rural areas, where ethnic groups from elsewhere in the country, and from elsewhere in the region, had been encouraged to take-over the land, under the motto that ‘the land belongs to the one who cultivates it’. More widely in the 1960s and 70s, nationalism was less demarcated and the country had a reputation as being open to the brightest and best from around the region, often coming from countries with limited opportunities, conflict, and/or poor leadership.

I won’t go any deeper into Ivorian history beyond that broad-brush sketch, but it helps make a few very general points:

  • The 1998 census and the recent 2014 census show that the number of non-Ivorians in the population is around a quarter, many of whom have lived in the country for several generations, and seem to be happy to do so
  • Economic growth is stronger than it was, reducing the societal tension at the bottom that can provide a bedrock for anti-immigrant protests
  • The political side that had more of a tendency in some quarters towards anti-immigrant discourse is no longer in power
  • The Ivorian legal code is far more liberal than many of its neighbours and non-Ivorians are free to own urban property, buy houses etc. Nevertheless under the 1998 land act, rural land cannot be owned though it can be rented
  • Nationals from poorer African nations often occupy a lower class in Ivorian society. My wife grew up in a family with a servant from Ghana. In rural areas, a farm hand is frequently a job  synonymous with nationals of Burkina Faso and Mali.

Would some Ivorians consider themselves a cut above other West Africans? You’ll find some, and that’s probably also true in most countries. I’ve heard people say it’s less true for Cote d’Ivoire than it was pre-1999.

Overall, I’d want to say that Ivorians are generally extremely welcoming people, and beyond the rhetoric, I think there’s a strong element of truth in the country being a land of hospitality. As I’ve written here previously, when I speak to people who’ve spent time working in Cote d’Ivoire, it’s common to hear them say that the best thing about the country was the people.

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