Millenarianism and the pro-Gbagbo camp

In those final moments before the Ivorian state television channel (nicknamed TV Mille Collines by pro-Ouattara supporters) was taken off the air during the battle for Abidjan, a scrolling ticker along the bottom of the screen, apparently the last thing that was working, threatened the coming apocalypse with a Bible verse from Revelation. In the end, it was the Pentacostal religious extremism that proved the hardiest element of the pro-Gbagbo ideological camp – long after the leaders of the “Patriotic Galaxy” had fled the bunker to Ghana, the prayer meetings continued by those who believed that what was happening was all in line with the sayings of a local prophet called Malachi.

Twelve months on, that extremism seems to be the element that animates the exile community of pro-Gbagbo elites who fled to Ghana and Togo. The ethnic element could only ever tie in a small number of people (Ivory Coast has 60 ethnic group, none which covers more than a quarter of the population). The anti-French discourse doesn’t seem to carry much weight locally for a number of reasons; it hadn’t been a major part of the Gbagbo electoral campaign, the Gbagbo government hardly showed itself averse to giving French multinationals big contracts without tender and Ivorians are nostalgic about the pro-French Houphouet years of prosperity. (This position has ironically more traction in France itself where pro-Gbagbo intellectuals have been able to ally with other African diasporas, particularly Cameroonian.)

Over the weekend the news site Koaci published an interview with a former pro-Gbagbo government minister, Charles Dosso, currently in exile. “It pleased God to put me here at this moment…it’s a moment of penitence [ed – because of the suffering not repentance] that brings us close to God with the goal of preparing us for entry into the new Jerusalem, the promised land, a new Ivory Coast…When human despair grows and the suffering becomes more and more atrocious, that means the divine hand is not far away. We are getting ever closer to the end of the Ivorian crisis. At that moment, the just will be justified and evil will reap what they have sown. We are calm and fix our eyes on the new Ivory Coast, which is already appearing on the horizon. Certainly, like all births, it will be painful, even horrible, but the joy will be at the end. The cries of pain will be transformed into joy.”

Let’s be clear – these comments were made last Friday, not a year ago during the actual conflict. When asked about president Alassane Outtara, he quotes from the apocalyptic chapter 8 of Daniel [he quotes the first verse here, I quote the following as well]: “In the latter part of their reign, when rebels have become completely wicked, a fierce-looking king, a master of intrigue, will arise. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause astounding devastation and will succeed in whatever he does. He will destroy those who are mighty, the holy people. He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power.”

So, what are we to make of all this? Firstly, it all makes the task of reconciliation extremely difficult. This is black and white religious language transposed into the political life of a second-tier African state; Jesus’ second coming is equated to Gbagbo’s return, Satan is at times Nicholas Sarkozy, at times Ouattara, and always people are called to ‘keep the faith’ for deliverance is just around the corner.

Secondly, this sort of millenarianism which frequently makes use of Christian material, has always been outside the main stream Church and has never had much time for the central ideas of the Christian faith – sin, repentance, the Gospel and a life of love. These movements tend to be tied to moments of incredible social and political upheaval and lose their force as life normalises. This is more about politics than religion. That doesn’t of course mean that such positions don’t do an incredible amount of damage to the Church.

Finally, the presence of such believers in the region, means there will be a residual outside threat of violence in the coming years. True, the possibility of regaining the state is almost unthinkable given the presence of international forces and the lack of any regional support for such a project. But an extremist terrorist attack can’t be ruled out, even if many people would say ‘it’s not in Ivorian blood’. For me the existance of extremist views, easy access to weapons and the presence of ex-professional Ivorian soldiers in exile, means this sort of thing can’t be excluded, even if, almost inevitably, exiles will return (as perhaps all do) to find the country that existed in their imagination has long since moved on, and with perhaps a touch of disappointment that it doesn’t turn out to be the living hell they had thought.

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