The world's top academic experts on African affairs have a message: What's happening in the Ivory Coast isn't ethnic cleansing or genocide. But it is -- very rapidly -- moving toward civil war.
First, to back up slightly -- what is happening? As the stand-off between incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and election-winner Alassane Ouattara continues, violence is picking up. Pro-Gbagbo militias are said to be arresting, torturing, killing, and raping opponents (or percieved opponents.) The United Nations has put the death toll so far at more than 250. U.N. officials have also warned that there is a real possibility of war crimes, genocide, and other atrocities.
In a letter, originally published in French in Le Monde but now published in English here -- with many more signatories -- the academics push back hard against the emerging (but they say wrong) consensus that violence in Ivory Coast has any ethnic base: "We must insist that there is no evidence for any primal hatred between supposedly rival ethnic groups, nor for that matter between local populations and foreigners, between northerners and southerners, much less between Muslims and Christians."
Instead what's going on, they write, is a political power struggle. "Ideology is undoubtedly not the key to understanding the ongoing crisis. The Gbagbo mafia is struggling first and foremost for power; for an exclusive hold on power, for the very enjoyment of power, with all its attendant material benefits."
As I've written before, these nuances in how we understand the ongoing situation matter immensly. Not because what's going on in Ivory Coast is any less serious than genocide or ethnic cleansing in terms of the attention or moral weight we should accord it -- but because the way one would address genocide, compared with a political crisis, is very different. Civil war, were it to begin again in Ivory Coast, would require a political solution -- a means to incorporate various demands and grievances into a settlement that requires concessions from and gives benefits to all sides. Genocide, by contrast, suggests there is only a perpetrator and a victim -- which means that the solution treats each side as such. This seemingly academic difference makes all the difference on the ground.