Venance Konan, writer and journalist, Côte d'Ivoire

Cèlia Cernadas

Venance Konan is the most widely-read writer in Côte d'Ivoire. His novels – the latest of which is entitled Les Catapilas, ces ingrats– examine the most polarising debate in the country: the one concerning identity. The definition of who is and who is not Ivorian has been at the heart of the conflicts in the Côte d'Ivoire over the last decade, which in practice have left the country split into two halves. Konan, a collaborator with publications including Afrique Magazine, is sceptical about the usefulness of the presidential elections in solving the endemic problems of Côte d'Ivoire. The interview with the writer took place recently in Abidjan, the country's economic capital, during the seminar "Conditions pour la consolidation de la paix en Côte d'Ivoire", organised by the ICIP.

Venance Konan

After ten years without a vote, we know that the presidential elections will not suddenly end the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire, but can they be seen as an essential step in the peace process?
I do not think that these elections are an end to the crisis at all, because among other things, there has been no transitional team, without the current politicians, to prepare the country or to solve the consistent underlying problems. Not a single one of the factors that unleashed the crisis has been resolved. Nobody has done anything to solve what we call "the foreigner issue": we have a part of the population here, in the north of the country, which has lived nowhere else, which has never set foot outside the country, which is Ivorian, but which is still foreign under the law. The issue of land ownership, which is fundamental, has not been settled; the problems of schooling and education and reintegration of young people and rebels into the system have not been solved. We have all these problems on the table, and none of them have been solved. And we can add others: impunity, violence; poverty, which is increasing, and corruption. Corruption in Côte d'Ivoire is very widespread and affects the entire society.

Let's talk about the foreigner issue. Côte d'Ivoire, the world's leading cocoa exporter, was always a rich country that attracted many immigrants and was a call of attraction in West Africa.
Even before independence, Côte d'Ivoire always attracted people from elsewhere in the region. Until the 1990s, it was undoubtedly the most prosperous country in West Africa. Large communities of Lebanese, Nigerians, Beninese, and Guineans, among others, came after being attracted by the country's economic dynamism and the relatively high level of political freedom. Despite the one-party state - as in the majority of African countries after independence – it was far from being a dictatorship. For a long time, the immigrants were not a problem, because they did jobs that were necessary and difficult; above all, they worked on the plantations, while in the boom years, the Ivorians preferred to wear a suit and tie and work in air-conditioned offices.

And why has nationality become a source of conflict?
What made things different was the onset of the economic crisis, in the early nineties: the immigrants became a scapegoat. We have immigrants, from Burkina Faso and Mali, who have lived here for twenty or thirty years, who are prevented from owning land by law - they are only allowed to rent it – and from carrying the card which identifies them as Ivorians. So access to land has become another major problem. There are fifth generation immigrants, with parents and grandparents born in Côte d'Ivoire, but who are always considered foreigners.

Rejection of foreigners shifted onto the political scene in the 1990s with the emergence of Alassane Ouattara, one of the two candidates in this second round, and his presidential ambitions. To what extent was the Ouattara case the trigger for the current conflict?
Ouattara wanted to be president in the mid-nineties, but was prevented from doing so as a foreigner after the constitutional amendment that stated that only people with an Ivorian father and mother could be considered Ivorian was passed. Ouattara is from the north, and of Burkinabè origin. At that time, the majority of the population in the hinterland supported Ouattara and slowly, the country started to fall apart. In 2002, when the rebellion started, what the majority of people fighting were demanding was to be Ivorian: they wanted to be considered citizens of the country. And in the end, we have reached these presidential elections without resolving the problem of eligibility. The Pretoria emergency agreement has been necessary for Ouattara to be able to run again. And the issue of the legitimacy of President Gbago, whose election victory in 2000 is still not recognised by many people, has still not been resolved.

Has the government therefore not learnt the lesson?
Obviously not. Politicians must be brave, you have to be brave to recognise the nationality of that part of the population and find a way of integrating them. Parties must stop fanning the flames and making calculations about the political returns they can obtain from the question of identity. We have had a crisis and an armed rebellion, but what has been done since 2002? The same men who promoted the laws that divide the Ivorian people are still on the political scene, and the Constitution has not been changed since then. There is no will to solve that aspect of the crisis.

There is a tendency to simplify African conflicts by defining them as ethnic conflicts or religious conflicts. Do any of those factors define the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire?
Obviously most of those who rebelled are from the North, where the majority ethnic groups are not the President's. So there is an ethnic factor. But the religious factor is not important: the North is not completely Islamic; there are many Christians. Guillaume Soro, the leader of the rebellion, was a Christian.

The rebellion in 2002 led to French intervention and the deployment of the UN's UNOCI mission. And what has their presence contributed to?
When the crisis started and the UN forces arrived, everyone thought that the solution would be quick. Unfortunately, I can tell you that that has not been the case. So I wonder what they are doing here. What did they do when the government bombed the North in 2004? Or when it shot demonstrators? What are they doing here? I don't know.

As is the case in many other African countries, Ivorian politics has been dominated by the same people for years. Is it necessary to get rid of them to be able to start again?
Indeed, there is an entire generation that has been wasted because it has no means of access to power. Côte d'Ivoire lives on hate, the hate between the three men who have been the major players over the last two decades - Gbagbo, Ouattara and Bediéthere - and who have engaged in opportunist alliances when it has suited them. We must move away from this dynamic, whatever it takes, and make way for a younger generation that is more in touch with reality and people's problems.