An Ivoirian Apocalypse: Spiritual Violence in the Post-Electoral Crisis

Marie Miran-Guyon, Centre d’Etudes Africaines, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales

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Figure 1

Côte d’Ivoire’s hellish 2010-11 post-electoral conflict resulted from disputes over which candidate had won the presidential race. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, the country’s first “born again” president, and his La Majorité Présidentielle (LMP) coalition did little to sanitize the unlawful annulment of 600,000 votes from seven northern regions favorable to his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, a secular politician of Muslim persuasion. As many Pentecostal-cum-LMP followers clamored, it was God who had ordained Gbagbo’s victory (Figure 1).

As Stephen Ellis [1] has argued for the Liberian civil war, the Ivoirian conflict was not fought “for” religion. The LMP’s self-styled “patriotic” galaxy fought it mostly for power, money, resentment, and jouissance. But the source, legitimacy, and morality of power, along with part of the war’s dramaturgy, assumed a distinctly Christian aura. Mike McGovern [2] has argued that disparate incentives and justifications were periodically brought into line with one another in the ten-year course of the Ivoirian crisis, making things more lethal. During Côte d’Ivoire’s odd, bicephalous presidency, the Gbagbo camp conjoined political, military, and religious violence, killing 3,000 people or more, including some ten imams and scores of rank-and-file Muslims. Although Western media mostly missed the point, Ivoirians of all walks of life lived the crisis as a spiritual ordeal, anchored in both the visible and invisible worlds. For a radical minority, the conflict became a spiritual war to be won in the name of Jesus (Figure 2).

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Figure 2

Since the times of William Wade Harris, prophets have risen in southern Côte d’Ivoire to challenge or sanctify political big men. But the pre- to post-2010 election period produced a particularly rich harvest of pro-Gbagbo prophecies [3]. The most astounding and influential prophet of those troubled months was the mysterious Koné Amadou Malachie, who presented himself as “Jesus’ slave and the defender of God’s rights.” His revelations, put to paper in 2005 and read live on a local radio station in 2009, foresaw an apocalyptic war in which the northern rebels, the international community, and all of Côte d’Ivoire’s enemies would nearly vanquish Gbagbo. Then, after a final battle, with all hope nearly lost, God would restore Gbagbo to power and make Côte d’Ivoire the New Jerusalem. In January 2011, Malachie issued fresh prophecies, disseminated widely by CD, the local media, and the Internet.

Many Ivoirians were mesmerized. The LMP-controlled Ivoirian television network broadcast a rainbow, a halo of light, and a heart-like figure in a bowl of sauce as signs that God favored Gbagbo. And in a final rally in Abidjan’s Place de la République, the leader of the Young Patriots militia, Charles Blé Goudé, announced that although the world’s armies backed Ouattara, the “Lord of armies” defended Gbagbo. Blé Goudé then unleashed his militiamen and supporters against whomever they deemed “different,” leading to hallucinatory scenes of people joyfully burning others to death.

When the Gbagbos were finally captured in their bunker on April 11, 2011, the couple was fasting and praying next to a vast stock of armaments they had secretly accumulated. Should Gbagbo have counterattacked and retaken the rebel-held North, Malachie’s prophecy might have become history, Gbagbo a demi-god, and Côte d’Ivoire a republic of divine right. But by April 12, 2011, a small, self-appointed Evangelical federation had excommunicated Laurent and Simone Gbagbo as well as Koné Malachie. As for Paul Yao N’Dré, the president of the Constitutional Council who first invested Gbagbo with a second term, he later swore in Ouattara as president. “Satan possessed us all,” he laconically explained.

Whether or not the LMP intended a religious war, the conflict has since marred all religious communities and inter-faith initiatives. Muslims suffered the most physical and symbolic violence even as the leading national Muslim organization, the Conseil supérieur des imams, called Muslims to refrain from conflict. By and large, Muslims listened, although outrage pushed some to commit atrocities [4, article PDF available through linked page], and a majority of Ouattara’s armed partisans were Muslim. Meanwhile, an ambivalent Catholic hierarchy ostensibly supported Gbagbo, sowing disunion among the episcopate and faithful alike. A faultline seems to have deepened between the historically apolitical mainline Protestant churches and the younger, more radical Pentecostal ones. Concurrently, many religious leaders lament in unison a widespread upsurge in “witchcraft.”

Given the prominent role of religious figures and practices in the recent conflict, a public debate on secularism and on the interface between religion and politics will likely be a crucial step along the path toward national reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire in the months and years ahead.

Figures

Figure 1. President Gbagbo’s relationship with God as illustrated by Damien Glez [5].

Figure 2. Christian women at a pro-Gbagbo rally, Place de la République, Abidjan, December 27, 2010. Photo: Reuters.

References

[1] Ellis, Stephen. 2001. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War. New York: New York University Press.

[2] McGovern, Mike. 2011. Making War in Côte d’Ivoire. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[3] Tra Bi, Charles. 2011. Crise ivoirienne: Le Commandant Jean-Nöel Abéhi, chef des blindés de la gendarmerie, révèle : “Il y aura une guerre de libération, nous allons la faire.” L’Inter/Abidjan.Net, February 28, (accessed May 27, 2012).

[4] Miran-Guyon, Marie, Imam Mamadou Doumbia, Apostle Georges Kohikan Gbéno, Imam Souleymane Touré, Fr. Cyprien Ahouré, and Pastro Bruno Kozi. 2011. Au-delà du silence et de la fureur. Duékoué (ouest-ivoirien): rencontres interreligieuses au “carrefour de la haine.” Politique africaine 123: 95-115. (accessed May 27, 2012).

[5] Glez, Damien. 2011. Gbagbo candidat ou martyr chrétien? SlateAfrique, April 1, (accessed May 27, 2012).