The President and His Double: An Ivoirian Politics of the Counterfeit

From the Series: Côte d'Ivoire Is Cooling Down? Reflections a Year after the Battle for Abidjan

Sasha Newell, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, College of the Holy Cross

From the 28th of November until the 11th of April 2010, Côte d’Ivoire was in the unusual predicament of having two presidents, each of which declared himself legitimately elected and the other an imposter. The story told by the North Atlantic media has been that, with our help, Ivoirians successfully ousted the pretender and placed the truly elected official in his rightful position. But Ivoirians themselves seem far less certain which of these politicians is the fake and which the real.

It is not only a matter of who won the elections, for the entire political crisis stemming back to the elections of 2000 revolves around a struggle over the definition of authentic citizenship. Fearing Alassane Ouattara’s popularity, successive presidents Henri Bédié, Robert Guéï, and Laurent Gbagbo have all attempted to disqualify Ouattara’s candidacy by demonstrating that he was not born of Ivoirian parents, that he is a false citizen. This language has had nationwide reverberations, causing a crisis around the idea of autochthonous identity and its counterfeit. Young urbanites feared that the country was full of foreigners (étrangers) pretending to be Ivoirians in an effort to “steal the country.” Citizens and immigrants alike whose northern ethnic origins were revealed by their clothing, language, religion, or name were increasingly harassed, were rounded up in police raids, and had their identity papers confiscated and destroyed under suspicion of falsification. Feeling increasingly marginalized, many of them supported the failed rebel coup in Abidjan in 2002. After all, they claimed, Gbagbo didn’t really win the elections in 2000 because Ouattara was unfairly disqualified from the competition.

When Gbagbo lost to Ouattara in 2010, he declared the election a “masquerade,” presumably to qualify it as specious. But in Côte d’Ivoire, masking is a potent and widespread ritual practice for making the invisible spirit world visible and present, a performance that harnesses genuine spirits beneath the public secret of human-made costumes. Masks are a theater of the real, a deceit that makes the world in the image of its illusion. For the general populace, Gbagbo’s wording implicated Ouattara not only in political corruption but also in the use of theatrical spectacle to employ dangerous invisible forces.

Despite political, religious, and ethnic differences, most Ivoirians share a belief in some form of a second world paralleling the visible one. This is the space where witches, féticheurs, and marabouts work their powers invisibly. The relationship between the original and its counterfeit must be reconfigured from the perspective of this bifurcate cosmology, for the double is no mere shadow or copy. The second world is the source of causality that brings the present world into embodiment. A person’s double is neither the soul nor body—it is a third entity that inhabits the parallel world and is the source of the self (even as it is other). It is the double that witches eat to gain power and wealth, and when it is destroyed, the body is bound to die. The double is not immaterial—when it gains in strength, the body will get heavier and more corpulent. Dozon, speaking of the Bété, compares this second world to the backstage of the theater of “reality,” where all the invisible manipulations take place to produce the illusions of the stage that is the world [1, p. 394].

Thus, the politics of the counterfeit in Côte d’Ivoire are about more than delegitimizing one’s opponent to gain political control, for illusions of power are recognized to participate in the power they represent, and everyone knows that unseen forces are at play behind the apparent success of any candidate. Following the election, Gbagbo, installed in the presidential mansion, lost all credibility with the international community. Meanwhile Ouattara, holed up in the Hôtel du Golfe, eventually received military assistance from France and the United Nations to tip the balance and take the presidency, demonstrating his otherworldly connections to potent forces of externality. Gbagbo’s party boycotted the 2011 legislative elections in an effort to protest the occupation of the state by an illegitimate government with a false president, just as Ouattara, eleven years before, had boycotted legislative elections to protest the illegitimacy of Gbagbo’s claim to the presidency. In this sense, the real president, whichever he may be, is still in the shadow of his doppelgänger, and the future stability of the nation might depend upon the kind of faith some Ivoirians still hold in local practices of masquerade, where deceit and intentional credulity intertwine to make the performed illusion socially real.


[1] Dozon, Jean-Pierre. 1981. Les métamorphoses urbaines d’un “double” villageois. Cahiers d’études africaines 21 (81/83): 389-403.