Up North: Uncertainty, Poverty, and the Issue of Youth

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

Marie Nathalie LeBlanc, Department of Sociology, Université du Québec à Montréal

In the media and in academic publications, the respectively southern and western Ivoirian cities of Abidjan and Douékoué have provoked much discussion and debate due to their roles as sites of violent conflict during last year’s post-electoral confrontations. In contrast, the impact of post-electoral violence on populations in northern Côte d’Ivoire has garnered far less attention. Although northern cities saw no armed conflict in 2011, wounds remain painfully open from military conflicts waged between 2002 and 2006, from debates over ivoirité during the same period, and from ongoing social frustrations and economic hardships felt in places like Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second largest city.

The city of Bouaké, which has been the main site of my ethnographic fieldwork since the early 1990s, has lapsed from its previous status as a commercial crossroads to that of a frontier town, with all the accompanying consequences, situated, as it is, at the nexus of converging geographical zones--that is, on the margins of everyplace else. Despite the negative impact of structural adjustment programs imposed on the city in the early 1990s, Bouaké was still an important crossroads for goods and people, hosting one of the largest markets of the sub-region, welcoming migrants mostly from Mali but also from Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Ghana and Liberia, and accommodating the presence of Baoulé inhabitants from neighboring villages, local Dioula families [1], and those of recent migrants from the north.

After 2002, however, following the division of the country into two political and military zones marked by the presence of the French Force Licorne in Yamoussoukro, Bouaké became the effective capital of the Ivoirian north and the headquarters of northern warlords. Despite or perhaps because of Bouaké’s new northern prominence, however, it remained cut off economically and administratively from the south. In the aftermath of the 2011 post-electoral crisis, its population is still struggling to move beyond a decade of increasing pauperization and isolation. In addition to the city’s everyday experience of marginalization, its socio-cultural landscape has been significantly transformed. It has been substantially “Dioula-ized” or “northern-ized,” erasing a portion of its former cultural pluralism.

Economic instability has increased from the overwhelming presence of competing armed groups overseeing various forms of racketeering and banditry. Although the figure of the armed northern youth is seen by some as having “liberated Abidjan” last April, the same figure’s unruly shadow looms large in Bouaké. The recent transformation in the nature of urban youth networks in Bouaké attests to this sense of insecurity.

Witness the new prominence of the grin, informal, neighborhood-based groups of young men who drink non-alcoholic beverages together and converse. Among young men, the neighborhood-based religious associations that grew in the early 1990s as sites of youth mobilization have been replaced by the multiplication of grins of all sorts over the past year and a half. In the Air France neighborhood alone, twenty-two grins are active, including grins for traders, mechanics, students, soldiers, bandits, and others who meet in different sites and at different times of the day to sip tea and talk. Although the presence of armed youth in the north carries neither the same implications as in the south or west nor compares with the scale of the problem in Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is worrisome. It raises the question of the place and roles that youth will likely occupy and play in the reconfiguration of post-conflict Ivoirian society.

At the national level, with the reappropriation of the Ivoirian media by the new government, political and social discourses have notably turned from the idiom of an exclusive ivoirité to idioms of an all-inclusive réconciliation, good governance, and sustainable development. However, these discourses of reconstruction and peace have limited purchase in places like Bouaké. At the beginning of the school year and around the time of the celebration of Tabaski in October 2011, policies of good governance and sustainable development translated into the government’s razing to the ground all illegal shops and stalls constructed around the former site of Bouaké’s central market. For a city of merchants like Bouaké, where trade remains the core economic activity open to youth, the struggle remains: “Les temps sont très durs et on ne voit pas la fin venir,” a young male merchant in his early thirties, told me: “Il y a que la faim” (The times are very hard and will not end soon. All that remains is hunger). The ambient optimism present in Abidjan, even if still quite muted, has not yet penetrated to the frontier zone of Bouaké.


[1] “Dioula” is the francophone spelling of “Jula.” Both words are pronounced the same way.

[2] Hoen, Marco T’. 2010. Ivory Coast Votes after Five-Year Wait. The Epoch Times, Oct. 28 (accessed June 20, 2012).

[3] Africa Review. 2012. Human Rights Group Warns of Crime Wave in Côte d’Ivoire. Africa Review, March 7 (accessed June 20, 2012).