Discord in their homeland divides Ivory Coast immigrants living here.
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
When Alassane Dramane Ouattara’s opponents wanted to discredit him in his bid for president of Ivory Coast in 1995, they looked to Philadelphia for material.
Their operatives dug up the Wharton School graduate’s marriage certificate, issued by Pennsylvania in 1966. Detractors said it proved that Ouattara, a former prime minister, was ineligible because he was not born in Ivory Coast. Supporters swore the certificate had been doctored, and Ivorian newspapers printed a copy to prove the point.
The intrigue over the certificate is not the only way the crisis in the former French colony, also called Cote d’Ivoire, has played out in Philadelphia.
Civil war fractured the West African nation in 2002, and 5,000 miles away, on Baltimore Avenue – a hub for African immigrants – the same religious and tribal fault lines cracked open. Hair-braiders, cabbies and restaurants lost customers wary of the owners’ sympathies.
The conflict in Ivory Coast has divided immigrants in the region and across the United States in a way that risks fueling further discord at home.
Three years after troops from the mostly Muslim north mutinied, the battle lines still are drawn. Muslims rose up in 2002 because, they contended, they had been denied political power for decades by the Christian elite in the resource-rich south. French peacekeepers now mind a line of control that separates Muslim from Christian, north from south, rebel from loyalist.
This region’s contingent of Ivorians – 3,000 to 5,000, according to the country’s embassy in Washington – is not the largest in the United States but, by many accounts, it is the most passionate and most partisan.
La Calebasse, a restaurant on Baltimore Avenue, used to be a hangout and listening post for all of the region’s Ivorian immigrants. Within its warm, yellow walls, expats used to argue and exchange gossip about what was going on back home over steaming plates of peanut stew.
Now, from behind the counter, Ma Cisse holds a finger to her lips and warns in a whisper: “Don’t talk politics in here.” She has good reason to censor the chatter. Customers came to blows after the war, and had to be thrown out. Others boycotted the restaurant. It now has 20 fewer customers a day.
“They said: ‘Coming here is like giving money to the enemy,’ ” owner Daou Cisse said. “It’s not good to see people from your country, people you used to talk and laugh with, avoid you.”
The war siphoned off 30 percent of the Christian clients of International Boutique, a West Philadelphia beauty salon run by Muslims. “They don’t trust us,” owner Adja Sangare said, “and we don’t trust them either.”
The troubles began in 1993. Ivory Coast had been politically stable and, as one of the world’s largest cocoa and coffee producers, an economic powerhouse on the continent. Then Felix Houphouet-Boigny, president for three decades, died, sparking a succession battle.
In the next decade, the country that was once the envy of West Africa careened along a road of political turbulence that finally exploded into civil war. Its politicians fought bitterly over the question of Ivoirite – or who, in a country that had attracted generations of immigrants, had a rightful claim to Ivorian identity. The fight took on a religious and ethnic cast, with Muslims belonging to the northern Dioula tribe of traders portrayed as outsiders and, after the 9/11 attacks, even as terrorists.
Ouattara, the former Philadelphian and would-be president who now lives in exile in Paris, became the flag bearer for this group.
The mere mention of his name among Ivorians in Philadelphia quickens the collective pulse in a room: Supporters rush to retrievetheir copy of his marriage certificate, and detractors produce a directory of African students in the United States that, damningly, lists him as a scholar from Burkina Faso – a neighboring country that, to the ire of Ivorians, has flooded their country with workers.
Each of Ivory Coast’s major political parties, including Ouattara’s Rally of the Republicans (RDR), has a chapter in the Philadelphia area with an elected leader and a fund-raising arm.
“As far as people trying to do things for their political parties, Philadelphia is the busiest place,” said Franck Bamba, spokesman for the Ivorian Embassy in Washington.
The parties periodically picket the United Nations and the French and Ivorian Embassies. And they have raised thousands of dollars for medical supplies, food, shoes and – allegedly – even arms for their factions.
Coffie Sosthene, a South Philadelphia High School teacher with ramrod posture and a disciplinarian’s mien, keeps the eyes of his “party militants” on the prize: getting out the overseas vote for the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast-African Democratic Rally during elections that the U.N. hopes to facilitate by October.
But Sosthene avoids canvassing on Baltimore Avenue. Political opponents have argued with him there, and it has gotten physical.
“Because I happen to be an Akan [a southern tribe], I become an enemy to the people,” he said. “I’m a symbol of what they went through in the Ivory Coast.”
Through remittances and by flexing political muscles, the immigrants feed the conflict at home, even as it saps their strength here. The interplay shows up a rough edge to the connectedness that globalization allows.
“The community here is both a victim of and an actor in the war,” says Eric Edi, head of the Cote d’Ivoire Association of the Delaware Valley, a mutual-aid group that, postwar, has lost members.
The split has made it harder for the community – which includes refugees and illegals, people with no medical insurance, and people juggling jobs – to meet its needs.
The Ivorians have even held rival independence day festivals, and their women belong to rival “kitty clubs,” which pool money for births and deaths using the African tontine system.
“This is how we got divided a little bit, stopped a little bit, because of issues back home,” said Alassane Ouattara, an RDR member who is not related to the exiled politician. He used to lead the association but, like most Muslim and northern Ivorians, no longer even belongs.
Edi and Ouattara have retreated to separate corners of the Ivorian community: a storefront church in Logan where Edi leads the choir in French, and a converted mosque on Girard Avenue where Ouattara translates sermons from Dioula. Both flocks pray for peace, but the imam and the pastor do not even know each other.
Abu Bakr Fofana, spokesman in exile for all imams in Ivory Coast, explains: “We can have some friends [from the other side]… but not too close.”
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