Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cote D'ivoire: Little room for voices of moderation

Cote d'Ivoire's partisan media has little room for civil society's views Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN

IRIN - An increasingly belligerent and deeply partisan political rhetoric has come to dominate Côte d’Ivoire since the country’s post-electoral crisis, leaving little room for voices of moderation.

With Laurent Gbagbo drawing much of his support from the largely Christian south and Alassane Ouattara strongly associated with the predominantly Muslim north, the polarization has also taken on a religious dimension.

The worsening internal tensions have been hugely frustrating for civil society activists, many of whom invested considerable energy and hope in the elections, mobilizing voters and arguing the case for peaceful participation. Despite the unpromising political background, human rights campaigners and women’s rights activists continue to seek a platform.

A selection of prominent campaigners spoke to IRIN about their concerns and their sense of disappointment at being sidelined at a time when they are most needed.

Margueritte Yoli-Bi, national coordinator, West Africa Network for Peace-building (WANEP)

“For me the priority is positive communication. With this crisis, communication is polarized around the political parties and that does not help matters. We need positive communication to get back to the truth away from political passions.

“We have to respect those who are not politicians. You have to respect the population and their rights, their right to free speech, the right to health, the right to go to school and so on.

“We don’t hear about the needs of the people anywhere. When you look at the television or read the papers, nowhere do you hear about the rising cost of living or hospitals and schools that are no longer working, you only hear about politics. It’s not right. It’s not right that people are dying, women are dying, people don’t have enough to eat; they eat only once a day and people are only talking about politics. You can’t eat politics. People have fundamental rights, the right to survive, and these must be spoken of.

“A population consists of different shades of opinion. It is enriched by its contradictions. Civil society is impartial now, and should stay so. People should be able talk to each other freely for the well-being of the population.

“Among all the mediators who came to Côte d’Ivoire we did not see any women, or very few. We saw the delegations from the UN, ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States], and AU [African Union] and there were no women. And even to meet these delegations, we had to force our way in to be received, even though we women are in the majority in the country. We make up at least 51 percent of the voters registered, so our position must be taken into account.

“Nowadays there is no recognized national delegation doing what we are trying to do, going from one side to the other, listening and giving the other’s point of view.

“To make ourselves heard we have to pay to get our statements published in the private press. How many people read them? Most of the population is illiterate. If we send our statements to the television station they do not get aired. You have to go the local radio stations. But these stations have now been told not to cover anything related to the situation.

“Achieving social cohesion now is going to be a very arduous and a long-term task.”

Raymonde Coffie Goudou, Women’s Network for Peace and Security in West Africa (REPSFECO), Coalition des Femmes Leaders de Côte d'Ivoire (CFeLCI), senior figure in the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), which supported Ouattara’s candidature in the second round of the elections

“Today in Côte d’Ivoire there is an organized civil society which got thoroughly involved in the election to educate voters, especially women voters. Civil society worked to protect women against atrocities across the country. It did a remarkable job. And people voted.

“People have to understand that in Côte d’Ivoire people only hear one voice because there is oppression in Côte d’Ivoire, that civil society is fighting this oppression, and that civil society wants to be able to help the population, or help to have their voice heard, so that Côte d’Ivoire can prosper.

“It is not that civil society is muzzled , it just doesn’t have a big enough platform to talk from. If the television opened its airwaves to all the women sitting around this table you would hear a different opinion and things would change. These days, there is no diversity of opinion. We only hear one voice, the voice of hate.

“It is not a question of who won or lost the election... Our problem is that we have two armies facing each other now: one which backs Ouattara and the other Gbagbo. The population is in the middle, caught in a sandwich, as the two sides fight their battles above their heads. People are getting shot. People are getting killed.”

Ténin Touré Diabaté, president of the African Muslim Women’s Network, University Sociology Professor

“Disinformation rips society apart. We try very hard to raise our children with a minimum of civic-mindedness. Democracy cannot survive without it. The disinformation we see now is very bad for society.

“In my research into politically mixed couples, intellectuals, I am astonished by what I find. It is abominable. Marriages are falling apart... There are 60 ethnic groups in Côte d’Ivoire. The population is intermingled. Many families bring together both Christians and Muslims. I am Muslim and my husband is Christian. I take him to church on Sundays and he takes me to the mosque on Fridays. That’s how it is in Côte d’Ivoire. And politics is going to destroy that? We say no. That is why we want to speak out. This is not a religious conflict. Our families are intermingled families. We want to rebuild our country realistically, with diversity.”

Genevieve Diallo-Sissoko, president of the Association des Femmes Juristes de Côte d'Ivoire (AFJCI), Professional Association of Women’s Lawyers

“In legal circles, the cohesion among women is found at the level of magistrates, the judiciary, the courts. But now, at all levels of society, things are getting serious. Even when a magistrate makes a ruling, someone else disagrees, saying there has been bias. That makes things very serious in terms of social divisions. It is civil society that can help lead Ivoirians down the road of peace.

“With access to the media blocked, ways must be found for civil society to be heard. It is very difficult. There is a sense that civil society is doing nothing and that the population is left to its own devices. Last time I went to court, I was asked: ‘What are you people doing? We are on our own. We don’t understand.’”

André Banhouman Kamate, president of the executive national office of the Ligue Ivoirienne des Droits de l’Homme (LIDHO), Ivoirian Human Rights League

“Ivoirian civil society is not as strong as you might think. It has never really managed to play a part in resolving the Ivoirian crisis since 2002, despite calls from the UN and AU that it do so. Civil society never managed to impose itself within the political class, to act as a foil to the powers-that-be.

“It is not so strong because it is divided. There are organizations staffed by people who call themselves civil society but who are aligned with political parties, or are affected by certain economic interests.

“In order for our voice to be heard, we must speak as one, forge a common voice.

“The political class is so strong; it has more clout than civil society. The media, which should be the channel through which civil society communicates, are in the hands of the politicians so we cannot speak out. Because civil society is politicized and divided, even if we do speak out, the controllers say: `Oh … we know who you are.’ Our voice is not heard. It’s a shame.

“Now we have more or less the same situation as we had eight years ago - civil society is moribund. After the recent elections there is a crisis and civil society has been sidelined in the resolution of this crisis.”

Copyright © IRIN 2011. All rights reserved. This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.