Social Defense in Northern Ivory Coast 1990 – 2011 (Blog version)


I published a Short Report of the Study in my Blog (in German)   Here is an English Translation in a provisional version!   21.5.2018  v.Graeve  (Revised 6.8.2018)

Politique africaine no.148 – décembre 2017, p.109-129

The term ‘social defense’  may be not as common today as it was in the seventies and eighties (Link: Wikipedia), but it fits to the features of the crisis and activities described in the essay. 
The title of Till Förster’s dossier says freely translated: “Peace in a War Zone. The Ivorian crisis viewed from below and over a long period”. The focus lies on ‚Islands of peace’ in the area around Korhogo and Boundiali on the Ivory Coast. The author has done extensive fieldwork ever since 1979 to the present.
My ’translation’ is not authorized and does not claim to be literal. I want to popularize the fascinating story secluded in an academic paper. And to retell Till Foerster’s  fascinating story in my way. The chiffres in bracket refer to the corresponding page in the original.*


The crisis on the Ivory Coast developed over the years. It is usually associated with the emergence of the ethno-nationalist ideology of a Ivoirité (109): The so-called Nordistes were no longer regarded as ‘true Ivorians’ by the center and south of the country, As far back as 1985, a police officer who had been sent from the center to Touba on the western border with Guinea told me: “All bad people here, all bush here”. In 2002, this area too became part of the rebel area. On the other side the Ivorian state apparatus lost the rest of its legitimacy in the North.
In 1995 and 2000, President Bedié, who had been in office since 1993, obstructed the candidacy of his rival from the North, pointing out his lack of citizenship. Finally, in 2002, parts of the army revolted and subsequently controlled the northern half of the territory for nine years, despite a ceasefire announced in 2007. (Wikipedia)
These news reached us through our media. The global decline in commodity prices of 1990 meant for the Ivory Coast a cocoa price decline. The Ivorian media – censored by 1991 by the authorities – downplayed the crisis. Nevertheless, the population saw in it the failure of the government and the national elites, all the more as the politicians could no longer meet the expectations of their clients. (114)
For a long time, young people had not found adequate employment on the official labor market and remained dependent on their families. Now many of them saw their personal chance in joining the militias of the conflicting parties. (110)  

Initiatives of local self-defense

In 1985, I personally felt safe in the country, I registered only in Abidjan fears and precautions of my hosts, but during the last years of Houphuet-Boigny (+ 1993) the insecurity in the countryside increased dramatically. (113)
Now peasants were attacked on the way to their fields, as well as small traders between the villages, no matter how miserable the expected booty was. On the highways bush taxis were stopped and robbed. In the cities indignant people discussed burglaries and attacks. Police were accused of indifference – they extorted the usual toll even from the robbed – if not of complicity (113).
In the affected villages and neighborhoods young men started to barricade the entrances at night and organized patrols. The elders began to recognize the commitment of the young men. A fair burden-sharing of patrols was organized to impose curfews (115).  

Poro or Dozoton?

For the organization of local self-defense of the Senoufo existed two models: one was the tradition of the Poro-associated age groups in the villages, but it had lost most of its importance due to the six-year-long commitments for the initiates.
Most villages decided to use a different tradition. In the villages offered hunters (dozos) and remnants of their union (dozoton) a flexible organizational form. The necessary skills could be acquired in an individual master-student-relationship within a short time. The hunters also instructed at real firearms, starting with blacksmith-made muzzle-loaders to end with imported AK-47 and Uzis by the course of time. (115) Last but not least, the hunters had magical substances at their disposal, for example against the invisible ‘dangers of the night’.

From the mid-nineties to the military revolt in 2002, Dozotons were the dominant security forces in some regions of the North. They differed considerably from each other of course, and the majority of their members were not interested in intensive apprenticeship, but only in useful skills. (116) Resettlers from the regions of the North spread dozotons also in the South.

At the beginning, dozotons tactically cooperated against crime with the government forces, but always emphasized their own independence. (116) Anyway most inhabitants of towns and villages relied rather on the dozos. Officials sometimes leaned on the dozotons at the local level, but disliked the the dozos as competitors questioning their claim to authority. (116)
From 2002 on, many young men who were disappointed by the Rebel militia, returned home and reinforced the dozos. (110, 118)
In 2002, the Rebels sent pick-ups with delegations to the villages to promote ’the common cause of all Nordistes’. As true ‘sons of the region’ they behaved respectfully towards the representatives of the social groups and the qualified people, whom they needed urgently, for the larger part of the administrative apparatus had fled to the south. In Korhogo for example, the Rebel Government regularly called meetings and engaged griots as their official speakers. (119) “Once, we were not treated as uneducated animals,” a timber merchant’s remembered some years later (118).
Taxes had to be collected, and the farmers in particular met them with avoidance tactics, such as nebulous declarations. For them, the self-styled sons of the region were nothing but people of power just as all armed representatives of foreign rulers before: You must endure them, but ‘you do not need them’. (121; more in: Till Förster: “Zerrissene Entfaltung“, 1997, 135-139). For the Rebel organization, the existence of reliable local defense initiatives meant relief, but also to weaken their own claim to power. (111,119) The delegations learned this in some villages. As they wanted to set up checkpoints outside the villages, some villages discovered during the consultation, that they were deeply divided on this issue. Then they made of it willfully a convincing argument. (121) In the end the Rebels had to confine themselves to the military protection of critical points and strategically important zones.

A second way to gain distance from the conflict was more spectacular: From 2002 on, more and more families left their village for new settlements on unpopulated land deeper in the bush and away from the roads. (122) They were not of strategic interest, the authorities did not even know about them. There had been a long tradition among Senufo and Mandingo to found new villages on virgin soil even far away from their central settlement area, for example, between 1980 and 1990 in the Dianra region south of Boundiali. (123)

Secret Pioneers

The new pioneers settle very close from home, but the places are unreachable for non-residents who inevitably get lost in the maze of narrow footpaths or fail due to natural obstacles. The newly cleared glades are hidden at long intervals in the dense bush. They soon provide not only vegetable gardens for self-sufficiency but fields for commercial cultivation as well. Traders join the pioneers and organize markets. A new warehouse for cotton and onions can also be used as a meeting place or school. (124) Elementary schools are established, they are operated by secondary school graduates and based on the official curriculum. But there come graduated teachers from Mali and Burkina Faso too. Goods are transported out of the settlement on tricycles imported from China, which can use primitive bridges, and traded under the name and address of a relative left behind in the old village. Even for the administration, the resettlers remain invisible by a pseudo residence or borrowed identity. (125)
People appreciate the cheap life, freedom and peace of the new village, they enjoy to escape the swindlers, thieves, and gendarmes who ruin urban life (125). The new social network even integrates immigrants from neighboring countries as long as they respect certain basic rules.

Till Foerster warns us about idealizing the conditions he describes. It is a case study (126), not some general model of social peace, which he offers, even though an idealistic lecture may be very tempting. The pioneers seek and find in the new settlement only the everyday peace of a common village. (125) Old conflicts and disagreements live on, but “one speaks to each other,” as the inhabitants say, instead of becoming suspicious. In the face of ‘difference’, social life is determined by practices that do not exclude ‘strangers’. (126)
The author turns our attention to two additional aspects:
Local players have managed with skill and cleverness to escape state rule, what some researchers have considered impossible since colonial subjugation.
Secondly, the collective goals arose in the process of their struggle – initially with criminals, then with the military Rebels – for the control of their village or their city. (126)

State-free Enclaves To Be Continued?

The last two pages of Foerster’s dossier shed light on the fate of these enclaves after the peace deal of 2011, that is, after the return of state control over the north of the country after nine years. The process started with the big cities and the occupation of the border posts, while large areas remained under the control of the dozos or former Rebel forces, in some places labeled as auxiliary troops. Some sub-prefects relied on the former rebels for two more years. The new officials had to get to know their district.
The hated gendarmes toured the villages to introduce themselves politely before setting up their usual checkpoints. They ventured into the ‘Islands of Peace’ only two or three years after the peace was concluded. They were told that they were not needed. (127)
But the restored state power was in a stronger position. Villagers could only gain some time and some more distance to the next checkpoint. When this became obvious, the evasive movements of the villagers in the direction of the secret colonies in the ‘new territories’ increased again. There still exist alternative spaces of social order. They are by no means understood as revolutionary, but are an open criticism of the defects of the ‘normal’ State system. (128)


Playing around with picture puzzles

The chapter on secret settlements in the bush haunted me. I had taken for granted that the small West African country Ivory Coast was well laid out and well developed. Sure, I had only experienced a few paths off the highway on the moped taxi.

Till Foerster told us in his monograph on the Senufo “Zerrissene Entfaltung” (1997) how far cultivated areas in the Senufoland are scattered in the landscape. For the seasonal field work one may stay there for days or weeks – 

In a still unpublished essay, he characterizes the everyday challenge of the landscape in the context of “Daily work and solidarity” :

In May I was curious about traces of secret settlements in the present and I surfed about an hour with Google Maps in varying resolution through the area. Most villages are nameless, but that’s up to Google. Indeed they all seem to be connected with others by a network of paths. Close-ups give the impression that rectangular rooftops can be certainly identified. In the age of high-resolution satellite imagery and cheap drones, secret settlements would no longer be possible without tacit approval by the authorities. But is that right?  No matter, why not make further discoveries on the pictures!

The photos of settlements around Nafoun and Korhogo selected at that time corresponded most closely to the model outlined in the article. The settlement near Korhogo – barely visible from a greater distance – seems to be protected on three sides by floodplain forests. A straight path leads northwest out of the picture into the bush.


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