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Supporting the Church’s Promotion of a Culture of Brother/Sisterhood to Heal a Fragmented Ivory Coast

On October 31, 2020, after an electoral presidential campaign marked by social unrests and violent protests throughout the country, Alassane Ouattara was re-elected president of Ivory Coast for an unprecedented third, five-year term in office –he was first elected in 2011! The opposition leaders and their followers boycotted these presidential elections and claimed the sitting president’s candidacy was unconstitutional! This controversy deteriorated the social and political situation in Ivory Coast. “The poll triggered confrontations between opposition and government supporters in the capital, Abidjan, and at least eight other towns, resulting in brutal street clashes fought with machetes, clubs, and hunting rifles.”[1] Addressing this electoral violence, issue, Cardinal Jean-Pierre Kutwa, Archbishop of Abidjan, urged “respect for the law”, and denounced that “running for this third term was not necessary” and that he had to speak out because “in certain circumstances, silence can be synonymous with cowardice and complicity with iniquity!”[2]

Pre-electoral and post-electoral violence has caused deaths, destruction of houses, schools, churches and buildings; separation of families; juvenile delinquency. More than 50 people were killed and more than 282 were injured in the political and inter-communal violence. “Security forces failed to adequately prevent violence and protect civilians,” and they “used excessive force to disperse opposition-led protests, shooting dead demonstrators and beating others.[3]  “The killings… pushed Côte d’Ivoire toward a deadly spiral of violence, a decade after the 2010-11 post-election conflict left over 3,000 dead”, with more than 150 women and girls raped. Respecting the right to freedom of expression and assembly, including for opposition leaders and their supporters, will be a key ingredient to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis.”[4]

Since this recent presidential election, Ivory Coast has remained socially and politically polarized, and the populations are divided in two major political trends: Those who support the president and his term, and those who reject him and see his presidency as illegitimate.

This polarization was radicalized during and after the March 2021 local and parliamentary elections as both the opposition and the government leaders claimed victories! [5] The vote came just months after Ouattara won a third term in an election marred by unrest that killed at least 85 people. Ouattara’s RHDP party was challenged by opposition parties led by two of his predecessors, Henri Konan Bedie (PDCI) and Laurent Gbagbo (FPI). [6] While the Independent Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court declare the presidential platform the winner of the election, the opposition continues to claim that the current president usurped power and that the electoral results were manipulated and riddled with irregularities.[7]

Thus, we have been living in a divided nation where social and political tension permeates our daily lives and where the risk of violence is constantly present. The specters of 2002-2004 and 2010-2011 have been back looming over our heads! Some politicians have been trying to politicize religions and/or ethnic difference to set up Muslims against Christians, Northerners against southerners!

In this context of Ivory Coast, Catholic Church leaders are realizing more and more that they are more credible than political leaders, that they are more listened to than the politicians, and that they are more trusted than civil leaders in the role they can play to promote peace, reconciliation, brotherhood/sisterhood. Hence, they are becoming more vocals, more out-spoken and more publicly engaged in the struggle for people, justice and reconciliation.[8] They have become more and more involved in the process of dialogue, peace and reconciliation! They are reclaiming the mission of the Church in Africa as defined not only in John Paul II’s Ecclesia in Africa, [9] but also in Benedict XVI’s Africa Munus.[10] Where, challenged to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the word,” the Church is called to be witness, prophet and source of reconciliation, justice and peace.

In support of the Church’s involvement in the healing of Ivory Coast and in the struggle for peace and harmony, the Jesuit Institute of Theology has held two major events promoting a culture of brotherhood. On April 28, 2021, we held a public conference-debate around Pope Francis’ Encyclical Fratelli Tutti. The main topic was: “Fraternity and Social Friendship in the African Context: Insights and Reflections from Fratelli Tutti.[11] The aim was to bring out the relevance of Francis’s call for fraternity and social friendship within the African context and to present an African appropriation of this Encyclical. We had three axes of discussion: The biblical foundation and examples of brotherhood; the ethical relevance of brotherhood/sisterhood; and fraternity as Christian doctrine: an intercultural perspective. It was a wonderful opportunity to openly discuss the various social and political crises we have been living through in Ivory Coast and share how we can build a culture of brotherhood/sisterhood beyond our political convictions, religious views, ethnic or national origins. Providing a safe space where we could meet, talk and discuss about the meaning and the value of brotherhood/sisterhood and social friendship within a divided country and a broken nation, it was an empowering opportunity.

Also, on the 15th of May 2021, we organized an ecumenical and interreligious “Brotherhood and Social Cohesion Day” involving the participation of the Association of Côte d’Ivoire’s Muslim students; the Association of Cote d’Ivoire’s Protestant Students; and Catholic Christian Youth League! It was a cultural and sportive gathering to promote peace, dialogue and brotherhood between Catholic, Protestant and Muslim students. As the keynote speaker, we had Mme Anne Ouloto, Minister of Public Service and Administration of the nation. [12] The regional and national media coverage this event had and the feedback we got was a sign that this event meant a lot to those many people who joined as well as those who watch on line or on national TV.  It’s was a piece of this “rainbow people of God” that Bishop Tutu talks about! This unprecedented gathering or event was a testimony that students or young people from this country can come together to have exchange of ideas, to have fun, to play, to dance peacefully, without any tension. That is the Cote d’Ivoire we are all dreaming!

A third event our Jesuit Institute was involved in as part of our campaign to support the Church promotion of brotherhood to heal this nation, was the co-organisation, on February 4, 2021,  of the 1st International Day of Human Fraternity sponsored by the CERAP-Jesuit University of West Africa.[13] Structured as a “Round Table on Human Fraternity”, the gathering brought together the Apostolic Nuncio (Bishop Paulo Borgia) and the President of High Council of Côte d’Ivoire’s Imams (Cheikh Al Aïma Mamadou Traoré) as well as several Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders and figures such Father Eric Abekan and Imam Cissé Djiguiba, two leading figures in Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Abidjan. The forum created a space to discuss about how religious leaders and their faithful can promote peace and brotherhood and social friendship. It was about building bridges and creating bonds that can help our world and African nations to heal from useless divisions based on religion, ethnic group, race or political platform. Main speakers were recommended to read Francis ‘s Fratelli Tutii (October 3, 2020) as well as Francis and Imam Al-Azhar’s common letter on Human Faternity for World Peace and Living Together (Abou Dhabi, le 4 février 2019).

In sum, I really do believe that the Church in Africa should continue to reclaim its prophetic mission in promoting not only justice, but also brotherhood. I hope that our Catholic institutions within Africa should be involved in building bridges and cultivating bonds of brotherhood or fraternity that help to heal our conflict-wounded nations. It should not be all about following an academic program, but also about contextualizing our program and about embracing an empowering creative fidelity!

[1] HRW Reports, “Côte d’Ivoire: Post-Election Violence, Repression Over 50 Killed Since Presidential Poll; Dozen Opposition Leaders Arrested” (Dec.25, 2020), In Human Rights Watch, in https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/02/cote-divoire-post-election-violence-repression

[2] Lucie Sarr, “Côte d’Ivoire: Cardinal says it’s “not necessary” for current president to seek third term” (August 29 , 2020), in La Croix International (2 September 2, 2020), in https://international.la-croix.com/news/world/cte-divoire-cardinal-says-its-not-necessary-for-current-president-to-seek-third-term/12940

[3] HRW Reports,  “Côte d’Ivoire: Post-Election Violence, Repression Over 50 Killed Since Presidential Poll; Dozen Opposition Leaders Arrested” (Dec.25, 2020), In Human Rights Watch, in https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/02/cote-divoire-post-election-violence-repression

[4] Jim Wormington, Human Rights Watch’s Senior Africa Researcher quoted by [4] HRW Reports, “Côte d’Ivoire: Post-Election Violence, Repression Over 50 Killed Since Presidential Poll; Dozen Opposition Leaders Arrested” (Dec.25, 2020), In Human Rights Watch, in https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/02/cote-divoire-post-election-violence-repression

[5] Africanews & AFP,” Ivory Coast’s ruling party wins absolute majority in parliament” (March 9, 2020), in https://www.africanews.com/2021/03/09/ivory-coast-s-ruling-party-wins-absolute-majority-in-parliament//; Africanews & AFP, “Ivory Coast opposition claims victory in legislative polls”, in https://www.africanews.com/2021/03/08/ivory-coast-opposition-claims-victory-in-legislative-polls/

[6] Africanews and AFP,” Ivory Coast’s ruling party wins absolute majority in parliament” (March 9, 2020), in https://www.africanews.com/2021/03/09/ivory-coast-s-ruling-party-wins-absolute-majority-in-parliament//

[7] Africa News with AFP, “Ivory Coast opposition claims victory in legislative polls”, in https://www.africanews.com/2021/03/08/ivory-coast-opposition-claims-victory-in-legislative-polls/

[8] Les Evêques de Côte d’Ivoire, « Les Evêques dénoncent les violences électorales », in https://www.cath.ch/tag/cote-divoire/

[9] John Paul II, Ecclesia in Africa. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in Africa and its evangelizing mission towards the year 2000, chap. 5, 6 & 7, in http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_14091995_ecclesia-in-africa.html

[10] Benoit XVI, Africae Munus. Post-Synodal Exhortation on the Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace. Part I, Chaps. 1 & 2, in http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20111119_africae-munus.html

[11] Cf. Video and reports from ITCJ Communication office: https://www.facebook.com/itcjabidjan/videos/1114382692384794

[12] Cf. Video and reports from Ecclesia TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDWZ-EflrtQ&fbclid=IwAR0i7YccmTQkeaP9yzkS9RF41k_w8ElMj5-FDpZxhKchmNLTwFiNvaC7IC8

[13] Fides reports,  « La célébration de la I° Journée internationale de la fraternité humaine, une occasion pour promouvoir l’idéal de paix et de coexistence », in http://www.fides.org/fr/news/69564-AFRIQUE_COTE_D_IVOIRE_La_celebration_de_la_I_Journee_internationale_de_la_fraternite_humaine_une_occasion_pour_promouvoir_l_ideal_de_paix_et_de_coexistence