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Clouding Ivory Coast's peace: Ivoirité

A loaded term exacerbates the ethnic divide, hampering peace efforts in the war-torn country.

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Djigue Dramane was on his way to an opposition party press conference in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan, when three young men approached him. They asked where he was going, and before he knew it he was surrounded, he claims, by 20 some young men who beat him as the police watched.

He pulls out X-rays and lifts his faded shirt to reveal scars from the iron bars they used. He says the Young Patriots - ardent supporters of Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo - attacked him because of his northern name.

Mr. Dramane's beating is one of hundreds of ethnically motivated attacks on the rise in the past few years and highlights a major divide in the country since a failed coup led to civil war in 2002. One key to exacerbating ethnic divisions here is the concept of Ivoirité, which means the state of being a true Ivorian. The term manifests itself throughout all levels of society, and is held up by many observers as a root cause of the country's violent downward spiral from its status throughout the 1970s and '80s as the most prosperous, stable country in volatile West Africa.

Many residents from the government- controlled southern part of country say those from the rebel-held north (often identifiable by their names) are not true Ivorians because many have lineage originating in poorer, neighboring countries such as Mali or Burkina Faso. Some southerners also resent that their northern neighbors support northern political figures.

The xenophobia often extends beyond northern Ivorians to all foreigners, and shifted last week to the United Nations and the French after a UN-backed international mediation group recommended that the National Assembly - a key power base for President Gbagbo - be dissolved. This prompted the Young Patriots (from the south) to take to the streets in several cities last week, bringing the nation back to the brink of war. At the same time, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), Gbagbo's political party, declared it would pull out of the national unity government and requested that UN forces leave the country. The FPI announced Monday it would rejoin the transitional government, but last week's riots have created hundreds of new refugees and caused the World Food Program to stop distributing much-needed food aid in the country.

The Ivoirité concept emerged here in the 1970s when many nationals from neighboring countries flooded into southern Ivory Coast to work the manual labor jobs in the coffee and cocoa sectors. Many Ivorians became resentful, feeling the newcomers were coming to take advantage of the financial boom the country was experiencing.

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