Gbagbo, a Christian southerner, and Ouattara, a Muslim northerner who was accused in the past of being a foreigner, are emblematic of the country’s deep geographic, religious, and ethnic divides.
After Ivory Coast gained independence from France in 1960, the government encouraged immigration from neighboring countries to supply a labor force for its burgeoning cocoa industry, now the world’s largest.
The prosperity of the 1970s and 1980s brought in hordes of migrant workers, most of them Muslim. Many opted to settle in Ivory Coast permanently, mostly in the north.
Being born in the country does not grant a person Ivorian citizenship if he or she is born to foreigner parents, so many in the north remained “foreigners” according to the country’s laws. That became an issue in the 1980s, when an economic slowdown led to widespread discrimination against foreigners, and, by extension, Muslim northerners.
The country’s first leader after independence, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, is credited with keeping a lid on ethnic and religious tensions through a variety of patronage networks. But the underlying problems festered and rather than tamping down divisions, Mr. Houphouet-Boigny’s successor Henri Konan Bédié exploited them to solidify his grasp on power. “Northern” names became a liability for those seeking political office and for Ivorians living in the south.
Northerners’ sense of persecution built for years. Previous leaders had allowed “foreigners” to hold political positions, including Ouattara, who was prime minister under Houphouët-Boigny. Ouattara insists that both his parents are Ivorians, but a court ruled in 1995 that his mother was from neighboring Burkina Faso. Ouattara and his supporters have always viewed this decision as an unjust way to prevent him from running in elections that he would have won, just as he finally did on Nov. 28, 2010.
Ouattara, highly popular among Ivory Coast’s Muslim northerners and its immigrant population, was run out of the country in 2002 as northerners launched a rebellion against the pro-government Christian south, then led by Gbagbo.