Now think of the Ivorian geo-cultural map, gradually drawn by the French ethnographers-colonial administrators since the beginning of the 20th century, as if it were one of the first geographical maps of the early Middle Ages, drawn in the infancy of the discipline, adopting a biased perspective and using various sources, including some unreliable ones. We cannot call this map an invention, but neither can we treat it as if it were the result of rigorous and mature scientific work.
This has two consequences.
The first. This geo-cultural map, and in particular the linguistic-ethnic differentiation of Ivorian groups and communities drawn up since the early colonial period, did not represent the fluid ethnic situation of the territory in the pre-colonial period, but claimed to do so and was received as such. It is a bit like a Mercator projection claiming to be the true representation of the earth's surface. We know it is not. Similarly, we know that the geo-cultural map of Delafosse & co. wasn't a faithful representation of an ancient pre-colonial past.
Few scholars have noted this fundamental point, and among them is the author of a masterful essay in French that is well worth reading: the author is Jean-Pierre Dozon, a French anthropologist, Africanist, Scientific Director of the Fondation Maison des sciences de l'homme (FMSH), Emeritus Research Director at the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), and member of the Institut des mondes africains (IMAF). I suggest you to read his 1989 paper titled L’invention de la Côte-d’Ivoire (you will find the link to download it in my final Bibliography). He writes: «As cartographic inscriptions corresponding to a territory and a name, the ethnic groups of Côte d'Ivoire are at least as much the result of the ethnographic work of the colonial state as of realities that preceded its creation. This assertion does not mean that the colonial administrators created the ethnic groups of Côte d'Ivoire from scratch; it simply indicates that the way in which they identified and classified them contains an element of arbitrariness, conveying representations that the colonial state needed to control the territory and to justify and translate its intervention and development practices into a certain cultural language. (...) The ethnic identities and the "larger families" are categories of colonial practice because they take on meaning within a system that differentiates and hierarchizes them and claims to measure their suitability for colonization» (L’invention de la Côte-d’Ivoire. My translation).
The effects of the rifts, separations, and rigidities that such a geo-cultural map created among the various Ivorian communities were compounded by the "divide and rule" policy, the shifting interplay of alliances that the colonial authorities established over time, and the forced migrations that they organized to meet the needs dictated by the establishment of extensive cash crops (especially cocoa and coffee) and the emerging plantation economy. French colonialism thus stands out as the most influential factor in shaping and developing the ethnic landscape of present-day Côte d'Ivoire. This means that the recent ethnic conflicts can in no way be read as the resurgence of ancient, pre-colonial and tribal tensions: a convenient interpretation that pleases some Westerners but insults history.
There's a second consequence, even more important than the first.
Delafosse & Co.'s geo-cultural map, its systematic use and adoption, and the "divide and rule" style of colonial control contributed not only to the "crystallization of social relations around ethnic identities and distinctions," as Dozon writes, but also to a progressive ethnicization of colonial governance and, in the long run, of Ivorian political life.
Let's take an example. Among the first Ivorian associations created in 1937 (made possible by a new colonial law) were the ADIACI (Association de Défense des intérêts des Autochtones de la Côte d'Ivoire), which expressed the specific needs and political demands of the Agni planters, and the Mutualité Bété, linked to the interests of the Bété ethnic community. In 1944, the Syndicat agricole africain (SAA) was created under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a physician and wealthy planter from a family of hereditary Baoulé chiefs. The majority of SAA members came from the Baoulé region and, to a lesser extent, from the Dioula and Voltaic regions in the north. This association presented itself as defending the interests of Ivorian society as a whole, but in fact it was the expression of the specific interests of the Baoulé elite (to which Félix Houphouët-Boigny belonged), and as such it immediately aroused the opposition of the Agni community. Thus, the Ivorian associations that developed in the country after the law of the late 1930s were created along ethnic lines in order to defend and support the claims of the elites in ethnic terms and at the ethnic level.
The ethnicization of colonial politics was initially a side effect of the French colonial regime and style of control. But it was a wonderful side effect, a kind of "Viagra side effect". You see, sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, was originally developed to treat cardiovascular problems, and its powerful effect on erectile dysfunction was at first a surprising side effect. At second glance, Pfizer executives understood the drug's potential and turned it into the key to a huge business success. The ethnicization of Ivorian political life had a surprising "Viagra effect" that the French were not slow to exploit: it closed the door to communism.
The French colonial regime, with its high rate of structural violence, exploitation and repression, had created increasingly dangerous social inequalities and disparities, and was gradually turning Ivorian society into a powder keg ready to explode. However, the progressive ethnicization of Ivorian social and political life had the effect of channelling social resentments and political demands into the ethnic horizon, with a diversionary effect that almost bypassed the French colonial power; at the same time, it prevented the development of left-wing political parties and trade unions similar to those that were animating contemporary French political life. In other words, the progressive ethnicization of Ivorian political life led to the ethnicization of demands for social, economic, and legal justice, provoking their fragmentation along pseudo-ethnic lines and ultimately their disempowerment.
We have said it before: France loved the Jacobins or the Bonapartists not because they were Jacobins or Bonapartists, but because they were French. For something similar to happen in Africa, destabilizing such a subdued and prosperous colony and bringing it closer to potential Soviet influence, was not an acceptable scenario for a disingenuously democratic France. Royal beheaders and revolutionaries at home, but fierce anti-communists in colonial Africa: that was the French. As for ethnic conflicts, the colonial authorities were convinced that they could control them militarily, using means that were not really in line with their "civilizing mission" but could well have remained hidden.
Anti-communism was a cornerstone of French colonial rule in Côte d'Ivoire and became particularly evident at various moments in colonial history, such as in the affairs of the French historian and anthropologist Jean Suret-Canale (1883-1958), who was forced to leave the colony by the French government under a military order. However, I won't deal with this interesting story, but with Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a key figure in Ivorian politics and the first president of the post-colonial, independent Côte d'Ivoire from 1960 until his death in 1993.