Ethnic and Religious Conflicts: How We Can Help

Yacouba Isaac Zida, Former Head of State and Former Prime Minister of Burkina Faso

Introduction

I would like to sincerely thank all of you for your presence, highly appreciated by the Board of ICERM and myself. I am grateful to my friend, Basil Ugorji, for his dedication to ICERM and constant help, especially for new members like myself. His guidance through the process allowed me to integrate with the team. For that, I am very grateful and happy to be a member of ICERM.

My idea is to share some thoughts on ethnic and religious conflicts: how they occur and how to resolve them effectively. In that regard, I will focus on two specific cases: India and Côte d’Ivoire.

We live in a world where we deal with crises every day, some of them escalating into violent conflicts. Such events cause human suffering and leave multiple consequences, including death, injuries, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The nature of those conflicts varies in terms of economic conditions, geopolitical stances, ecological issues (mainly due to resource scarcity), identity-based conflicts such as race, ethnicity, religion, or culture and many others.

Among them, ethnic and religious conflict has a historical pattern of breading violent disputes, namely: the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda costing 800,000 victims (source: Marijke Verpoorten);  the 1995 Srebenica, ex- Yugoslavia conflict killing 8,000 Muslims  (source: TPIY); the religious tension in Xinjiang between Uighurs Muslims and Hans supported by the Chinese government; the persecution of the Iraki Kurdish communities in 1988(use of gaz against Kurdish people in the city of Halabja (source: https://www.usherbrooke.ca/); and ethnoreligious tensions in India…, just to name a few.

These conflicts are also very complex and challenging to resolve, taking for example, the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, which is one of the most protracted and complex conflicts in the world.

Such conflicts last for a more extended period because they are deeply rooted in ancestral narratives; they are inherited and highly motivated from generation to generation, making them challenging to end. It may take a long time before people agree to move on with burdens and greed from the past.

Most of the time, some politicians use religion and ethnicity as tools of manipulation. These politicians are called political entrepreneurs who use a different strategy to manipulate the opinion and scare people out by making them feel that there is a threat to them or their specific group. The only way out is to react while making their reactions look like a fight to survive (source: François Thual, 1995).

Case of India (Christophe Jaffrelot, 2003)

In 2002, the state of Gujarat experienced violence between the majority Hindus (89%) and the Muslim minority (10%). Interfaith riots were recurrent, and I would say they even became structural in India. The study by Jaffrelot highlights that, most often, the riots take place on the eve of elections due to too much pressure between religious, political groups, and it is also effortless for politicians to convince voters with religious arguments. In that conflict, Muslims are seen as the fifth column (traitors) from within, who threaten the security of Hindus while having complicity with Pakistan. On the other side, the nationalist parties disseminate anti-Muslim messages and thus create a nationalist movement used for their benefits during the elections. Not only that the political parties should be blamed for such conditions because the state officials are also responsible. In this kind of conflict, state officials struggle to maintain the opinion in their favor, therefore intentionally supporting the Hindus majority. As a result, the interventions by the police and the army during riots are very minimal and slow and sometimes show up very late after the outbreaks and heavy damages.

For some Hindu populations, these riots are opportunities to revenge Muslims, sometimes very wealthy and considered significant exploiters of the indigenous Hindus.

Case of Ivory Coast (Phillipe Hugon, 2003)

The second case I want to discuss is the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire from 2002 to 2011. I was a liaison officer when the government and the rebels signed the peace agreement in Ouagadougou on March 4, 2007.

This conflict has been described as a conflict between Muslim Dioulas from the North and Christians from the South. For six years (2002-2007), the country was divided into the North, occupied by the rebels supported by the Northern population and the South, controlled by the government. Even though the conflict looks like an ethnoreligious conflict, it is necessary to point out that it is not.

Originally the crisis began in 1993 when the former President Félix Houphouët Boigny died. His Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara wanted to replace him, referring to the constitution, but it did not turn out the way he planned, and he was succeeded by the president of the parliament, Henry Konan Bédié.

Bédié then organized elections two years later, in 1995, but Alassane Ouattara was excluded from the competition (by legal tricks…).

Six years later, in 1999 Bédié was ousted in a coup led by young Northern soldiers loyal to Alassane Ouattara. The events were followed by the elections organized in 2000 by the putschists, and Alassane Ouattara was again excluded, allowing Laurent Gbagbo to win the elections.

After that, in 2002, there was a rebellion against Gbagbo, and the rebels’ primary demand was their inclusion in the democratic process. They succeeded on constraining the government to organize elections in 2011 in which Alassane Ouattara was allowed to participate as candidate and then he won.

In this case, the quest for political power was the cause of the conflict that turned into armed rebellion and killed more than 10,000 people. In addition, ethnicity and religion were only used to convince militants, specifically those in the rural areas, low educated ones.

In most ethnic and religious conflicts, the instrumentalization of ethnicity and religious tensions is an element of marketing at the service of political entrepreneurs aiming at mobilizing activists, fighters, and resources. They are, therefore, the ones who decide which dimension they bring into play to achieve their objectives.

What Can We Do?

Community leaders are back on track in many areas following the failure of national political leaders. This is positive. However, there is still a long way to build trust and confidence among local populations, and part of the challenges is the lack of qualified personnel to deal with conflict resolution mechanisms.

Anyone can be a leader in stable periods, but unfortunately, due to multiple crises happening on and on, it is essential to choose qualified leaders for the community and countries. Leaders who can effectively accomplish their mission.

Conclusion

I am aware that this thesis is subject to many criticisms, but I just want us to keep this in mind: motivations in conflicts are not what appears in the first place. We may have to dig deeper before we understand what truly fuels conflicts. In many cases, ethnoreligious conflicts are just used to cover some political ambitions and projects.

It is then our responsibility as peacemakers to identify in any single conflict who the evolving actors are and what their interests are. Although that may not be easy, it is essential to continuously train and share experience with community leaders to prevent conflict (in the best cases) or resolve them where they have already escalated.

On that note, I believe ICERM, International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation, is an excellent mechanism to help us achieve sustainability by bringing scholars, political and community leaders together to share knowledge and experience.

Thank you for your attention, and I hope this will be a basis for our discussions. And thanks again for welcoming me on the team and allowing me to be a part of this wonderful journey as peacemakers.

About the Speaker

Yacouba Isaac Zida was a senior officer of the Burkina Faso army at the rank of General.

He was trained in many countries including Morocco, Cameroon, Taiwan, France, and Canada. He was also a participant in a Joint Special Operations program at a University in Tampa, Florida, United States.

After the people’s uprising in Burkina Faso in October 2014, Mr. Zida was appointed by the army as an interim Head of State of Burkina Faso to lead the consultation that resulted in the appointment of a civilian as the transition leader. Mr. Zida was then appointed as Prime Minister in November 2014 by the transition civilian government.

He stepped down in December 2015 after conducting the most free election Burkina Faso has ever done. Since February 2016 Mr. Zida has been living in Ottawa, Canada, with his family. He decided to go back to school for a Ph.D. in conflict Studies. His research interests are focused on terrorism in the Sahel region.

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Keynote Speech delivered by Yacouba Isaac Zida, Former Head of State and Former Prime Minister of Burkina Faso, at the membership meeting of the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation, New York, on October 31, 2021.
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