Debate for social change in Ivory Coast
Photo by Clara Sanchiz RNW Media

Debate for social change in Ivory Coast

In May, RNW Media brought together about 100 young Ivorians in Abidjan for a unique debate on the impact of (inter)national justice in the reconciliation process in their deeply divided country. The participants - law and journalism students, activists and Ivoire Justice online followers - discussed issues which – even within their own families – are normally taboo in Ivory Coast.

Media in Ivory Coast can be sharply polarised and there is none or little dialogue between political opponents. Since 2002, the country has been divided mainly into two camps. One comprises supporters of President Alassane Ouattara and the other, supporters of former president Laurent Gbagbo. The latter is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC) for crimes against humanity. RNW Media’s project, Ivoire Justice, a neutral platform covering justice and reconciliation in Ivory Coast is reporting the trial with the support of Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), an organisation which champions democratic values in the region. Through its project, RNW Media aims at promoting open dialogue on such sensitive topics.

Ivoire Justice facilitated a debate in which about 100 Ivorians took part. That made it one of the largest events ever organised by this RNW Media project in Ivory Coast. The session began with an explanation of how the ICC works and the technical and judicial procedures surrounding the court. The participants were then divided into groups which discussed propositions, such as whether the ICC trial is helping or not helping to build up social cohesion in Ivory Coast. The participants had to defend a certain point of view, that was not necessarily their own opinion. Building logical and emotional arguments about a position they didn’t necessarily agree with was an exercise to help them be more tolerant and open towards other opinions. 

Organized with a local NGO called Centre ESD, this event aimed at enabling young Ivorians to understand and empathise with each other’s point of view.

‘We not only stressed content, but also the way people talked with each other. We brought different political opinions together in one room while underlining that people could disagree without immediately offending each another’

Gaëlle Weigel:‘It’s almost impossible to discuss this issue in a normal way in Ivory Coast. There are no objective media: they are either for or against. It’s the same on the street: people are divided into camps. But that’s not how you make progress. Reasonable dialogue, in which you respect each other’s arguments, is a precondition for achieving final reconciliation and forgiveness.’

In January, for the start of the trial of the former president Laurent Gbagbo and his supporter Charle Blé Goudé at the ICC, Ivoire Justice set up a live screening of the ICC trial session. This allowed the 50 young Ivoirians invited to the event to follow the developments in The Hague as they unfolded and discuss their own individual ‘responsibility’ in relation to the trial. This kind of information is rarely made available by other sources in Ivory Coast.

The bloody post-election violence faced by Ivorians in 2010 and which left 3000 persons dead, still has a big impact in the country. Ivorians, included media, are  still divided among Ouatttara and Gbagbo supporters. Whereas Laurent Gbagbo is currently on trial at the ICC for orchestrating violence, including murder, rape and persecution of civilians, the other side of current President Ouattara, has also been accused by international human rights NGO’s of committing crimes, but  no one has yet appeared at the ICC. The conflict has made many Ivorians feel a deep sense of injustice and left deep scars in all layers of Ivorian society. For young people, it is difficult to discuss these issues for fear of being censored or labelled as being in favour of one camp or another.

Weigel is clear about the effect such events have. She explains: ‘We hope this kind of initiative will contribute to change. With RNW Media, we offer many Ivorians a safe and neutral environment, where they can listen to each other’s arguments with respect.’

Photos by Alex Coulibaly.

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