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Joel Kangha Headshot

Ivory Coast at a Crossroads

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Ivory Coast has endured wave after wave of grief and loss over the past decade, all of it rooted in deep social and cultural divisions.

The inauguration of President Alassane Ouattara this weekend was attended not just by international dignitaries like Ban Ki Moon and Nicolas Sarkozy, but by the very real hopes of millions of my countrymen that this day will mark an end to the most recent crisis -- one which left thousands of dead, bodies stacked in village morgues.

But the installation of the new government must not be seen as an end to the country's troubles, but rather as an opportunity for Ivoirians to fundamentally redefine the way they relate to each other and approach their future together.

Immediately after Gbagbo was taken into custody, President Ouattara spoke in just these terms: "Today, a blank page opens before us. It is together that we will write our history, in reconciliation and forgiveness."

Noble sentiments -- and ones that mirror my own aspirations and those of the vast majority of Ivoirians, regardless of their politics, who recognize that we have suffered too much, for too long and for far too little gain. But these words alone are not enough to turn the violent tide of our recent history, whose rip-tides run far deeper than their recent incarnation in the divide between Ouattara and Gbagbo. Unresolved social and cultural tensions have left Ivoirians vulnerable to having their real convictions and their real long-term interests swept up and away by those who would exploit these divisions for short-term political gain.

Those who have buried their dead but still live in fear know that sincere words alone won't change old behavior or end ongoing conflict. Ivoirians should seize this moment to act as agents in the making of their own future, reaching across traditional divides and recognizing in each other mutual interest and a collective power to prevent conflicts from spiraling out of their control.

The recent political upheaval served to ignite long-standing tensions across ethnic and religious divides, as well as to exacerbate simmering conflicts over land ownership and national identity, spreading death and mayhem throughout Ivory Coast -- with distinct exceptions.

In eight such towns, Ivoirians had already begun the difficult task of working across painful divisions to build trust and establish strong connections. When violence broke out elsewhere, these communities stayed above the fray -- even when battles between outside militias spilled over into three of the communities, the locals refused to get involved.

These stories are heartwarming, but they also provide a crucial lesson: Resolving conflict isn't a one-time thing, nor can we afford to wait to start the process. If we want to actually stop the bloodshed before it starts, we have to go into communities early and work with individuals and civil society to lay the groundwork and provide the necessary tools - and then we need to keep working at it.

The town of Sassandra, once the scene of previous violent altercations among rival youth groups, is an example of how such engagement can change the face of a community. As a result of conflict management work done there, young political activists from opposing parties listened to the news radio together during the election crisis, and would then discuss the day's events. All throughout the violence and upheaval, they never once resorted to violence themselves, debating heatedly - but peacefully.

The success in Sassandra also serves to point to a particularly important tool: radio. Radio, a main source of information for Ivoirians, is emerging as a vital platform for engaging moderate voices across the country and sectarian divides. Through the most recent crisis, alternative radio programming continued to broadcast on 42 stations, providing an unequivocal, resonant and accessible voice promoting non-violence.

For conflict transformation to have staying power, however, it must cross social fault lines that divide neighbors, divide communities, and divide the country. Without promoting tolerance and constructive problem solving at every level of society, the country may become swamped again by the morass of violence, anger, and fear.

In addition to a promoting reconciliation, there must also be targeted interventions in particularly tense regions, and government leadership to unite all Ivoirians. International NGO Search for Common Ground is working with local activists to neutralize the historical fault lines, in order to help Ivoirians build a new future together, and aid the government in institutionalizing the rules of democracy.

If national unity efforts are to be successful, though, they'll have to have the full participation of all Ivoirians, the backing of the Ivoirian government and the world. If the people who have just taken office and their international supporters want to see a definitive close to this dark chapter, they'll have to do more than say the right words.

They'll have to get down to work, and do it right away.

Joel Kangha is Search for Common Ground's Program Coordinator in Abidjan.