The Lebanese Community in the Ivory Coast: a Non-native Network at the Heart of Power? DIDIER BIGO

The Lebanese Community in the Ivory Coast: a Non-native Network at the Heart of Power? By DIDIER BIGO (Lebanese in the world , a century of emigration)
   The Lebanese Community in the Ivory Coast

For a long time ignored because of its relatively low profile, the Lebanese community in the Ivory Coast has recently become the focus of increasing attention. A whole string of derogatory clichés has come to be attached to it; more often than not they consist of fantasized projections originating in the Lebanese conflict or its after-effects, whether in Europe or Africa, to the extent that one can talk of a form of anti-Lebanese discourse constructed out the stereotyped images and outright misrepresentations.
On the French side, the image of the Lebanese community in Abidjan was once that of an appendage to colonization, symbolized in the figures of the Maronite Christian, the good tradesman or the civil war refugee; in little time this has changed into the supposed haven of anti-western terrorist lackeys of Hizbollah, usually Shi’i and Arabic speaking. Seen in this light the Lebanese of Abidjan now appear to be hostile to French interests in the area to the extent of becoming the sinister middlemen of attacks on French territory or of the freeing of French hostages. In the Ivory Coast itself, the Lebanese community was once seen as the indispensable middleman between town and country, whether in the trading of crops such as coffee and cocoa or of retail goods. But with the onset of the civil war in 1975, this image was to undergo fundamental transformations, through the flux of refugees which sharply increased from 1982 until the magnified economic crisis of 1986. The Lebanese now seem to qualify for a description akin to de Gaulle’s equivocal statement about Israel after its attack on Lebanon in 1968: a confident (read overbearing), domineering people; racist to boot, they now exert an undue monopoly on imports and exports, trade and a part of industry. Corruptors of others as well as being themselves corrupt, they act as a fifth column working towards the disintegration of the state under the aegis of an ailing and important Houphouet-Boigny, and to ‘palestinize’ or ‘lebanize’ the Ivory Coast by securing a hold on the key posts of the economy. The development of this theme has results in nothing short of full-blown popular paranoia.
There is yet a third view, which at the intersection of the first two, sees itself as based upon rational economic discourse, and finds expression in the ranks of both the Ivorian ruling class and the local French business community. This view sees the Lebanese immigrants as intent on destroying the official trading economy and the sate itself through the bypassing of borders, non-payment of taxes and customs evasion. It follows from this view that dishonest competition has set in, with the result that French businessmen are now forced to disinvest from the country and and in longer term European influence will be eliminated to the sole benefit of the Lebanese. The Ivorians for their part complain of being unable to venture into any kind of business activity without coming up against the mafia-like solidarity and functioning of the Lebanese
community. This, the argument goes, is what stands in they way of the emergence of the native (lower) middle class which is precisely needed for the development of the country.
The economic crisis and prevailing uncertainty over the future have resulted in a degree of social frustration which has speedily found an ideal scapegoat in the Lebanese community whose erstwhile discretion is now but a memory of the past; its middlemen have an all too visible profile and have become too encroaching for comfort.
Besides their obvious over-simplifications, it should be mentioned in passing that these clichés in fact vary according to the community or social origins of their provenance. But even allowing for this, the question remains as to the actual state of relations between the Lebanese community and other communities; the extent to which it has integrated; and finally whether it does in fact play the destabilizing part in the life of the country which is so readily attributed to it.
In spite of certain gaps, this study will attempt to present an explanatory scheme of relations between the Lebanese in the Ivory Coast, the French and the Ivorians. This will also enable us to define the cross-currents which feed into the ‘representation’ of the Lebanese by others, the underlying reasons for this rapid change in perception and the social and political structures which underpin these constructs.
In order to do this it will first be necessary to review the actual history of this immigration; apart from being hardly known, the history has itself been subjected to the stereotyped clichés we alluded to earlier, and this has resulted in its being rewritten in order to conform to the current representation of the Lebanese.

read more:The Lebanese Community in the Ivory Coast

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