Five Years of Civil War – Ended by a Footballer

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Didier Drogba is a lot of things to many people. Football fans generally know him as one of the finest strikers to ever grace the Premier League. To Chelsea fans, he’s a legend. Over 150 goals scored for the Blues, Drogba is a symbol of the most successful era in the club’s history. He won every trophy available in England multiple times over and even inspired an unforgettable Champions League victory for Chelsea in 2012.

But in his native Ivory Coast, Didier Drogba has transcended the game of football and become a symbol for something greater. More than perhaps the greatest player to emerge from Côte d’Ivoire, Drogba is a national hero. He is even considered a God.

For Didier Drogba and the Ivory Coast national team are credited with doing what Ivorian politicians, military leaders, and even the United Nations failed to do for many years: they ended a civil war.

Like many conflicts in post-colonial Africa, the roots of civil war in the Ivory Coast can be considered a hangover from colonialism. When Côte d’Ivoire gained independence from France in 1960, an authoritarian government replaced a colonial one. Felix Houphouët-Boigny was elected, unopposed, to be Ivory Coast’s first president as a republic. For the next 30-years, Houphouët-Boigny handpicked National Assembly members, took control of the military and police, and continued to run unopposed for successive presidential terms.

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In 1990 opposition parties were finally legalised and Ivory Coast had its first multiparty presidential elections. So began the rising of political tensions. Ivorians had never before had to contend with open and competitive elections and questions started being asked about voting rights. In the 1990s around a quarter of Ivory Coast’s population was foreign-born. Most of these African foreigners came from poorer neighbouring countries like Mali and Burkina Faso. The term Ivoirity, originally coined to denote a shared cultural identity amongst all peoples living in Côte d’Ivoire, was twisted in the late 1990s to become a nationalistic term which separated the naturally born Ivorians from those of migrating ethnicities.

Poor migrant workers, who was also predominately Muslim, became the prevailing demographics in northern areas of the country. Native-born Ivorians remained largely in the much richer southern regions, particularly around Ivory Coast’s economic capital, Abidjan.

After some years of political uncertainty, the catalyst for civil war came with a law which was quickly drafted by the government in the build up to the 2000 presidential elections. The law required both parents of a presidential candidate to be born within Côte d’Ivoire. This excluded northern presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara, who represented the predominately Muslim north, particularly those poor immigrant workers from Mali and Burkina Faso working on coffee and cocoa plantations.

A military mutiny in 2002 officially started a civil war, when troops from the northern regions of the country attacked various cities across the south. They demanded more open definitions of citizenship in Ivory Coast, voting rights and more representation in government.

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Years of conflict and French military and United Nations interventions followed. Over one thousand civilians would be killed in the conflict and thousands more would be displaced. 

Fast forward three-years from the outbreak of civil war and nations across Africa are competing for a place in football’s biggest and most prestigious competition – the World Cup. There were two rounds of qualifying required of African nations hoping for a spot at the 2006 World Cup, which was to be held in Germany. The second round of qualification worked by dividing the 30 remaining African nations into five groups of six. The highest-ranking team in each group qualified for the 2006 World Cup, while the top three teams qualified for the 2006 African Cup of Nations.

Ivory Coast had never qualified for a World Cup and faced a difficult group which included two-time World Cup participant Egypt, and Cameroon – former World Cup quarter-finalists and the most successful African nation at the World Cup at that time.

Entering the final game of the qualification campaign, Ivory Coast found themselves in second place behind Cameroon. Les Éléphants needed to win away to Sudan and hope Cameroon would drop points at home to Egypt.

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Ivory Coast did all they could, comfortably defeating Sudan 3-1 to secure all three points in their final game. All eyes were now on Egypt as they battled Cameroon. The Pharaohs were doing their part, holding Cameroon to a 1-1 draw late into the match. Deep into injury-time, Cameroon won a penalty, and the hearts of Ivorians across their divided nation sunk.

Up stepped Pierre Womé of Cameroon to take the penalty, who had the fates of two nations resting on his shoulders. Womé struck the ball poorly, hitting the outside of the post and rolling out for a goal-kick. The Ivorians’ prayers had been answered – they were going to the World Cup for the very first time.

The Ivory Coast players were jubilant, singing and dancing in the changing room long after their match with Sudan had ended. Seizing an opportunity, the players invited the travelling Ivory Coast media into the changing room.

Didier Drogba grabbed a microphone and gathered his teammates around him. Drogba, a Christian born in the southern city of Abidjan, linked arms with defender Kolo Toure, a Muslim from Bouaké – the city which had become the central base for the northern rebels in the civil war. As Chelsea and Arsenal players, respectively, they were rivals in the Premier League, but the symbolism was clear to anyone watching the footage that night. They were brothers. The whole squad was a mix of players from both sides of the conflict. United by football, they were together pleading to a divided nation of Christians and Muslims to lay down their weapons and find peace.  

“Men and woman of Cote d’Ivoire,” Drogba began, “from the North, South, Centre, and West. We proved today that all Ivoirians can co-exist and play together with a shared aim: to qualify for the World Cup. We promised you that the celebration would unite the people. Today, we beg you, on our knees.”

The Ivory Coast team then fell to their knees in unison.

“Forgive! Forgive! Forgive! The one country in Africa with so many riches must not descend into war. Please lay down your weapons. Hold elections. All will be better. We want to have fun, so stop firing your guns!”

“It was just something I did instinctively. All the players hated what was happening to our country and reaching the World Cup was the perfect emotional wave on which to ride.”

Didier Drogba

Within a week, the pleads of Drogba and his teammates had been granted and the two sides had agreed to a cease fire. It marked the beginning of the end of the First Ivorian Civil War.  “When I saw Drogba say that on television, I got goose bumps,” said Christophe Diecket, an official with the Ivory Coast Football Federation. “My wife cried. The people on TV cried. We Ivorians, we had this abscess, a sickness, but we had no way to lance it to get better. It couldn’t have been done by anyone else. Only Drogba. He’s the one who has cured us of this war.”

Drogba’s role as peacemaker was not over there. In 2007, the striker was awarded African Player of the Year and travelled to his birthplace, Abidjan, for a meeting and photo-op with President Laurent Gbagbo. Ivory Coast were underway in their qualification campaign for the 2008 African Cup of Nations and their final home was coming up in June. Drogba made a daring suggestion: host Ivory Coast’s match against Madagascar in Bouaké – the stronghold of the northern rebel troops.

The President accepted the request and on the 3rd of June, Les Éléphants faced Madagascar in an arena packed with northern rebels and government troops, peacefully sharing the joy of their national team. Drogba presented Guillaume Soro, the political head of the rebels, with a pair of football boots with ‘Together for peace’ emblazoned on the side.

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 “[Drogba] is a national hero,” said Soro, who would soon be appointed Prime Minister under President Gbagbo in another effort to ensure a prolonged peace. “From north to south, from east to west, all Ivorians are proud of him. I’d even say that all of Africa is proud of him. This game is taking place because Drogba came to Bouaké to consecrate reconciliation and reinforce peace.”

“Seeing both leaders side by side for the national anthems was very special. I felt then that that the Ivory Coast was born again.”

Didier Drogba

25,000 fans from across Ivory Coast roared in support of Drogba and his teammates. Government troops cheered on alongside rebel-supporting civilians, whilst rebel troops were responsible for escorting Drogba on and off the pitch and battling the fans desperate to get closer to their national icon. Ivory Coast lived up to the occasion and emphatically scored five to defeat Madagascar. The result, while important for their qualification campaign, was so much more than another football match. These 90 minutes symbolised the reunification of the country. The next day’s newspaper headlines read: ‘FIVE GOALS ERASE FIVE YEARS OF WAR.’

It goes without saying that Didier Drogba and the Ivory Coast national team cannot be solely credited for ending the civil war. However, nothing else inspired ideas of national unity during a deep and bitter conflict quite like the golden generation of Les Éléphants. Football had the power to reach across political and ethnic divisions and bring a broken country back together. “I believe only this team could do that,” said Lassine Koné, a journalist for Ivorian publication Le Patriote. “Drogba’s message got the attention of the people. Football permitted this.”

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Drogba has continued his charitable work in Côte d’Ivoire. He was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for his role during the First Civil War after it was believed that his high profile could help raise awareness for other African issues. In 2009, and after securing a sponsorship from Pepsi, Drogba donated all his £3 million endorsement fee to help the construction of a hospital in Abidjan. In 2011, when civil war threatened to once again rear its head Drogba was quick to once again call for peace and national harmony. 

Many footballers are considered to be heroes by their local communities or fan bases. However, very few footballers have truly lived up to this title quite like Didier Drogba. A leader on the pitch became a leader off it and inspired two warring sides to look past the ethnic, religious, and political boundaries which divided them.  “What I saw there were Ivorians,” said Drogba, reflecting on the unifying football match in Bouaké which he helped to create. “Not people from the north. Ivorians.

“Believe me, football matters.”

Written by George Peckham

Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated, Soccer Saviour
Alex Hayes, The Telegraph, Didier Drogba brings peace to the Ivory Coast
Austin Merrill, Vanity Fair, Best Feet Forward
The Polynational War Memorial, Civil War in Côte d’Ivoire
Josemaria Soriano, StMU History Media, The Power Of A Ball: How Soccer Star Didier Drogba Ended The Côte D’Ivoire Civil War
Street Football World, Football for good in history: when Didier Drogba aided the Ivorian peace process
Matias Grez, CNN, How Didier Drogba and his Ivory Coast teammates helped end a civil war

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