Back in Bouaké

'Les Éléphants' quarterfinal match against Mali is happening in Cote d’Ivoire’s second largest city. Can the place once ravaged by war be a site of national redemption once again?

Bouaké. Image credit Gilly Zed via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0 Deed.

On Saturday, February 3, the Stade de la Paix—Stadium of Peace—will be packed to the rafters as the Ivorian party arrives in Bouaké, the country’s second-largest city. The Elephants come to town still with much to prove despite knocking out African champions Senegal in the previous round of the Africa Cup of Nations. The team is still coming to terms with its 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea in the group stage, the country’s most humiliating moment in sport.

Since being given a lifeline by qualifying for the Round of 16, the team has been on a journey of redemption and there is nowhere better for it to placate a nation in pain. After all, this stadium has seen it done before.

In 2005, amid the Ivorian civil war, the Elephants beat Sudan 3-1 to qualify for the nation’s first-ever World Cup. After the match, in the dressing room, captain Didier Drogba called all the Ivorian media stations present at the match in Omdurman to broadcast a message of peace in which he called for the rebels to lay down their arms and end the war.

In what is a now legendary speech, the former Chelsea player and his teammates implored the nation to end the war, saying, “Men and women of Ivory Coast. From the north, south, center, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim—to qualify for the World Cup.” Although the speech did not bring an end to the conflict it played a small role in bringing together a country that had been at war without itself since 2002.

What is less known about Drogba’s influence in ending the war was the peace offering he gave the north of the country which at the time was held by rebel militants. Two years after the team’s dramatic qualification to the World Cup, Drogba was in Bouaké, the capital of the rebel-held north of Côte d’Ivoire. Without the knowledge of the then-president Laurent Gbagbo, the recently awarded African Footballer of the Year announced that the Elephants would be playing their next home game not in Abidjan but in Bouaké.

And in June 2007 the team would thrash Madagascar 5-0, not in front of a crowd of fans in the government-controlled Abidjan, but in Bouaké in front of a raucous crowd of former militants and soldiers now united as football fans. One month later, the stadium would be the site of the Flamme de la paix—the flame of peacewhere Gbagbo and leaders of the New Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FNCI) met to celebrate the end of the war.

Drogba in Bouake 2007. Image © Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.

Fourteen years on and the scars of the war remain in the city. In the center of Bouaké, near to the Hôtel Ran Avis, lies an abandoned rebel warehouse riddled with bullet holes and missing a roof after being hit by an airstrike. If you travel further out, you will encounter abandoned military barracks and a hospital. Despite the wounds of war, Bouaké is a modern city, and walking around it is hard to imagine that it was once the base of a rebellion, something that is important to those who live there.

“It is very important to see what kind of differences there are,” says Adeline Kouadio, “The roads, the different constructions. Everything is new.” Adeline grew up in the city but fled to Abidjan in 2002 when the war started, only returning to the city of her birth 20 years later.

Tickets for the game in Bouaké were already sold out by the time Adeline tried to buy them, but even if she must watch from a fan zone, the importance of the national team coming to the city cannot be understated.

“It’s more special because the Baoulé people [whose ancestral home is central Côte d’Ivoire including Yamoussoukro and Bouaké] say that, ‘everything you try becomes good, all you touch becomes gold when you are in Baoulé country.’”

The team shocked the continent by beating tournament favorites in Yamoussoukro and everywhere the team goes the nation turns golden orange. Maybe Adeline and her Baoulé wisdom are on to something. But the Ivorians face a tough test against a Malian team that will be similarly well-supported in Bouaké.

One of the strengths of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations has been the vibrant participation of fans from neighboring countries at matches across the country. With large populations of Malians, Guineans, Senegalese, Burkinabes, and Ghanaians in the country, games with West African teams have been remarkably well attended.

When the Ivorians vacated the Olympic stadium in Ebimpé, more than 30,000 Guineans took their place to roar on their team. Prior to being knocked out, Senegal fans had taken over Côte d’Ivoire capital turning it into a mini-Dakar and the Stade Amadou Gon Coulibaly in Korhogo was packed out with Burkinabes and Malians in the last round.

In many ways, it is a mini-homecoming for the Malians in Bouaké. Such is the connection between the countries that many Malian footballers were born in Côte d’Ivoire, including star midfielder Yves Bissouma. And, for Moussa Doumbia who was born in Bouaké, it is a literal homecoming.

“Bouaké is a little Africa,” says Adeline. “There are a lot of Malian people here. We are brothers with Malians because they live here with us.”

When asked about the relationship that Ivorians have with their Malian brothers and sisters in Bouaké, Adeline once again invokes a Baoulé word, “Toukpê.” Toukpê loosely translates as “teasing” but has a far deeper meaning in Baoulé and Ivorian culture. It is an ancient social convention of peaceful relations between two different social groups based on cultural exchange, shared history, mutual respect, shared mythologies and continual social connection in a pluralistic society. It is the tool that breaks the tension between two parties, often through humor. It is an idea that over the centuries has brought peace to warring clans, united kingdoms, ended wars, and now brings together rival Malian and Ivorian fans in fraternal love.

“If Côte d’Ivoire win, we’ll be happy. If Mali wins we’ll also be happy,” laughs Adeline, “but we prefer our own country to win.”

And win they must if they are to wipe away the pains of this tournament and avoid a second national day of mourning. 

Côte d’Ivoire as a nation was devastated when the team was taken apart by Equatorial Guinea in the Stade Alassane Ouattara, the home of the national team. But perhaps like the team in the 2000s, the modern iteration needs to travel north to help heal a nation that is hurting.

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