Religion & Power in Côte d’Ivoire

In an increasingly interconnected world, religion continues to play a critical role in the lives of individuals and their relations to society. Processes of colonialism, migration, and globalization have shaped and have been shaped by religion, leading scholars and public intellectuals to rethink traditions, beliefs, and practices and how they mediate power relations within the political, scientific, and secular spheres of society.

With this in mind, the Religion Graduate Students Association (RGSA) at the Department of Religion, University of Florida invites you to the 3rd Annual RGSA Graduate Conference featuring a Keynote Address from 5:00 – 6:00 pm by Dr. Joseph Hellweg (Florida State University) on the topic, “Making (Up) War in Côte d’Ivoire: Religion, Power, Play, and Mimesis in the Ivoirian Period”


Mike McGovern (2011) has argued that rebels and soldiers played at combat during the Ivoirian civil war between 2002 and 2011. Sasha Newell (2012) has similarly written that Ivoirian national culture centers on concerns about the authenticity of consumer goods in popular practices of conspicuous consumption. In each case, things are not what they seem in ways designed to con adversaries into thinking that more lies beneath the surface. Armed attacks never went too far, and Ivoirian youth wear jeans that look like designer brands but are counterfeits. Such mimesis aims not to simulate reality but to assert the imitation as real.

This talk explores the mimetic tactics of former Ivoirian warlord Zakaria Koné who has transformed himself from soldier, to rebel, and now military official, even negotiating with former rebels who have threatened to tarnish the new regime’s reputation due to allegations that they committed war crimes. Koné is also a dozo hunter, belonging to a ritual network that has long used mimesis to negotiate tensions between Islam and the ritual sacrifices dozos make. Koné models his political strategy, I argue, on dozos’ ability to inhabit two religious worlds at once.

Contrary to the notion that nothing lies behind mimetic appearances, there are real war crimes to investigate, real attempts to marginalize former rebel soldiers, and more than playful claims of occult power in Koné’s masquerade. Power here is more than fooling people into the reality of one’s invention; it amounts to shifting between multiple realities. In doing so, Koné mirrors his regime’s show of democracy to the world while relying on undemocratic means to secure legitimacy at home—shifting between civil and uncivil society—in a more complex portrayal of statecraft, culture, and mimesis than McGovern’s or Newell’s, one that takes religion “seriously” (Ellis and ter Haar 2007).