Abidjan — Even as Côte d'Ivoire gradually recovers from the bloody events of the 2010-2011 post-electoral crisis, massacres in the western part of the country and the frequent sound of gunfire in the economic capital, Abidjan, are signs of the long road ahead.
More than a year after Alassane Ouattara became president, heavily armed men are still a common sight in the streets of Abidjan and other parts of the western, central and eastern regions of the country.
In Abobo, Adjamé and Yopougon, three large districts of Abidjan, soldiers wearing a variety of uniforms - presented variously by the authorities as demobilised fighters or regular army troops - control traffic and carry out routine checks.
But these soldiers also unnerve residents with their uncontrolled use of weapons. For example on Jul. 24, a confrontation between military police and members of the FRCI, the regular army, led to three deaths. And in March, a young man was murdered in the street in the same areas by soldiers demanding 600 CFA francs (equivalent to around 1.20 dollars).
During a traffic stop in Yopougon on Jul. 27, FRCI troops fired on a taxi whose driver had refused to follow their orders. Three passengers were seriously injured, according to witnesses.
Two days later, in Abengourou, in the east of the country, another taxi was shot at by armed men, leading to five casualties, according to hospital sources.
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These fighters carry out systematic raids, make arrests, and detain people for long periods, says the Ivorian Human Rights League (LIDHO), a non-governmental organisation based in Abidjan.
"What's worrying is that these soldiers don't seem to answer to a chain of command. Their actions can no longer be considered isolated incidents, since such things have occurred repeatedly," said René Hokou Legré, president of LIDHO.
Since December 2011, the FRCI and the dozos - traditional hunters who have supported the regular army - have been blamed by many for killing innocent people.
The FRCI killed six people following an altercation between a soldier and a civilian last December in Vavoua, in the west central region of the country. A week later, soldiers killed four in the southern town of Sikensi, in nearly identical circumstances.
In mid-February 2012, confrontations between the FRCI and residents of the eastern county of Arrah led to a dozen deaths, of mainly civilians; community members are now demanding that the soldiers leave the area.
"Everyone must understand that private justice is unacceptable in a state of law. Recourse to the legal authorities remains the legitimate way to resolve all differences, no matter their nature," said Yacouba Doumbia, interim president of the Ivorian Human Rights Movement (MIDH), based in Abidjan.
Perhaps the most worrying single incident took place in the western town of Duékoué on Jul. 20. In apparent reprisal for the murder of four people during a robbery in an ethnic Malinké neighbourhood of the town, a group launched an attack on a displaced persons camp mostly inhabited by members of the Guéré ethnic group. Officially, 11 people were killed, several of them shot to death.
Human rights organisations have blamed dozo traditional hunters, FRCI soldiers and a lack of a response by United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the town.
On national television on Jul. 22, the defense minister, Paul Koffi Koffi, said that ex-members of a militia that supported the former president, Laurent Gbagbo, were living in the camp, and regularly left it to commit abuses.
Abidjan-based political scientist Marcellin Tanon said he sees a kind of "carelessness" on the part of the authorities. "Each time, the government has tried to justify abusive acts and clear the armed forces of blame. So the soldiers act with complete impunity and the events in Duékoué must be considered the culmination of a series of impunities."
Tanon believes the situation is due to the failure of a disarmament process for combatants in various conflicts going back to the 2002 rebellion which divided the country for nearly a decade.
His view is shared by Maurice Zagol, another political scientist based in Abidjan. "The problem presented by these soldiers, who helped President Ouattara to come to power, is a complex one. To use force to fight them would open the way for another rebellion," Zagol told IPS.
"Still, we must carry out a complete disarmament of ex-combatants, because in the long term we have to fear the population will become fed up and start to doubt the legitimacy of the new regime," said Zagol.
Interviewed by phone, defence ministry spokesperson Captain Léon Allah insisted that the army high command was taking all necessary steps to resolve the problem of circulation of arms and the strong presence of soldiers in the streets.