Korhogo/Bouake — After almost a decade of rebel rule, northern Côte d'Ivoire is coming to terms with a new authority as the government of President Alassane Ouattara, who assumed power some 18 months ago, establishes its presence in a region which effectively split from the rest of the country.
A 2002 armed insurrection partitioned Côte d'Ivoire into two, with the north under insurgent occupation and the south ruled by Laurent Gbagbo, who was ousted as president in April 2011 after a bloody poll dispute with Ouattara. A 2007 deal between the rebels and Gbagbo provided for the eventual unification of the country.
The return of the government to the Central-North-West (CNO) region that makes up 60 percent of Côte d'Ivoire's territory is slowly reviving the education and health sectors, but residents complain of rising commodity and rent prices due to government levies, and say insecurity remains high, especially in the central city of Bouaké, the former rebel stronghold where some ex-fighters are still armed and are accused of committing crimes.
"There's now an effective return to normalcy," said Daouda Ouattara, administrator of the northern Korhogo District, noting that around 1,000 government workers are back on duty in the various district offices in Korhogo, home to some one million people.
In Bouaké, Côte d'Ivoire's second largest city, most government offices have reopened. Lassina Diomandé, the local member of parliament, told IRIN that there was a 95 percent government presence in the city. However, armed forces are still occupying a building meant to house the social security offices.
Private firms are also re-establishing in the north. Major local banks have reopened alongside smaller branches of international banks. Foreign oil companies are also making a come-back to set up filling stations in Bouaké and Korhogo, where many fuel sellers still operate small roadside stations.
Government and tax
For many residents of the north, the return of government is mainly associated with taxation. Under rebel rule, tax collection was rather random. Commodities were smuggled in from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali and residents therefore paid no customs levies.
"We are setting up a public sensitization campaign. For almost 10 years people were used to living free from paying taxes," said Ouattara, adding that a customs office is now operational.
Out of an 800-million CFA (US$1.6-million) tax revenue target for Korhogo District, the authorities have so far collected more than two billion francs ($4 million). "There's good progress. We are able to work. Our aim now is to have people pay the taxes they were never used to paying," a customs officer appointed to the region five months ago told IRIN.
On the streets of Korhogo and Bouaké, many motorbikes do not have registration plates. The authorities there have set low registration fees (compared to the rates in the commercial capital Abidjan), and an end of December 2012 vehicle registration deadline.
"Some people have kept their motorbikes at home because they don't have the money to pay the duty," said Korhogo resident Yaya Soro. "We are all trying to adapt to the new order, but it's difficult to resume a trend we lost 10 years ago."
Bouaké legislator Diomandé argued that the government's presence was beneficial to the people. "People used to pay little, but for low quality products, especially sugar, cooking oil and fuel."
House rents are reported to have tripled as those who fled the area to Abidjan return, and demand has also pushed up by the return of government workers.
Health and education improving
Some 476 volunteer teachers who took over after government teachers fled from the north during the conflict have been trained and absorbed by the Education Ministry, said Louis Vigneault-Dubois, a communications officer with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
In Korhogo, 300 primary and secondary school teachers have been employed, including volunteer teachers to fill a shortage, and a university is also to be built in the region, said Ouattara, the local administrator. The university in Bouaké has been renovated to accommodate 21,000 students who resumed studies in November.
However, in some northern Côte d'Ivoire areas, school attendance is around 40 percent and the region has registered some of the poorest examination results in the past two years, according to officials.
Korhogo region has had one paediatrician, one cardiologist and one gynaecologist for years, said Ouattara. But since the government's return, doctors have been employed and the University of Korhogo is to have a training hospital.
With the return of the administration's regional offices, "people no longer have to make long trips to Yamoussoukro or Abidjan for official documents such as birth certificates," said Diomandé. "It's comforting."
Nonetheless, many still decry the underdevelopment in the northern region compared to Abidjan where infrastructural development is advancing. A few roads have been renovated in Korhogo, according to residents.
A Bouaké resident who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity described the return of government as a "semblance of administration."
"The judiciary is not functional yet. If I have problem and I want to lodge a complaint, there is no one to help me."
"I don't object to paying more taxes to the government, but I would like to see the outcome in infrastructure development. Here, nothing has been done," said local restaurant owner Albertine Kouassi.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]