20 December 2012

Cote d'Ivoire: Côte d'Ivoire Needs Top-Down Reconciliation

Photo: Otto Bakano/IRIN
Abidjan.

Abidjan — Responsibility for reconciling Côte d'Ivoire's divided society after years of conflict, rebellion and instability rests largely with its leaders, but long-running political rivalries and mutual suspicion are raising tensions and blocking efforts to heal rifts, say analysts.

"The divisions over the past 10 years were due to several economic difficulties and land disputes that were exacerbated by political manipulation and stigmatization," said Christophe Kouamé, the head of the Ivoirian Civil Society Convention. "Ivoirians are not fundamentally divided."

Côte d'Ivoire is home to more than 60 ethnic groups and inter-communal marriages are common.

"We are told that we need to have reconciliation, but reconciliation with whom? I don't have a problem with my neighbours. It's the politicians who must reconcile with one another," said Fabrice, a resident of Yopougon District in the commercial capital Abidjan.

"In my extended family we have people from different ethnic groups, some of whom are regarded [by others] as enemies," said Isidore from Abidjan's Cocody District.

Côte d'Ivoire rose to become one of Africa's prosperous economies soon after independence from France in 1960, with an economy driven by huge agricultural exports, notably cocoa. However, an economic crisis sparked by a commodity price slump in the 1980s hit the country hard, squeezing public sector funding. The country was to be later jolted by political competition with the death of founding president Félix Houphouet Boigny in 1993 and the introduction of multiparty politics.

"The nature of (the country's) crisis is political. It is attributed to the political class, which after the collapse of the Ivoirian economic model adopted a strategy based on ethnic identity to compensate for the lack of policies to resolve people's problems," said Rodrigue Koné, an Abidjan-based sociologist.

"The people's position at the grassroots is determined by the political leaders. Reconciliation must be driven by the politicians."

Tense political relations

Relations between President Alassane Ouattara's Rally of Republicans (RDR) party and that of his predecessor, the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) party, since the end of the 2010-2011 poll dispute remain tense. A meeting between the FPI and the head of Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CDVR) in March and the party's observer status at a national political conference have been the only public contacts by the two sides.

The FPI, which boycotted the 2011 parliamentary polls, insists that any talks with the government are conditional on ex-president Laurent Gbagbo being freed from the International Criminal Court where he faces crimes against humanity charges. However, that demand is widely seen as an unrealistic.

"What we've seen so far are just semblance of meetings and political reconciliation," said Moussa Fofona, a sociologist at the University of Bouaké in central Côte d'Ivoire.

Armed attacks at military and police bases in August and September in Abidjan and elsewhere in the country have dashed hopes of reconciliation between the Gbagbo and Ouattara camps. The government blames Gbagbo supporters for the raids in which at least 15 soldiers were killed. Gbagbo supporters have denied any involvement.

Over the past decade, Côte d'Ivoire has been rocked by violent instability that erupted with the 1999 ouster of President Henri Konan Bédié. A year later, a popular uprising forced out junta leader Robert Gueï, who was replaced by Gbagbo. In 2002, a military mutiny broke into a fully-fledged insurgency that split the country in two, with rebels controlling the northern half and the government the south.

In 2010, presidential elections were held, but Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Ouattara, sparking months of bloody conflict which ended with Gbagbo's arrest in April 2011. Despite the violence abating, the country remains divided and a reconciliation process initiated after the unrest has had little effect.

Partisan press

An article recently published in a pro-Gbagbo newspaper likened Ouattara to Adolf Hitler, while a commentary on the blog of National Assembly leader Guillaume Soro, the country's former prime minister (and Outtara supporter), called for the eradication of FPI.

"Dialogue between the government and the opposition, which is a vital component of reconciliation, is stalled and does not go beyond statements of intent," the International Crisis Group think tank said in a November report.

"Political turmoil is accompanied by a return of hateful and dangerous discourses relayed by a partisan press, loyal to one side or the other... The political class does not seem to have learned all the lessons from the post-electoral crisis, and is repeating the very attitudes that have led the country to the brink," the report said.

The government should steer political reconciliation, and the FPI should drop its tough conditions on joining talks, said Kouamé, the Ivoirian Civil Society Convention chief. Observers say responsibility to kick-start political reconciliation lies with President Ouattara.

"I don't think that what happened in Côte d'Ivoire is worse than South Africa's experience. But Nelson Mandela created an atmosphere of reconciliation," said sociologist Koné. "If the president wants reconciliation, nothing is stopping him."

CDVR, tasked to investigate human rights violations between the 2010 polls and 15 May 2011, and which has a two-year mandate starting from September 2011, is yet to win the trust of many Ivoirians. The panel's chairman, Charles Konan Banny, faces criticism. Banny is a member of the ruling coalition and was one of Ouattara's campaign managers. "He has political ties which limit his ability to act," said Koné.

The reconciliation panel has also set up 36 local reconciliation commissions to encourage local participation, but there are concerns as to their effectiveness.

The government has also been blamed for selective justice. More than 150 Gbagbo loyalists, including top FPI officials, have been charged with offences stemming from the post-poll violence. No Ouattara supporter has been charged.

Dropping charges against Gbago supporters facing less serious charges could help create an atmosphere for dialogue, analysts say.

Mistrust

"The president should give pledges, say clearly that 'the war is over, let's move on', but while he is reaching out, opposition members are being arrested," said Pascal Fobah, a member of opposition group Lider, formed by an erstwhile Gbagbo ally who quit the FPI on the grounds that the party is unable to close the chapter on Gbagbo.

"Ouattara is not part of the vindictive political class, but he isn't in phase with the country's socio-political realities. He is a Keynesian. He adheres to the liberal ideology. He needs to abandon the idea that the economy is the catalyst of reconciliation because it's simplistic," Koné explained.

While the political class should drive the reconciliation, it is also vital that divided communities be brought to dialogue to ensure a lasting stability, analysts say.

"The people are trying to reconcile with one another, but there's still some mistrust," said University of Bouaké sociologist Fofana. "In general, Ivoirians are not fighting each other as during the crisis. They are somehow ready for reconciliation, but they have no support."

The country's western region remains restive after the crisis, with land and ethnic tensions still unresolved. In July a refugee camp in the Duékoué area hosting thousands of people who fled the violence was torched by a group of armed men from the north of the country.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]

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