Abidjan — Since fighting for Côte d'Ivoire's President Alassane Ouattara during the election violence in 2010-2011, armed traditional hunters known as "dozo" appear to have increasingly taken on the role of regular forces, mounting roadblocks, patrolling, and arresting civilians. They have also been accused of committing atrocities.
"Their use by certain politicians drew them to the country's political scene, but now that we are in a lawful state, more than two years since the post-election crisis, we think it's high time they resumed their [traditional] activities," said Eugène Nindorera, head of the Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in Côte d'Ivoire (ONUCI). "However, I must admit that it is a difficult matter now."
Dozo is an ancient brotherhood of traditional hunters found mainly in Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sierra Leone. Ordinarily, members carry small-calibre hunting rifles and are bedecked with amulets said to render them invincible. They are also believed to have mystical powers.
In Côte d'Ivoire they allied themselves with fighters on the side of then opposition candidate Ouattara in a violent election contest with former president Laurent Gbagbo, which killed at least 3,000 people. Now, along with their hunting guns, the dozo are armed with AK-47 rifles when they man roadblocks, carry out routine security checks and make arrests.
"Not everybody is unhappy with them," Nindorera told IRIN. "But there is a significant part of the population who are victims of the dozo. We have noted cases of physical violence, racketeering and killings. Everything should be done to stop this."
Between March 2009 and May 2013 at least 228 people were killed, 164 wounded by gunfire and other weapons, and 162 others illegally arrested and detained by the dozo, the UN Mission in Côte d'Ivoire (ONUCI) said in a report on 6 December 2013. The hunters, operating mainly in western Côte d'Ivoire, were also accused of pillaging and torching homes.
The National Federation of Dozo Brotherhood denied committing any abuses against civilians and rejected ONUCI's report. "No member can commit such crimes, given the strict moral code of the dozo brotherhood. We are ready to help the government to make the national reconciliation process a success," dozo leader Sory Dosso told reporters on 21 December.
"That's why we encourage the authorities to carry out investigations, so that the truth will be known by all. The outcome of the probe will once and for all clear the name of the dozo. We are ready to be part of the [country's] development, and the government has already recognized our merit."
During a meeting with the dozo in November 2012, Interior Minister Ahmed Bakayoko lauded the brotherhood for its role in Côte d'Ivoire's troubled past. "Our country suffered a serious crisis. During the conflict, the dozo contribution [helped] to free the country... we are not ashamed to acknowledge that because it is the truth. The government is not ashamed to acknowledge it and say, 'Thank you'," Bakayoko told the dozo gathering.
Despite a defence ministry circular in June 2013 warning the dozo against mounting road blocks, and a July cabinet resolution forbidding them to bear arms, they still carry weapons and set up road barricades. The tacit support of some officers in the security forces, politicians, and local and traditional authorities is encouraging the dozo, according to ONUCI's report.
"They are known to have supported pro-Ouattara [forces] during the [election] conflict. They still remain in towns, and the authorities are struggling to have them resume their [traditional] activities. This could be because some promises made to them have not been fulfilled," said Pierre Kouamé Adjoumani, head of the Ivoirian Human Rights League.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said dozo members implicated in rights abuses should be held responsible for the violations. "The authorities have a duty to carry out serious investigations on the human rights violations by the dozo and bring perpetrators to justice, and accord victims appropriate reparations," ONUCI cited Pillay as saying.
Insecurity remains a problem in western Côte d'Ivoire, where the dozo operate. Unresolved land ownership disputes, and ethnic and political tensions in the region have often ignited violence.
ONUCI's Nindorera expressed concern that the dozo might again be used in the 2015 presidential elections if they are not disarmed. "For there to be credible elections, a solution must be found soon. The government has issued several orders, but nothing has changed."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]