21 July 2017

Cote d'Ivoire: Sporadic Violence and Presidential Tussle Put Hard-Won Security At Risk

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ville de Bouake

Just as it seemed to be turning the page after a decade-long crisis marked by two civil wars, violence has again become worryingly routine in Côte d'Ivoire. Since the beginning of the year, barely a month has gone by without the sound of military gunfire erupting somewhere.

On Thursday morning, Mi-24 attack helicopters, newly acquired by the government, flew over Yopougon, the largest district of the economic capital, Abidjan. The previous night, a policeman was killed in an attack on a police training school. The assailants have not been identified.

A few days earlier, three people were killed when disgruntled soldiers attacked a barracks in the northern town of Korhogo. These were just the latest in a spate of violent incidents that began with a series of mutinies within the army.

Since January, there have been eight episodes of military uprisings and outbreaks of gunfire. Most of them involved some of the 8,400 troops of the Forces Nouvelles, a former rebel movement that, since being integrated into the regular army, has been demanding payment of up to $24,000 apiece (more than $200 million in total) in war bonuses for their role in bringing Alassane Ouattara, the declared winner of the 2010 election, to power.

They took on forces loyal to then-president Laurent Gbagbo in a conflict that led to the deaths of 3,000 people and saw a defeated Gbagbo brought up on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court.

"Now we are worried," said Pierre Kouamé Adjoumani, the president of the Ivorian Human Rights League.

"We thought Côte d'Ivoire was gradually emerging from its crisis, but we are increasingly witnessing the old demons awaken," he told IRIN.

"The army, which should be giving people confidence, is unfortunately the one rising up because of unkept promises. If it's not [serving] soldiers, it's those who have been demobilised who are demonstrating," he said, referring to thousands of former combatants who were not integrated into the army.

"Who can we count on?" he asked, adding that security was no longer a certainty amid the growing mistrust between the army and the general population.

Those non-integrated former fighters "pose the biggest long-term threat to the stability of the country," Tarila Marclint Ebiede, an expert on militancy and a PhD researcher at the Center for Research on Peace and Development at Belgium's University of Leuven, wrote last month in The Conversation.

Ebiede pointed to some "serious flaws" in the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programmes for the former fighters.

"Many of them face an uncertain future with dim job prospects. And their situation seems much worse than their compatriots who have been integrated in the military, securing jobs and financial rewards.

"This issue needs to be addressed to reduce the risks of conflict recurrence and instability in Côte d'Ivoire," he wrote.

Blue helmets bow out

On 30 June, the UN mission in Côte d'Ivoire shut up shop for good, after being in the country for 13 years. Before leaving, UNOCI said it was confident that Ivorian authorities were in a position to protect the country's citizens, even if army reforms had yet to be completed.

"Remaking this army is a major challenge and something all Ivorians expect to happen," newly appointed Defence Minister Hamed Bakayoko told journalists recently.

"I will work on this with determination, so that the army and the population are reconciled. The final objective is to have a strong and disciplined army."

Bakayoko, who previously served for six years as internal security minister and who is a government stalwart and close ally of President Ouattara, has recently been in open conflict with National Assembly Speaker and former Forces Nouvelles leader Guillaume Soro.

Both men hope to succeed Ouattara in elections slated for 2020.

Bakayoko's appointment beefed up his powers at a time when Soro is being investigated following the discovery last month of weapons at the home of his chief of protocol. Soro's men have kept some 300 tonnes of arms, according to a UN report published in April 2016.

It's tempting to try to draw a link between these opposing presidential ambitions and the latest outbreak of violence, but that might be premature.

"There's no evidence yet that the tussle between Bakayoko and Soro is tied to this situation," said Adjoumani.

"But what we see in the race to 2020, with the overt ambitions of various people, as well as the tensions this creates within society and the army, there is cause for concern."

For his part, Soro called for "calm, moderation and restraint" on Thursday, returning from a long trip to Europe.

"It is in nobody's interests to work against the tranquillity, serenity and stability of Côte d'Ivoire," he said in a statement in which he also asked for forgiveness for any offences he had committed in the country since 2002.

"I beseech you, let us not be divided. Division can only lead to catastrophe," he added.

On Friday, Bernard Oulai, a civil servant in Abidjan, told IRIN how concerned he was by the current situation.

"The security climate is worsening," he said. "And in the army, some are labelled pro-Ouattara, pro-Soro, pro-Gbagbo, pro-this one or pro-that one. It's not reassuring and it explains why the uprisings continue, to the great consternation of the population. We don't know what will happen tomorrow."

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