Last week's celebrations marking 52 years of an independent Ivory Coast were overshadowed by two deadly attacks in the commercial capital Abidjan. The first targeted a police station in the eastern commune of Yopougon, leaving four dead. The second saw the Ivory Coast’s biggest military base attacked, six soldiers killed, and a large stockpile of weapons stolen.
These attacks follow an unsettled period in the Ivory Coast. A month ago, ethnic violence erupted in the western town of Duekoué, leading to an attack on a UN-protected camp for displaced persons. 11 were killed, over 40 wounded and some 5,000 forced to flee. In early June, seven UN soldiers were killed in an ambush in the West of the country and, a few days later, President Alassane Ouattara’s government claimed to have foiled a coup by supporters of the ex-President Laurent Gbagbo, who awaits trial in The Hague.
The Ivory Coast is clearly struggling to recover from last year’s post-election violence which saw both incumbent Gbagbo and challenger Ouattara claim victory at the ballot box. Over 3,000 civilians were killed, over 150 women raped and at least 400,000 people were displaced during the crisis which only ended when Ouattara’s French-backed forces arrested Gbagbo in Abidjan.
Recovering from such an ordeal is not easy, particularly in a country as deeply divided as the Ivory Coast.
Political, ethnic, and geographical divisions have long existed in the Ivory Coast, and were perhaps made most manifest in 2004-2007 when the UN maintained a buffer zone across the country, separating north from south.
Simplistic assessments assert that ethnic groups originally from the south and west are “pro-Gbagbo” whilst those from the north are “pro-Ouattara”. In reality, of course, the situation is not as clear cut. Despite this, however, complex realities can be distorted into definitive certainties in the collective consciousness of society during periods of political and social upheaval. The post-election crisis bears witness to this as hundreds of people on both sides of the political divide were killed, raped and tortured on account of their ethnicity.
If reconciliation – a stated priority of Ouattara’s administration – is to have any hope of being realised, the president’s rhetoric about impartial justice needs to be followed through with action.
President Ouattara continues to promise impartial justice, insisting that all crimes will be punished and that no-one will be protected. But the gap between his words and the actual situation unwinding is vast. As of this moment, all 148 of the people formally charged with crimes committed during the post-electoral crisis is a supporter of Gbagbo. Given the abundance of evidence that implicates many of Ouattara’s supporters of equally egregious crimes, this has led to outraged cries of victor’s justice.
When a BBC interviewer recently put it to Ouattara that there was a disparity between his words and actions, the president retorted that executive power and the judiciary were separate in the Ivory Coast so that all he had to do was let the independent Commission of Inquiry carry out its investigations and allow the courts to hold their trials.
In theory this might seem reasonable, but sadly the Ivory Coast is not a healthy liberal democracy with well-functioning institutions and adequate checks and balances. Patronage and clientelism are core ordering principles of Ivorian politics, and the country’s judiciary is characterised by corruption and political influence.
If the impartial justice that Ouattara and his administration promise is not delivered, we can only expect further incidents of violence. Partial justice, more than anything else, is sustaining distrust and acrimony between the Ivory Coast’s communities. Even opposition factions that are truly committed to reconciliation find the lack of even-handed justice to be an insurmountable obstacle. Members of the pro-Gbagbo “Coalition of Young Patriots for Peace and Reconciliation”, for example, claimed in an interview in July that the lack of impartial justice made their goal of bringing the Young Patriots together in the name of reconciliation next to impossible.
Perhaps even more importantly, the lack of impartial justice undermines the work of the Truth, Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission led by former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny. Widely berated as being politically imbalanced and ineffective, the commission has little success to revel in almost a year after its inauguration. Whilst the approach of the commission can certainly be criticised, its task of fostering unity and reconciliation without any means or mandate to elicit impartial justice was always going to be hopelessly difficult.
Perceptions of victor’s justice have served to marginalise Gbagbo supporters who, according to the electoral commission's results of the election run-off that instigated the crisis, account for just under half the country’s population. And feelings of disenfranchisement were arguably augmented by the decision of the Popular Ivorian Front (FPI), Gbagbo’s former party, to boycott parliamentary elections in November 2011.
The danger posed by widespread feelings of marginalisation may not be immediate, but the history of this war-scarred country teaches us that latent tensions can all too easily erupt into violence during periods of social or political upheaval. Whilst disenfranchised Gbagbo supporters may pose no major threat to stability at present, the outlook may be bleaker in the longer term, particularly looking forward to the next presidential election in 2015.
Yet things could be about to take a turn for the better. The Ivory Coast’s Commission of Inquiry has just submitted its official report on crimes committed during the post-election crisis. It declares that pro-Gbagbo forces were responsible for 1,452 fatalities, and that pro-Ouattara forces were responsible for 727 deaths. It reports cases of summary executions, rape, enforced disappearances, torture, and other crimes, carried out by both sides.
Whilst the UN and various NGOs have recorded larger numbers of fatalities overall, the report’s findings regarding the proportion of crimes committed by each side is given credence by the research carried out by other such organisations.
This official report, which openly and unreservedly implicates pro-Ouattara forces in post-election atrocities, has the potential to remould the recent trends of the Ivory Coast’s judicial processes. This urgently needs to happen. Over a year after the violence, it is crucial that Ouattara’s promises that impartial justice will be delivered in the future give way to demonstrations that impartial justice is being delivered now. The Ivory Coast’s unsettled few months recently may prove to be a precursor to something more serious if even-handed justice is further delayed or denied.
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