The word in Abidjan is that no-one leaves town after dark, that the road to the north becomes a bandits’ nest after 10pm.
The same story circulates in the central city of Bouaké. “Everyone distrusts everybody else”, one inhabitant told Think Africa Press. A graphic picture in the government newspaper Fraternité Matin shows a minibus that has veered off the road; the torso of the lifeless driver has slumped off the front seat and hangs suspended at an angle. “Killed just like that,” reads part of the caption.
Around Bouaké, the criminals often do not even wait for nightfall; the roads are so rarely frequented that they have plenty of time to set up their ambushes. It happens five to six times per day.
There are no taxis in the Western town of Duékoué after 7.30pm. “They’re afraid,” one hotel manager says, “there have been too many robberies”. The evening restaurants are lively enough but all the clients arrive on their own cheap Chinese motorbikes. Just ahead of a large hotel that the new Ivorian army has turned into a base, all entertainment stops. The rest of the street is dark and eerily quiet.
The Ivory Coast is in the grip of an unprecedented crime wave – or at the very least, in the grip of a national psychosis about crime. But who are these bandits? As so frequently is the case, interpretations depend on one’s political affiliations. In Duékoué, the majority of the Guéré, the people who consider themselves the original inhabitants, point fingers at the country’s armed forces – Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI) – and the traditional hunters known as “dozos”. “We are afraid of them,” says Bertine Monsio, who lives in the Nahibly camp for displaced people just outside Duékoué.
The FRCI, accompanied the dozos, swept through the west in March 2011. After they captured Duékoué, at least 800 people were massacred in the town. Human Rights Watch wrote in a report dated September 30, 2011, that the leader of those troops was Commander Losséni Fofana. No action, judiciary or disciplinary, has been taken against him. The villages in and around Duékoué still lie destroyed. The fear is palpable.
And the media perpetuates this fear, especially when the outlet has the same political hero as the people in the Nahibly camp: namely, Laurent Gbagbo, the former president who had to be removed by the army in 2011 after he refused to accept his defeat in the 2010 election to current president Alassane Ouattara.
“In the West, the FRCI kills and steals cocoa,” says one headline. Standard fare for Notre Voie, the most vociferous pro-Gbagbo newspaper in the country.
“The FRCI is not an army in the proper sense of the word,” says Christophe Yaht, a senior researcher at Bouaké University. “There are elements that have attached themselves to the FRCI but who are untrained and ill-disciplined. The government needs to take firm action to get rid of them.”
The government has promised to restructure the army but it is clear that there are enough rogue elements that can strike fear in the heart of local civilians. Not only that, the FRCI has taken to the habit of fleecing transporters and travellers, just like Gbagbo's forces did before them, rendering the Ivory Coast one the most expensive transport sites in the world.
Meanwhile, the pro-Gbagbo media publish long lists of misdeeds by the FRCI. They do this to score political points against President Ouattara, and the FRCI continues to provide these campaigners with ample ammunition.
But even if the army were to be cleaned up, there would still be plenty of other options for a career in crime. After all, the post-election conflict between Gbagbo and Ouattara was not fought between two armies. All manner of local militias and self-defence groups joined in, as did mercenaries from Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Liberia. Long before the post-electoral crisis, Laurent Gbagbo had armed local self-defence groups, especially in the west of the country. It is an open secret in Duékoué that the authorities want to close the Nahibly camp for the displaced, which they consider to be a hiding place for robbers and highwaymen – and very likely former members of those militias. Naturally, this is vehemently denied inside the camp.
The same story is true for Bouaké. Local civilians point fingers at ex-combatants, who deny the accusations. The denials wear thin, however, when one realises that the robbers’ weapon of choice is a tried and tested war gun, the AK-47.
Groups from Burkina Faso and Liberia also continue to cause problems. Much to the chagrin of the local Guéré, a group of armed Burkinabe has occupied a small national park, turning it into a cocoa plantation. Nearby Bangolo is also notorious for highway robbery. Liberians, who were used by both Gbagbo and Ouattara during the post-electoral crisis, continue to cross the forest-covered border at will, hiding arms on either side, attacking mining sites and villages and making off with the loot.
Both Liberian and Ivorian police say there is a shortage of pretty much everything that would be necessary to deal with the problem: there are not enough personnel, not enough prison cells, and hardly any vehicles or motorbikes for effective patrolling.
Surprisingly unmentioned in all of these fears and debates is the UN peacekeeping force, ONUCI and, for that matter, the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which has hundreds of idle 4x4s parked behind its Monrovia headquarters. “No-one would miss them if they left,” confesses Bamba, a driver who frequently does the 100 kilometre stretch between Duékoué and Daloa.
Asked how the country’s security problems could be solved, Bamba explained “it’s the FRCI that catch criminals. And I know transport entrepreneurs who hire dozos for security”. No need to ask him which party he supports.
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