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Fear and Loathing in the Ivory Coast

A year on from the end of the country's post-electoral crisis, political distrust, insecurity and anxiety are widespread.
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A torched car in Abidjan in 2011. Photograph Stefan Meisel.

Duékoué, Ivory Coast:

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.

Hunters and soldiers

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.

Army reform

“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.

Militias and mercenaries

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.

And the UN?

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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Who on earth has this guy been taking to? Duekoue has some serious problems, but I don't think you can transpose those on Abidjan hundreds of kilometres away. My guess is that the writer hasn't spent much time here. The restaurants, bars and nightclubs in Abidjan are full, especially at weekends, there are art gallery openings and cultural festivals. If you imagine that Abidjan - one of Africa's great cities - comes to a halt after dark, which is the impression you get from this article, you'd be totally mistaken. You're more at risk of seeing a traffic jam. I'd rather walk around at night in any part of Abidjan than risk the beggars and pickpockets of Dakar or the hustlers of Lagos. I think I have it. Perhaps the writer is staying in a plush up-market hotel in the Plateau commercial district, that really does get quiet after dark. But that's just it's because it's a place to work not live (cf. City of London). Try getting out to other areas. We really don't need this sort of scaremongering.

You may want to re-read my article. You are commenting on things I never said. 

"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 ..." Just as the writer also perpetuates the myth that there was any winner in the elections! The sp-called "international community" that "elected" Ouatarra as the winner, did so without recourse to the Ivorian Constitution, and on the basis of an election that was neither free nor fair!Moon of Alabama quotes Craig Murray's eloquent commentary on the Ivorian crisis: 

M of A - Messing Up Ivory Coast

On the recent massacres of 800 or so civilians in Ivory Coast, and the "western" humanitarian intervention support for the culprit which will have huge regional consequences, I'll defer to Craig Murray. He certainly knows more about the issue than I do.

This is a tragedy for Africa, because it devalues democracy. Ouattara, with a strong personal push from Sarkozy, secured international recognition for his election victory. In truth it was an extremely dubious election, with no freedom for Ouattara supporters in the South or for Gbagbo supporters in the North in a poisonous contest. It would have been better for everyone if Gbagbo had accepted that he lost and left quietly. But the truth is that both sides’ claims of victory are fallacious. This was nothing like a free and fair election. Somehow the UN and the international community finds itself in the position of imposing by force, fighting alongside the perpetrators of massacre, the “democratically elected” victor. This denigrates democracy.

“In any case, people should stop to consider the circumstances under which the election results were declared. The election result was not declared by the Electoral Commission of La Côte d’Ivoire. It was declared by one member of the Electoral Commission of La Côte d’Ivoire, in Hôtel du Golf, which is the Headquarters of the Opposition. He was accompanied to do that declaration by the Ambassador of France and the Ambassador of the United States of America.Indeed, the declaration was not done before the Ivorian media. The declaration was done, exclusively before the French media. No Ivorian journalist was present when the declaration was made. And it was made in the Headquarters of the Opposition.”Kwesi Pratt  Dr. Nfor N. Susungi provides more detail:

Was the Presidential Election in Cote d’Ivoire Free and Fair?For once, this is the easiest question to answer because the simple answer is NO. It was not possible to conduct free and fair elections in a country which was still cut in half with the rebel Forces Nouvelles (under the direct Command and control of Prime Minister Soro Guillaume) still controlling the northern half, having resisted all attempts to get them to disarm as required by the so-called Accords Politique de Ouagadougou.In spite of the fact that not even ONUCI with nearly 9,000 troops had succeeded in getting the rebels to disarm before the election, pressure was brought by the US and France, through the United Nations, for the elections to proceed.The exactions that took place during the elections by armed groups in the rebel controlled north were detailed in consistent and concordant reports presented by various observer groups, including that of the African Union led by former Togolese Prime Minister Joseph Koffi KOFFIGOH, who all concluded that the scale of electoral abuses in the northern zone were on such a scale as to discredit the sincerity of the vote in many areas in the North.Curiously, Curiously, Curiously, we started hearing voices to the effect that the credibility of local (African) observers was questionable. That is because the reports of European and American observers had already given passing marks to the entire election. The racist undertone to the denigrating commentary directed at African observers was absolutely unmistakable. That is when we all began to suspect that there was a grand agenda in this election which was not known to the public.So who won the last election in Cote d’Ivoire?Anyone who claims that they know, for sure, that either Allassane Dramane Ouattara or Laurent Gbagbo won the election is fiddling with the truth. …The only thing that we know with absolute certainty is that Mr. Youssouf Bakayoko, the President of the CEI, having failed to announce the preliminary results within the stipulated 72-hour period, transmitted the election materials to the Constitutional Council after midnight on Wednesday 1/12/2010. Then on Thursday 2/12/2010 he went to Alassane’s campaign HQ at Golf Hotel to attend a press conference and ended up declaring Allassane the winner in a 3 minute speech. None were more stunned at this development than his fellow members of the CEI who were completely taken unawares.The second thing that we know for sure is that Youssouf Bakayoko announcement at Golf Hotel was carried live on France 24 and other foreign media and that no Ivorian news network was present. The third thing which we know for sure is that the Constitutional Council declared Youssouf Bakayoko’s results invalid for being made after 72-hour deadline and for making it single-handedly in the campaign HQ of one candidate. The Constitutional Council went on to declare on Friday 3/12/2010 Gbagbo the final winner of the election after ruling on the validity petitions which were filed by Gbagbo to the Constitutional Council.The last thing that we know with absolute certainty is that everyone seems to have taken sides since then and depending on whether you support Laurent Gbagbo or Allassane Dramane Ouattara, each side has been tuning only into the news networks which amplify the information which is favourable to their point of view.The Constitution vs. the United Nations…Paul Yao Ndre is a Constitutional Lawyer of impeccable credentials and the ruling of the Constitutional Council under his Presidency cannot be dismissed just because he is reportedly a friend of Laurent Gbagbo. Whatever the case, since his ruling, he has come forward to defend the legal grounds on which he made his rulings whereas, nothing has been heard of Mr. Youssouf Bakayoko since he announced the results at Golf Hotel. The question is where is he and why has he gone into hiding? Who and what is he afraid of?In all fairness to the camp of Allassane Dramane Ouattara, they may have been inclined to accept fatalistically the decision of the Constitutional Council … But unfortunately they were encouraged to engage in dissidence by the belief that there is another jurisdiction above the Constitutional Council when Mr. Choi, the UN Representative publicly disowned the results of the Constitutional Court by “certifying” that the winner of the election was Mr. Allassane Dramane Ouattara.I listened, live, to the press briefing of Mr. Choi on ONUCI FM at which Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, a well-known Ghanaian journalist asked him, “Are you saying that there are two Presidents in Cote d’Ivoire now?” Mr. Choi replied in the affirmative. From that moment, I knew that Cote d’Ivoire was heading for an abyss and Mr. Choi was a very dangerous international civil servant who had triggered something very sinister which was now unstoppable.” READ MORE:  Côte d’Ivoire – Military Intervention Vs Constitutional Legitimacy:

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