(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

No fighting one year after peace accord, but still divided

Country Map - Cote d'lvoire
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IRIN-West Africa

One year after the signing of a French-brokered peace agreement, the fighting has stopped, but Cote d’Ivoire remains a country deeply divided and reconciliation remains an elusive ideal yet to be achieved.

Nobody is starving and people and goods move relatively freely between the rebel-controlled north and the rebel-controlled south.

That in itself represents considerable progress.

Sanda Kimbimbi the head of the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Cote d’Ivoire, told IRIN: “We must not forget that one year ago there was still fighting in Cote d’Ivoire. That has now stopped and as some kind of stability has resumed so people’s tolerance levels have risen”.

The Linas-Marcoussis peace agreement was signed on the outskirts of Paris on 24 January 2003 as advancing rebel forces threatened to bring fighting to the streets of the commercial capital Abidjan.

French and West African peacekeeping troops stabilised the frontline and there has been no serious fighting between the two sides since nine rebel ministers joined a broad-based government of national reconciliation in mid April.

However, President Laurent Gbagbo has been slow to implement political reforms demanded by the peace agreement ahead of general elections in October 2005 and the rebels have so far refused to disarm and allow the government to re-establish a civilian administration in the north of the country.

Suspicion between the two sides remains deep and the security situation tense and sometimes unstable.

The humanitarian challenges of stitching together this once prosperous society torn apart by civil war are still huge.

About one million of Cote d’Ivoire’s 16 million inhabitants have been displaced from their homes by the fighting which erupted in September 2002.

But since most are living with relatives, either within Cote d’Ivoire or neighbouring countries, and very few of them are gathered in formal camps, they remain a largely invisible problem.

International relief agencies have therefore done very little to help these people or the communities which are hosting them.

Francois Landiech, a protection officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said a strong tradition of people giving support to distressed members of their own community had prevented a more serious crisis of internally displaced people(IDP)from developing.

“Many IDPs have been hosted within the social group,” he said. “It is a tradition here in Cote d’Ivoire that if a fellow villager turns up on your door, you have to take him in, or you will be dead in the village.”

The security situation remains tense, largely because plans to disarm the rebels and take guns away from their child soldiers are already running six months behind schedule.

Diplomats said disarmament is only likely to go ahead in mid-2004 if the United Nations agrees to send a peace-keeping force to Cote d’Ivoire.

The problem is that although UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has recommended the dispatch of 6,000 blue helmets to Cote d’Ivoire, Washington remains unconvinced of the need to deploy such a force.

The UN Special Envoy to Cote d’Ivoire, Albert Tevoedjre, said in an interview with the government newspaper Fraternite Matin, published on Saturday, that the United States, which foots the bill for 27 percent of the UN peacekeeping operations, continued to oppose the dispatch of peacekeepers when the proposal was debated by the UN Security Council in mid-January.

Meanwhile, the militia gangs of of ill-disciplined rebel warlords continue to skirmish with each other in the north, while gunmen throughout the country grow fat from extorting bribes from the drivers and passengers of vehicles at check points.

Guillaume Ngefa Atondoko Andali, a UN human rights officer in Cote d’Ivoire, told IRIN that the rule of law had yet to be firmly re-established.

“On the government side, court judgments are being compromised. Judges are under pressure, officers detain without attention to the rule of law,” Andali said. “Check points are a prime opportunity for arrests, humiliation, ransack and extortion.”

In rebel territory, he added, the situation was even worse.

“There, it is lawless. There is no justice. The rule of law is being undertaken by factions - each regional commander is judge, prosecutor and chief,” Andali said.

This lack of security makes it difficult for aid agencies to do as much as they would like to improve the living conditions of ordinary people in the north.

In the northern city of Korhogo, four people were killed on Thursday night in a shoot-out between rival factions of rebel militia disputing the ownership of a tanker truck. The incident took place despite the presence of French peacekeepers in the city.

One humanitarian worker who asked not to be identified, remarked: “There are advantages to be had from there being no central authority. It means it is very easy to siphon off food distributions for example. That is certainly going on.”

In the rebel-held north of Cote d’Ivoire, the health and education systems serving roughly four million people virtually collapsed after the outbreak of civil war, along with most of the other administrative services normally provided by government.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have stepped in to keep some hospitals and health centres running, but relief workers reckon that health services in the north are still only functioning at 30 percent of their normal capacity.

There is better news in education however.

The Ministry of Education is currently organising key exams for those students who were able to attend school in rebel territory last year.

And although there is still no government administration in the north, the ministry is committed to progressively reopen government schools in the north from 3 February.

According to the Education Ministry’s own figures, only 250,000 of the 700,000 school pupils in northern Cote d'Ivoire were able to receive some kind of education over the last 16 months.

Schools were damaged and destroyed during the war and at the height of the fighting, some were used as military barracks.

Honore Sehkah, the director of the office of the Education Minister, conceded it would be some time before all schools were reopened.

“This will be a slow process as the schools will open one by one,” he told IRIN.

Meanwhile, ethnic violence between local tribesmen and immigrant settlers in the cocoa and coffee growing belt of southern and western Cote d’Ivoire, continues to cause a steady trickle of deaths in government-held territory.

The violence has also led to thousands of settlers being chased or scared off their land in recent months, and this exodus is still continuing.

OCHA said in a statement of Friday that the latest rash of inter-communal clashes near Bangolo, a government-held town near the frontline in western Cote d’Ivoire, had led to the killing of 35 villagers since 29 December.

Hundreds of people, mainly settlers from Burkina Faso, have fled their cocoa plantations in the Bangolo area and have turned up at camps in the nearby town of Guiglo seeking shelter and in many cases repatriation.

Those that do decide to abandon Cote d’Ivoire, will join 350,000 Burkinabe immigrants who have already fled home since the start of the civil war.

About 100,000 Guineans and 50,000 Malians have also trekked home since the outbreak of conflict unleashed a wave of government persecution against immigrants from other West African countries.

About 30 percent of Cote d’Ivoire’s population comprised immigrants and their descendents before the start of the conflict.

However, supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo suspect this large sector of the population of sympathising with the rebels. As a result immigrants from other West African countries and their offspring have suffered persistent persecution and harassment by the security forces and militia-style pro-Gbagbo youth organisations.

In rural areas the xenophobia has been exacerbated by the fact that many immigrant farmers do not have well defined property rights to the land they farm.

Relief workers say that it many cases local tribesmen have simply pushed them out to grab their plantations.

In the troubled west of Cote d’Ivoire, settlers of the Baoule tribesmen from centre of the country as well as immigrants from Burkina Faso and Mali have been expelled from their land in this way.

On the other hand, many of the estimated half million people internally displaced people within Cote d’Ivoire are government supporters, who fled from the north after the rebel takeover.

Many were teachers and civil servants. Relief workers estimate that the rebel capital Bouake has lost between a third and half of its 800,000 population since the war began.

Looking forward, one of the biggest problems to be tackled in Cote d’Ivoire will be economic decline and rising unemployment.

Foreign investment has ground to a halt and the production of cocoa – Cote d’Ivoire’s main source of foreign exchange – is estimated to have fallen more than 20 percent over the past year

There is rising youth unemployment in the towns and this could have socially explosive consequences. The militia-style pro-Gbagbo youth groups, known as “Young Patriots,” draw much of their support from the urban unemployed.

In the north, where banks have remained closed since the civil war began, the economy has been crippled by a lack of cash and difficult access to the region’s traditional markets for cash crops such as cotton, sugar and mangoes.

Myrta Kaulard, the head of the UN World Food Programme in Cote d’Ivoire, said food production levels in the north were “generally not so bad.” But she warned that “rural incomes in the north are falling”.

“All the routes to markets in the south involve bribes to get the goods through. This has increased the costs for traders who are just pushing the problem onto the producers by paying them less money for their goods,” she explained.

The head of one large transport company in Cote d’Ivoire told IRIN that truck drivers have to pay an average of US$500 in bribes to road blocks every time they make the 600 km one-way journey from Korhogo to Abidjan.

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