Fresh clashes over land in western Côte d’Ivoire, following a spate of army mutinies, attacks on police stations, and jailbreaks, represent a growing challenge to the country’s nascent and hard-won stability.
Côte d’Ivoire descended into civil war in 2011 after Laurent Gbagbo, who had been president since 2000, refused to accept defeat to Alassane Ouattara in a run-off election. About 3,000 people were killed in the conflict, mainly in clashes in Abidjan and in the west of the country, before French forces arrested Gbagbo in April 2011.
Last week, seven people were killed and 5,000 fled their homes as rival communities clashed over a 9,000-hectare cocoa plantation inside a protected forest in the Cavally Region. In the end, the army had to intervene to put a halt to the fighting.
Most cocoa in top global producer Cote d’Ivoire is grown in the west, where various armed bands – largely leftovers from a 2002-2004 civil war – roam beyond the reach of state security forces.
Insecurity here has long been driven by the politicisation of ethnic identity and land, including a pervasive tendency to categorise people as either indigenous or migrants (from other parts of the country as well as neighbouring states).
This is especially so in the cocoa-rich yet relatively undeveloped west, which witnessed some of the worst violence in the crisis that followed the disputed presidential election in 2010, and where sporadic clashes over land have taken place almost every year since.
Elders in Guiglo, the seat of Cavally Region, explained that the current round of land violence erupted there in early September before spreading to villages near the Liberian border.
“The problem is these groups of individuals are heavily armed in the forests, doing as they please with impunity,” local resident Georges Sanh told IRIN, calling on the army to step up its presence in Guiglo.
Risk conflict will spread
According to Sylvain Guezon, a prominent citizen in Bloléquin Department, also part of Cavally Region, there have been at least 100 cases of land occupation since 2013. He warned of a lot more to come.
“These matters used to be managed by local authorities who managed to end these little quarrels. But recently the situation has exploded and the disputes have become unmanageable,” he said. “If nothing is done in this conflict, there is risk of all of the west being affected and it will become beyond control for a long time to come.”
A Monday editorial in Connectionivoirienne, an online publication, urged all citizens, “in the name of national unity, to put pressure on the government to find a fitting solution that imposes peace on everybody.
“Above all, we must not weaken and allow the continuation of this conflict, which could contaminate neighbouring regions that also suffer from the same pressure on arable land.”
The army, meanwhile, has its own problems. A series of mutinies between January and May led the government to fork out $24,000 each to some 8,400 former rebels who had been integrated into the army since 2011 – more than $200 million in total.
Recent major security incidents include:
- On 3 September, nearly 100 prisoners escaped from Katiola prison in the centre of the country. Later that day, a gendarmerie post near the economic capital, Abidjan, came under attack and weapons were stolen. On 26 September a similar attack was mounted on a police station in Abidjan and a large weapons cache was found in a different part of the city.
- On 7 September, the government announced the arrest of 35 people, most of them military officers, accusing them of taking part in recent attacks on security installations. The government also accused figures loyal to Gbagbo – now on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed during the 2010-11 post-election crisis – of planning the attacks.
“While the government is a long way from being weakened by all of this, it does show that full control of the army eludes it, or that it is full of people beyond its control,” said Abraham Dénis Yoroba, president of Action for the Defence of Human Rights, an NGO.
Guipié Gérard Eddie, a political scientist at Peleforo Gon Coulibaly University in the northern town of Korhogo, told IRIN that the army needed to be rebuilt.
“Let’s stop believing everything is fine. Its recruitment and structure need to be reviewed and the training of troops beefed up,” he said, adding that paying off the mutineers had “set a bad example” and proved that senior officers had been incapable of taking control of the situation.
In early October, the government went as far as publicly calling on retired generals to help it reform the army. “I need your experience and your expertise, you who have fashioned this army. We can’t do without you,” Defence Minister Hamed Bakayoko said.
Draft amnesty law
Amid a wave of arrests and trials of Gbagbo supporters that has done little to heal Cote d’Ivoire’s divisions, a group of independent legislators has tabled a draft amnesty law to annul legal action against anyone involved in the post-election crisis, no matter what side they were on.
The aim is to allow some 15,000 exiles to return home and ensure the release not only of political prisoners within Cote d’Ivoire (which the opposition says numbers around 300) but also of Gbagbo himself from ICC custody. However, it is most unlikely the ICC would ever agree to any request from Cote d’Ivoire to halt Gbagbo’s prosecution.
“Our country has come out of a serious military-political crisis which has had serious consequences. And to this day, there has been no real reconciliation,” the bill’s lead author, Evariste Méambly, told journalists. “During the crisis, crimes were committed by both sides, but only one side is being prosecuted. We need this amnesty for both sides so that we can resort to traditional justice.”
Some Ivoirians, however, still feel justice must be done, or that there is little point in pursuing reconciliation efforts that have so far proved futile.
Yoroba, the human rights activist, opposed the amnesty bill, saying: “Everyone must accept their responsibilities.”
“We have already seen that amnesty is not always conducive to peace. On the contrary, it has led people to not answer for their [criminal] acts… No, amnesty will not solve the country’s problems.”
(TOP PHOTO : Villagers in western Côte d’Ivoire ready to leave their homes in the wake of deadly inter-communal land clashes © K Theodore Tanoh)
*This article was amended on 26 October to remove an inaccurate reference to land legislation.