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For some, cleanup drive cannot cleanse the name of Korhogo’s top rebel

[Cote d'Ivoire] Mural in Korhogo in rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire. [Date picture taken: March 2006]
Mural on a new cultural centre in rebel-held Korhogo, northern Cote d'Ivoire (Pauline Bax/IRIN)

A recent cleanup and primping campaign in Korhogo, Cote d’Ivoire, cannot scrub the reality that the northern city is heavy with a malaise after more than three years under rebel command.

Many residents of Korhogo have their doubts about the cleanup effort, and the man spearheading it - rebel commander Martin Kouakou Fofie. The city’s self-proclaimed local commander is also one of three Ivorians recently smacked with a UN travel ban and assets freeze for alleged human rights violations.

“Forces under [Fofie’s] command engaged in recruitment of child soldiers, abductions, imposition of forced labour, sexual abuse of women, arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings,” a UN sanctions committee said in February, calling the rebel leader an obstacle to Cote d’Ivoire’s shaky peace process.

Since a rebel uprising in 2002, West Africa’s one-time bastion of stability has repeatedly stepped toward the brink of war, only to be pulled back to tenuous peace negotiations brokered by UN and African mediators. The rebellion split the country into a government-run south and a rebel-held north, where the administration has all but broken down, leaving insurgent leaders such as Fofie to act as mayor, police chief and tax-collector all rolled into one.

At the announcement of the sanctions, some 150 people from Korhogo’s population of 200,000 took to the streets in protest, saying it was unfair to punish Fofie, their local hero. But many whisper in private that he probably got what he deserved.

Nobody can say for sure whether the sanctions decision had anything to do with it, but shortly after the UN move Korhogo underwent a thorough scouring. The derelict town hall got a new paint job, the main roundabout was adorned with flags and fresh gravel, and the local government building, which serves as Fofie’s office and reception room, had its leaking roof and dust-caked walls restored.

And the work continues. Considering the rickety wooden stalls around the central market a fire hazard, Korhogo rebel leaders ordered they be torn down and replaced with rows of brick-built shops, all equal in size. Dozens of construction workers are now hammering away on shaky scaffolds as gangs of street cleaners whip up clouds of dust with brand new brooms.

The culmination of Fofie’s drive is the newly reopened cultural centre, whose walls were decorated with paintings of athletes, musicians and Cote d’Ivoire’s first post-independence president, Felix Houphout-Boigny. The opening was a festive affair attended by Fofie.

Rebel force like no other

“The New Forces [as the rebels call themselves] are unlike any other rebel movement in the world,” he said at the ceremony. “We have been recognised by the international community. This rebel movement consists of men who think, who meditate, who reason….We do the things you have seen today because we are concerned with the well-being of the population. That’s our raison-d’etre.”

[Cote d'Ivoire] Korhogo-based rebel leader Martin Kouakou Fofie, one of three Ivorians hit with UN sanctions. [Date picture taken: March 2006]

Martin Kouakou Fofie, New Forces rebel leader of Korhogo
Pauline Bax/IRIN
[Cote d'Ivoire] Korhogo-based rebel leader Martin Kouakou Fofie, one of three Ivorians hit with UN sanctions. [Date picture taken: March 2006]...
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Interview with sanctioned rebel, Martin Kouakou Fofie
[Cote d'Ivoire] Korhogo-based rebel leader Martin Kouakou Fofie, one of three Ivorians hit with UN sanctions. [Date picture taken: March 2006]...
Martin Kouakou Fofie

But many residents believe Fofie is concerned with repairing his tattered image rather than genuinely changing the way the town is run. “This whole thing is a façade; they are dong this to appease the local population,” said one humanitarian worker who asked not to be named. “Fofie terrorised everybody from 2002 to 2004 - everyone is afraid of him, even the traditional chiefs.”

Francois Soro, one of the few residents willing to be identified, complained that health care was expensive, the public hospital “disgusting” and racketeering by rebel forces widespread. “They pretend that all is well but everybody knows that things are not,” he said from under the shade of a tree at the rebel-run department of civil affairs.

The 2002 north-south rupture saw schools, hospitals, courts, prisons, tax offices and other state-run services in the north close down.

Through joint efforts of rebels, volunteers and NGOs, a minimum of services has been gradually restored. An estimated 800 volunteers run schools in Korhogo and surrounding villages, and earlier this month thousands of students were able to sit exams for the first time in two years.

In the freshly painted town hall an employee of the mayor’s office, Lassine Koné, said that while official birth certificates could not be issued, he was keeping track of births and deaths, recording them by hand in a tattered notebook. “Later, when there is peace, we hope we can write them in the national register,” Kone said from his bare but newly painted office.

His own identity papers trashed by government security forces in the early days of the war, Kone said getting ID documents and voter cards before October - when the country is scheduled to hold presidential elections - is an issue of great concern for many northerners.

Tens of thousands of people in Cote d’Ivoire, particularly in the north, lack a national ID card. In some cases, they simply failed to register, put off by red tape and administrative costs. But many others had their papers taken away by government security forces, who many northerners say treat those with northern names as rebel collaborators.

Taxes, one way or another

While the government tax offices remain closed, the rebels have set up their own system of imposing levies through roadblocks and mandatory donations. “We used to pay taxes to the administration,” cotton buyer Soro said, shaking his head. “Now we all pay taxes to the rebels.”

Several businessmen in Korhogo told IRIN on condition of anonymity that they were obliged to pay cash and deliver free goods to rebel leaders. Each month, the rebel camp receives bags of rice and barrels of fuel - mandatory contributions from the town’s traders, they said.

In June, rebel commander Fofie ordered the temporary closure of dozens of moped shops after the owners refused to pay 10 million CFA francs (US $18,000) and four mopeds each, the UN human rights division said in a report last year. The owner of a moped outlet told IRIN the “price” eventually had been negotiated down to 5 million CFA and five mopeds each.

But in return, most businessmen agreed, Fofie and his men provided a secure business environment, allowing traders and businessmen to haul untaxed goods from neighbouring countries and either sell them locally or ship them in convoys to the government-run south.

[Cote d'Ivoire] Street scene in Korhogo, in the country's rebel-held north. [Date picture taken: March 2006]

Korhogo in the formerly rebel-held north
Pauline Bax/IRIN
[Cote d'Ivoire] Street scene in Korhogo, in the country's rebel-held north. [Date picture taken: March 2006]...
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Rebuilding in former rebel areas essential if peace to hold
[Cote d'Ivoire] Street scene in Korhogo, in the country's rebel-held north. [Date picture taken: March 2006]...
Korhogo residents try to keep business flowing as best they can

To alleviate the suffering of cotton farmers around Korhogo, some of whom have not been paid in three years by a major company, the rebels recently allowed a rival company to collect the harvest and pay farmers cash for cotton.

“There is no administration in the classical sense, but there is an administration put in place by the New Forces and we can go about our business relatively undisturbed,” said Meite Vameike, manager of the main cotton growers’ union.

Analysts say the human rights situation remains the biggest concern in the north, as the rebels mete out justice as they see fit. The UN human rights division said last year that suspected government spies faced summary executions, prolonged detention or torture by rebels.

While conditions in Korhogo’s two prisons improved slightly after the release of the UN report, a military observer told IRIN that at least 80 percent of 100-plus detainees were held on trumped-up charges. “Everybody is afraid of the rebel leadership because there is a climate of total impunity,” the observer said.

Sitting in an air-conditioned office still heavy with paint fumes, a newly appointed police chief locally known as Officer Ouattara pored over a list of crime reports.

While all murderers have been thrown in jail, Ouattara said, petty thieves are usually released because it’s simply too costly to keep them in prolonged detention. “We try to respect a minimum of human rights,” he said, adding that he frequently sought advice from the local UN mission. “We are learning as we go along.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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