As Côte d’Ivoire looks to move past the unprecedented violence that followed presidential elections, attention has focused on the traditional hunters known as dozos, with human rights researchers and some Ivoirians accusing them of carrying out atrocities in the west. Some of those affected say the image of dozos as community crime-fighters has been “transformed”. IRIN talked with Joseph Hellweg, researcher and university professor, who spent three years with the dozos in Côte d’Ivoire.
IRIN: A recent report by the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire on fighting in the west refers to "two categories of dozos" - traditional hunters and combatants. How do you see this characterization?
HELLWEG: Dozos have been involved in activities beyond their historical hunting roles for centuries. The dozo Sunjata Keïta founded the empire of Mali in the 13th century, and dozos participated in the wars of Samory Touré against the French in the 19th century. In the 1990s, when I was doing research among dozos in Côte d'Ivoire, they had become an unofficial police force in the absence of any serious effort by state police to control crime….Dozos did distinguish among themselves between those men who had become dozos to hunt, on one hand, and to fight crime on the other. But they all considered each other dozos nonetheless. Any hard and fast distinction is one that outsiders have applied, not one that makes sense to dozos themselves. In fact, the dozo anti-crime movement of the 1990s was run at its uppermost levels by senior dozos who were expert hunters.
Q: What is important to understand about the role of the dozos in the 2002 rebellion and subsequent years in Côte d'Ivoire? What is their role today?
A: It is clear that those dozos who participated in the rebellion - and all rebel soldiers generally - saw their military actions as justified. The majority of dozos are Dioula-speaking Muslims who felt that they were subjects of official state discrimination under the policy of `ivoirité’, or "Côte d'Ivoire for Ivoirians". President Henri Konan Bédié instituted the policy in 1995, and President Laurent Gbagbo intensified it after 2000. The policy marginalized Dioula-speaking Muslims because they were seen as potential supporters of then opposition figure [now president] Alassane Ouattara, who is himself a Dioula-speaking Muslim.
Dozos had reasons for going to war, and they worked side-by-side with other rebels. They were part of the Forces Nouvelles (FN) [name the rebels gave themselves], not some primitive anomaly. Many FN soldiers likewise adopted the protective amulets that dozos wore, for instance.
Nor were dozos merely a non-state force since they had been collaborating closely with local state officials throughout the country in their anti-crime efforts in the 1990s. Dozos were and remain important, sophisticated, and savvy political actors in Côte d'Ivoire whom journalists, officials, and human rights organizations have repeatedly discounted because they view them - and I regret to say this so harshly - as superstitious, pre-modern savages. The reality is far more complex. There is evidence that many dozos may have participated in war crimes, especially in western Côte d'Ivoire. Such behaviour deserves the harshest condemnation and the most thorough investigation. But even here, it must be read in a larger context in which the state itself had been engaged in human rights abuses since independence in 1960, all amply documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the US State Department. Here again, dozos were no exception, despite their ritual and occult practices.
After years of disenfranchisement, these men - from different regions, professions, and backgrounds - want to maintain their voice as active participants in national politics. As such, they must be held accountable for any war crimes they committed, just as any other former rebels must be held accountable. It will be important to listen to and take account of their interests, assuming that they are willing to take part in a democratic political process.
Q: In your view what is the danger or at least downside of aid groups or human rights and justice organizations working from a misconception about dozos and their role?
A: The downside of misconceiving the nature of dozo roles and their flexibility over time is a serious one. It amounts to privileging state perspectives at all cost, which is, as I see it, the main cause of the rebellion. After Côte d'Ivoire's founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, died in 1993, his successor, Bédié, did anything he could to consolidate his hold on state power. This included instituting the policy of `ivoirité’ to neutralize Ouattara as a political opponent. This strategy eventually provoked the rebellion. And yet, France, the USA, Great Britain, and the Vatican supported Bédié's regime as a beacon of stability in West Africa, in spite of the racist overtones of its domestic policies and political manoeuvres. Gbagbo may have presided over the most violent period in recent Ivoirian history, but that period had its origins nearly a decade earlier... In short, the danger once again lies in thinking that those who act politically beyond the bounds of so-called state legitimacy are necessarily politically illegitimate. We've seen the consequences of such assumptions play themselves out in Côte d'Ivoire over the past 20 years. I'd hate to see the same scenario play itself out yet again.
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