Ivory Coast's warlords obstacle to reconciliation

July 29, 2011 - 5:29 AM
UN Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast's president Alassane Ouattara speaks to reporters during a news conference, Wednesday, July 27, 2011, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Young men who were only recently shooting at each other are now doing push-ups side by side in a boot camp. But in Ivory Coast's far west, armed fighters still attack and steal from the population, almost 700,000 of whom are too afraid to return home.

As President Alassane Ouattara meets with President Barack Obama on Friday in Washington, Ivory Coast's national reconciliation is showing both surprising promise and worrying failure.

It's been three months since Ouattara was finally able to assume the presidency after former leader Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat in the November presidential election. It took the assistance of U.N. and French troops to ultimately force him from office.

Now a new national army exists on paper, but the rebel forces that fought to bring Ouattara to power still reign on the ground.

Amnesty International released a report Wednesday accusing Ouattara's Republican Forces of continuing to carry out violence and intimidation against ethnicities perceived as having supported Gbagbo.

Almost 700,000 people remain in camps for displaced people in the country's remote far west and in refugee camps across the porous jungle border in Liberia and Guinea.

"If not addressed quickly, the very serious consequences of the recent wave of insecurity and displacement will have further repercussions during the coming years and may fuel growing discontent and unrest, undermining efforts to promote reconciliation in a country torn apart by a decade of ethnic strife and violent conflict," the report said.

But some 335 miles (539 kilometers) away, the atmosphere in the country's biggest city, Abidjan, is overwhelmingly positive. Here, a public works campaign continues at a feverish pace. Pot holes are being filled in, highway dividers painted and teams of street sweepers are hauling away years of accumulated garbage in an effort to visibly herald the beginning of a new era.

The national police are back on the streets, replacing the heavily armed rebels who brought Ouattara to power, who have been instructed to leave their assault rifles on base, largely ridding the streets of the previously ubiquitous guns.

At a military base in the city's most notoriously pro-Gbagbo district of Yopougon, thousands of fighters drawn from both sides of the conflict have been recruited into a civic service boot camp destined to prepare some of them to join the new national army and train the rest with basic job skills so to ease their return to civilian life.

The military command structure has been so integrated at the base that a formerly pro-Gbagbo militia leader salutes a pro-Ouattara rebel commander, who in turn answers to a former navy officer, who continued to fight for Gbagbo even weeks after his arrest.

The camp's chief, Major Ousmane Coulibaly, is in charge of the entire district of Yopougon. His last 10 years were spent in the rebellion, where he adopted the nom-de-guerre "Bin Laden" for his bushy beard.

Now in his office, he sits behind a laptop computer and wears a crisp military mustache, insisting that the conflict is definitively over. He points outside to the field full of uniformed former combatants marching in formation as proof.

"If they can sleep side by side in barracks, then we can all put this conflict behind us," he said.

Yet behind these displays of reconciliation, a pervading culture of criminality continues.

The local press reports on armed robberies, kidnappings and killings in Abidjan almost every day. Last week, the French Embassy sent a security message to its citizens warning that "incidents of unequaled gravity are still being reported."

The previous week, OCHA, the United Nations humanitarian coordination body, sent a panic through the international aid community when it reported that "incidents of home intrusion, banditry and theft continue," in some of the city's most chic neighborhoods.

Much of the problem stems from the rebel command structure, which is yet to be dismantled. Abidjan, like the rest of the country, is divided among commanders who still call themselves warlords. While they wait to receive appointments in the future army, their zones of responsibility remain personal fiefdoms, where they act as judge, jury and occasionally executioner.

Last weekend, when one commander refused to rein in his men's looting and commandeering in an Abidjan suburb, the commander from an adjacent zone removed him by force in a firefight that included heavy weapons fire that lasted all afternoon. Local reporters gathered for a reconciliation ceremony nearby were surprised by the battle, which was widely reported in the local press.

Maj. Coulibaly says that rivalry between warlords will not be a problem in the long-run.

"We all know each other well. We've been working side by side for years," he said. "When the time comes, we will all enter a centralized command structure."

But financing this endeavor, including the demobilization of thousands of irregular fighters, has proven difficult. While the ex-fighters in Yopougon lined up in their boy scout-like uniforms for a bowl of rice and watery sauce, the drill sergeants gathered nearby to complain of a lack of financing.

When Ouattara took over the presidency, he continued to pay the police and army in an effort to encourage them to rally to his side. An estimated 80 percent of them have returned to work in the meantime, but Ouattara's forces continue to work unpaid.

Human rights groups denounced the former rebels for levying their own taxes during the eight years they controlled the northern half of the country. Until they are enrolled into the new national army and start receiving a salary, it seems as though they will continue paying themselves.

In Abidjan's comfortable II plateau district, streams of automatic weapons fire rang out this week. According to local press reports, a group of armed men had attempted to shakedown a local businessman for money, and then resisted when he called the police. Four men claiming to be FRCI fighters were taken into custody.