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Côte d’Ivoire’s Great West: Key to Reconciliation
Côte d’Ivoire’s Great West: Key to Reconciliation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Côte d’Ivoire: The Illusion of Stability
Côte d’Ivoire: The Illusion of Stability
Report 212 / Africa

Côte d’Ivoire’s Great West: Key to Reconciliation

Working to reduce tensions in western Côte d’Ivoire, a flashpoint for ethnic, political and economic rivalries, is imperative to ensure lasting stability and pave the way for national reconciliation.

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Executive Summary

Western Côte d’Ivoire’s land, security and identity problems make this vast border territory the country’s most unstable area. Reconciliation has yet to begin there and communal tensions remain acute. Two administrative regions are especially problematic: Cavally and Guémon. Outside Abidjan, these are the two regions where the post-electoral crisis claimed the most victims and which saw the gravest violence. The Ivorian government’s preference for a security clampdown there, rather than measures to address political and economic problems has done little to address instability, which could provide the spark that reignites the crisis. Since December, the government has taken some steps nationally to lower political tension and promote national reconciliation: these should be immediately extended to these two regions, which remain strongholds of former President Laurent Gbagbo.

Since independence, the central government has ignored Cavally and Guémon when distributing the nation’s wealth. These two outlying regions produce a significant proportion of the cocoa that makes Côte d’Ivoire the world’s biggest producer, as well as large quantities of other plant-derived raw materials. Yet they missed the “Ivorian miracle” and have remained undeveloped. Their exceptionally fertile land is both a source of wealth and their main problem. Poorly regulated and subject to fierce competition, land ownership is a recurring cause of conflict. Land is a magnet for migrants, both from other parts of the country and from abroad, who often outnumber those “native” to the area and leave them with a strong sense of dispossession.

For a long time, conflicts have been resolved peacefully through local and customary dispute resolution systems. However, the economic crisis, demographic pressures and the spread of a xenophobic political discourse in the 1990s have exhausted these systems. Land conflicts, exploited by the three major political parties that disputed the succession to President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, have increasingly provoked violence between “native” landowners and migrants.

The government of then-President Henri Konan Bédié tried in 1998 to resolve the situation by introducing a land code that was never enforced. The war in September 2002 and its aftermath then considerably worsened the conflicts. During this period, the violence that affected the west was worse than anywhere else in Côte d’Ivoire, bar the capital Abidjan, with large-scale criminality claiming dozens, even hundreds, of victims.

This was partly due to Cavally’s and Guémon’s strategic location, not only because they produce cocoa but also because they are at the centre of the transport network that takes the raw material to the coast for export. Whoever controls these two regions also controls the country’s main source of foreign currency. Liberia’s proximity is another aggravating factor. Mercenaries from that country have exported the brutal behaviour that characterised the Mano River wars and make regular, deadly incursions into Ivorian territory, taking advantage of the weakness of Liberian and Ivorian armed forces.

During the 2011 post-electoral crisis, further massacres took place in Cavally and Guémon. The gravest, with a death toll of hundreds in just a few days, took place in the town of Duékoué. Then, in July 2012, more than one year after the end of the crisis, other violent crimes were committed at the Nahibly camp for the internally displaced, just outside Duékoué. In 2013, several incursions into Côte d’Ivoire by Liberian and Ivorian militia from Liberia claimed further victims and displaced thousands. These recent events proved just how volatile these two regions are, and showed they are likely to be the first to boil over if political tensions increase.

At the moment, serious crimes against members of ethnic groups considered to be supporters of former President Gbagbo remain unpunished, which lends credibility to allegations of a two-tiered justice system. The government in Abidjan must shed light on these crimes and take other significant measures to stabilise Cavally and Guémon.

Op-Ed / Africa

Côte d’Ivoire: The Illusion of Stability

Originally published in Daily Maverick

Among the three principal politicians who have struggled for power in Côte d’Ivoire since 1995, President Alassane Ouattara, 73, is the only one still in the game and is most likely to win the presidential election on 25 October. The significance of this election is not so much the electoral outcome – which seems to be a foregone conclusion – as much as the political choices that will result from a renewed Ouattara mandate. Without meaningful political, security and judicial reforms, Côte d’Ivoire could face yet another prolonged period of violence.

Such instability could be triggered by the next presidential election in 2020, which will likely be disputed strongly between a new generation of politicians who have grown up in war and crisis. If health considerations make Ouattara step down earlier, new elections, and unrest, could arrive much sooner.

Political exclusion persists

The president’s first term can be seen in two ways. On one hand, in May 2011 he inherited a deeply divided country, in which five months of armed conflict had killed 3,000 people and wrecked the economy. Ouattara managed to restore economic growth and reform the cocoa-producing sector, in which Côte d’Ivoire leads the world. He also reunited a country that had been divided into two distinct administrative units since the failed September 2002 coup. This is a legacy that candidate Ouattara can, rightfully, boast about.

However, upon closer examination, these successes are not quite as clear-cut as they appear. The deeper roots of conflict have not been adequately addressed. In reality, Ouattara has done very little to dismantle the infernal machinery that led to the crisis in the first place.

One of the first causes of instability is the exclusion of a certain portion of the population from political representation. During the 1995 elections, Ouattara, a northerner, was banned from running. This fostered deep frustrations, divisions and bitterness. It led to a coup in December 1999, orchestrated by a handful of northern officers who felt Ouattara’s exclusion, based on “questionable nationality”, was, in fact, discrimination against all northern Ivorians. In 2000, the exclusion of presidential candidates Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié led to similar tensions, resulting in the partition of the country two years later.

Unfortunately, political exclusion is a persistent phenomenon in Ivorian politics.

Ouattara convinced Bédié, leader of the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PCDI) and former head of state, to drop out of the race to pave the way for his candidacy. The third largest party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), faces deep internal divisions. Its leader, Laurent Gbagbo, was Ouattara’s main rival in 2010 but is now in prison. Its proposed candidate is rejected by both the electoral base and a significant portion of the party leadership. Overall, the seven other competitors have neither the recognition, nor the support, required to pose a serious challenge.

As in 1995 and 2000, therefore only one of the main three parties will present its real candidate for the elections. Many Ivorians thus face a very restricted choice in which none of the candidates truly represents them. Moreover, many are unable to vote, with only 6.3 million registered in a country of 17 million citizens.

Ouattara’s presidency was also characterised by the way many key posts were given to northern Ivorians, leaving many citizens feeling excluded. The heads of the National Assembly, the Independent Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Council all originate from the north, as do the justice minister and the director of the treasury. Likewise, the government’s security positions, such as the chief of staff, interior minister and head of intelligence, come from the north.

Post-election challenges

A renewed Ouattara mandate should take the opportunity to redistribute government positions on a more equitable geographical basis, providing a better balance between the country’s different regions and institutions. It should amend the constitution, which grants far too much power to the president, at the expense of parliament and local institutions. Without access to public finance or office, political opponents may feel the need to resort to non-electoral means to seize power.

One risk is armed violence. This is partly because Ouattara failed to reform the Ivorian military, which is in complete disrepute. Former rebel leaders of the New Forces (FN) still occupy important roles, at the expense of former pro-Gbagbo officers. The chain of command is chaotic, with several units obeying former warlords and resorting to predatory tactics. Should another war break out between competing candidates, a whole section of the military could potentially decide to abandon the government and join another camp.

Easy access to arms also raises the risk of conflicts turning deadly. While a wide-scale disarmament process was officially achieved last summer, Côte d’Ivoire is still replete with weapons. Many of these weapons remain outside state control. Last March, a UN group of experts in charge of monitoring an arms embargo discovered a warehouse in the northern region of Korogho containing 60 tonnes of military material. The warehouse is under the control of Martin Kouakou Fofié, a former warlord facing UN sanctions.

Apart from the threat to peace posed by the existence of such an arsenal, it also raises crucial questions regarding impunity. No FN members have been sentenced for crimes committed between 2002 and 2012. The judicial system remains biased, fostering a widespread sense of injustice among Ivorians and threatening any serious attempt at credible reconciliation.

In a few days or weeks, President Ouattara will likely be granted a new mandate. This will give him another five years to transition properly from stabilisation to normalisation, and he must seize the opportunity. Côte d’Ivoire will only escape from the illusion of stability when the possibility of armed struggle for power is no longer seen as a viable option.

This article was translated into English by Arnaud Bodet