Ivorian priorities

Source: Radio Netherlands Worldwide

By Bram Posthumus, Monrovia

Photo: International Justice Desk (RNW)

President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast says he wants national dialogue and reconciliation and an end to impunity. Noble intentions – but his country may have more pressing issues to deal with and what is more: not everyone is prepared to reconcile

‘We lost two of our friends. One of them we found with a hole in his head, the other one they had tried to burn. I took pictures of them. They’re in my cellphone.’

‘When they entered our town, we ran. They were shooting everywhere. They killed people. They killed our brother.’

‘I lost everything. I had a house and a business – but it’s all gone. Stolen, by the rebels.’

‘I am sitting here in a camp and I have no idea where my husband is. I cannot phone, there is no connection. No news.’

‘They were shelling our neighbourhood, every night. People died – in their own homes! And then I started noticing my children ran indoors, terrified, whenever there was a loud bang. That’s when I decided to take them with me and leave.’

Ivorian refugees, recounting their experiences. They live in refugee camps or in overcrowded host villages. Most are in neighbouring Liberia. The post-electoral crisis in Ivory Coast lasted four months, left an estimated 3,000 people dead and sent tens of thousands across its borders.

Two armies
When in November 2010 Ivory Coast finally held its presidential elections, there were two fully equipped and notoriousy ill-disciplined armies in the country, one for the incumbent at the time, Laurent Gbagbo; the other for his then prime minister, Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader. Elections produce only one winner, so violence was, therefore, inevitable. Gbagbo and his adversary both declared themselves the winner and Soro, feeling betrayed, changed sides, handing Ouattara an army of his own, which then chased Gbagbo out of power. The statements you read here are from the victims of both fighting forces.

Farmers, businesspeople, traders, teachers, students – they saw their homes burnt, their loved ones raped and killed, their property looted. President Alassane Ouattara, inaugurated on May 21st, wants an end to impunity and a Commission for Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation. The Commission will be headed by Charles Konan Banny, who had a glittering banking career and also served as prime minister under Mr Gbagbo. The 69 year-old is known to have presidential ambitions and heading a prestigious body like this could be a useful stepping stone.

But is reconciliation really the all-important cornerstone of Ivorian recovery? In an interview for the website Slateafrique.com, the French Africa expert Antoine Glaser said that nationality and property rights are more pressing issues. To which you can add disarmament and kick-starting the economy.

A former president, Henri Konan-Bédié, invented the concept of “Ivoirité” in the 1990s, in order to exclude his then rival Alassana Ouattara from the presidency. Ouattara was presumed to be from Burkina Faso; only full-blooded Ivorian nationals could be president. This nationality issue has poisoned a generation. Every political crisis sees a wave of xenophobic violence, particularly in the economic capital Abidjan. Changing that “Lepenesque” mind-set will be difficult.

‘When we left town, we had to leave all our belongings behind,’ Hortense Nondikoi Gba told me while sitting in her small tent in the refugee camp near the Liberian town of Bahn. If she ever goes back, how can she reclaim the house that she used to live in?

Indeed: Where is my family? Where are my belongings? Will it be safe when I go back? These are the issue that concern the Ivorian refugees. No army operates in the West of the country, there are militias that are loyal to their own leaders – or whoever fills their pockets and stomachs. They can cross over into neighbouring Liberia at will; the border area is dense tropical rainforest and impossible to control. They may include Liberian or Ivorian fighters and they can be organised into a new fighting force. Should that happen, then president Ouattara faces a new armed rebellion.

Money is not a problem: Gbagbo’s old cronies who enriched themselves while he was in power are now in exile, with their money. Like their smaller counterparts in Liberia, they seethe with resentment over the fact that “France has imposed a foreign president on their country.” This is their version of events, and it is set in stone. They are in no mood for reconciliation.

She does not care who pays them or were they come from – but armed gangs are the biggest concern of Madeleine Duo, in the Bahn refugee camp. Hence, this: ‘I want a president who will completely disarm all fighting forces before asking the people to return.’ Until then, she will not go home. For her and Hortense Gba, reconciliation is a concept they do not relate to. ‘Reconciliation?,’ they shrug. ‘We want peace, that’s all.’

No jobs
Meanwhile, out on the Triangle, a central square in Zwedru, a provincial town in a pro-Gbagbo part of Liberia, dozens of Ivorian youths hang around. ‘We are hungry,’ mouths one of them. ‘No jobs’. The name of their meeting place: Reconciliation Entertainment. They may well be fighting the next war.

Ouattara invites the ICC
Truth and justice are prerequisites for reconciliation. This is President Ouattara’s main reason for inviting the International Criminal Court to investigate “the gravest crimes” committed on Ivorian soil since November 28th, 2010. Previously, it was thought that those allegedly responsible for atrocities would be tried inside Ivory Coast but in his letter to the ICC Mr Ouattara writes that the adjudication of some crimes go beyond the competence of Ivorian courts.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was quick to seize the occasion and has requested authorization to begin investigations. Big question is of course: who will go to The Hague? So far, three names have been circulating: former president Gbagbo, his wife Simone and the organiser of the violent pro-Gbagbo youth militias, Charles Blé Goudé, if still alive.

But what about those responsible for the events late March at Duékoué, in the West of Ivory Coast? It was the single largest massacre in the post electoral crisis and the work of militias aligned to either president Ouattara himself or his right hand, former rebel leader Guillaume Soro. Including this crime in the ICC investigation will be a clear sign that the Ouattara government is serious about reconciliation.


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