President Alassane Ouattara. Photo: Africa Renewal

Neglected reconciliation takes its toll

Former rebel soldiers in Ivory Coast are dissatisfied with how they have been integrated into the regular army since the end of the civil war. In January, a group of armed soldiers took to the streets demanding improvements. According to NAI researcher Jesper Bjarnsen this was more a case of ‘workers going on strike’ than a mutiny.

The 50 or so armed soldiers who put up roadblocks in Bouaké, central Ivory Coast, were from among the 8,000 men who fought for the rebel army during civil wars in 2002 and 2010. One part of the peace agreement was to integrate the rebels into the regular army and the failure to do so is the source of their discontent. In addition to demanding salaries that have not been paid, the soldiers want their ranks and period of service with the rebels to be recognised in the regular army.

“This is not a case of elements in the army trying to overthrow the government. The soldiers claim to still support President Alassane Ouattara. Instead they are raising labour issues; however, with violent means, which of course frightens people who still have the civil wars fresh in their memory”, Bjarnesen says.

Too quick response
The president quickly gave in to the revolting soldiers’ demands. Perhaps too quickly, because a few days later a group of local gendarmes also took to the streets with similar demands. This time, however, the same group of soldiers who had been on strike attacked the gendarmes, shooting and killing six of them. Another few days later, certain groups of state employees went on strike leaving pupils and student without classes to attend. Other public services also suffer from the strikes.

NAI researcher Jesper Bjarnesen.

“Before the other incidents l would have downplayed this so-called mutiny as something less serious. Now l am not so sure. Things might escalate. The president should have punished the soldiers with some kind of reprimand, but at the same time promised to look at the army structure and integration of ex-rebels”, Bjarnesen states.

The Forces Nouvelles, the rebel army, stem from three different rebel groups that merged during the first civil war. To many people, a civil war in Ivory Coast was something unexpected because it had long been called the pearl of West Africa. Unlike in many neighbouring countries, there were few political tensions and for several years its economic growth was comparable with that of the Asian tiger economies. To understand what went wrong, Bjarnesen suggests, one needs to go back to colonial times.

World's biggest cocoa producer
The colonial power, France, discovered that the fertile soil in the south of Ivory Coast was particularly suitable for growing cocoa and coffee. Huge plantations, which used forced labour – mainly from today’s Burkina Faso – to work the fields, turned Ivory Coast into the world’s biggest cocoa producer. Following independence in 1960, the country maintained close relations with France to a higher degree than many other former African colonies. In fact, the first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was previously a minister in the French government in France.

“He more or less continued with the same focus on cacao production as France did. But in the new independent state Houphouët-Boigny could not use forced labour; instead he opened up the borders and invited immigrants to come and grow cacao”, Bjarnesen adds.

This strategy worked until the mid-1980s when arable land was no longer available. Then the cocoa-growing immigrants became unpopular and were referred to as land thieves. Using a divide-and-rule policy, Houphouët-Boigny managed to keep the lid on potential conflicts until his death in 1993. His successor, Henri Konan Bédié, did not have the same ability to play groups off against each other. He endorsed xenophobia, inventing the concept of ivoirité, according to which only people born in the country to Ivorian parents could call themselves Ivorian. Moreover, Bédié made land ownership and suffrage contingent on ivoirité. During the 1990s, the situation gradually deteriorated to the point that army officers overthrew the government to restore public order. A year later elections were held, when the coup leader, Gen. Robert Guéi, lost to Laurent Gbagbo.

“In that election the law on suffrage disqualified the current president Alassane Ouattara from candidacy because his parents were allegedly from Burkina Faso. People from the north of the country, where the population is mixed, soon understood that things were not going to become any better under Gbagbo’s rule. Three high-ranking army officers, with origins in the north, almost at the same time, but separately, formed rebel movements to fight the central regime. After a failed attempt of a coup in 2002 they merged into Forces Nouvelles”, Bjarnesen points out.

Elections led to war
In 2007 a treaty was signed that gave the leader of the Forces Nouvelles, Guillaume Soro, the position of prime minister under Gbagbo in an interim government, until a general election could be held. Elections had been scheduled to be held in 2005, but were repeatedly postponed due to the war. When elections finally took place in 2010, the result set off the second civil war.
The national election commission as well as international observers gave the victory to Ouattara. Gbagbo, however, cried foul and proclaimed himself as the legitimate leader. This provoked the Forces Nouvelles to mobilise again and march south. This time France stood by the rebels and with French military help the Forces Nouvelles were able to enter the capital and capture Gbagbo in 2011. He is still in custody in the Hague awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court.
Since Gbagbo’s fall, Ouattara has held power. The soldiers who have been demanding salaries and other benefits are the very same ones who helped him into office.

“This is why his quick approval of the strikers’ demands is sensitive. In a sense, they are his old fighters. Without doubt, the integration of former rebels into the army must be dealt with urgently. But the same goes for the whole of Ivorian society. Ouattara has never engaged in any kind of reconciliation after the wars and this is one of the reasons of the current strikes. There still exist political tensions under the surface and Gbagbo’s supporters still view Ouattara as an illegitimate president”, Bjarnesen concludes.

TEXT: Johan Sävström

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