Côte d'Ivoire

Accounting for atrocities

News and Press Release
Originally published

ABIDJAN, 14 April 2011 (IRIN) - Parts of Côte d'Ivoire's economic capital, Abidjan, still have a ghost-town feel to them in the aftermath of former President Laurent Gbagbo's capture, but there are hints of normality returning.

Residents gave mixed accounts of the overall situation in the city. Amongst the districts where light and heavy weapons have been heard in recent days are Cocody and Plateau, where fierce clashes took place in the build-up to Gbagbo's removal. "You really don't know who is firing against who," says Cocody resident Martial. "You get the impression that nothing has really been brought to an end in this story."

Flashpoints remain

Kouamassi, south of the lagoon, and Yopougon, one of the most densely populated parts of the city, with strong pockets of support for Gbagbo, have remained tense. Residents in these areas have talked of man hunts and executions, of incoming troops targeting Gbagbo supporters, with the young particularly vulnerable. They paint a damning picture of the operations and general behaviour of the Forces Républicaines de Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI), troops loyal to President Alassane Ouattara.

In a press conference on April 12, Ouattara highlighted the need to restore order. Both the UN and France are helping police Abidjan. In the quieter parts of the city, there are hesitant moves to establish some kind of normality, with taxis out on the streets for the first time in a fortnight. But many residents are still watching and waiting. "For the moment, your safety can't be guaranteed if you step outside your door," Sébastien, a dress-maker in the Adjamé district of town, told IRIN. "You just want to get to the shops or to a chemist."

Barely six metres from Sébastien, a group of soldiers, wearing army tops, but civilian trousers, opened fire on the doors of a shop stocking electrical goods, looking to take off with its contents: televisions, DVD players and other items. "Yesterday the soldiers got into our building and removed everything from a neighbour's flat," said Sébastien. "Now we live in constant fear. We don't know who will be the target tonight."

While optimists say the wave of robberies and destruction of property will soon come to an end as people run out of things to loot, there are still complaints of too many weapons at large and too little being done to protect civilians.

Security vacuum

Since the offensive launched by troops fighting for President Alassane Ouattara police headquarters across Abidjan have been closed, some of them destroyed, creating a security vacuum in the city.

"When you are in danger, you don't know who you are meant to call," said Alphonsine, a trader in the southern district of Marcory. Both the UN and the French military have emergency hotlines for ordinary citizens, but "the lines are always busy," Alphonsine complained.

While shops have been opening in some districts, accessing food can still be be hazardous. "I stayed locked up in the house for 10 days without supplies. I am hungry and I want to look for food, even if I have to risk my life," said civil servant Djénéba Cissé.

Food prices remain three or four time higher than before the crisis. "I bought a loaf of bread for 500 FCFA francs [($1) instead of 125 francs (25 cents) ," Cissé complained. A can of sardines is more than twice the price it used to be. . There is no haggling. It is just how it is and we adapt as best we can. We hope all this will finish soon, if not we will have nothing to eat and the situation will just get worse."

With the main markets closed, traders have improvised, selling in the streets. "There is no time to go to the market," explained Ousmane, a bread-seller. "We set up stalls at different crossroads to sell. When the guns go off, we try to get back home to safety."

UN Commission

The UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Commision of Inquiry to investigate abuses committed in Côte d'Ivoire since the beginning of the crsis. The commision will be headed by Vitit Muntabhorn from Thailand, backed by Suliman Baldo from Sudan and Reine Alapini Gansou from Benin.

"As we speak, the military balance of power is still not clear," says a senior analyst, who predicted that last year's elections would strengthen rather than soften divisions. He said the Forces Nouvelles' original commanders were now taking on a high profile again and warned that their long record of autonomy, administering large chunks of territory outside Abidjan, could make them difficult to control now, particularly if they expected major rewards for their help in bringing Gbagbo down.

Daniel Balint-Kurti of international pressure group Global Witness, who wrote extensively on the original insurgency in Côte d'Ivoire in 2002 and the composition and operations of the Forces Nouvelles, said:

"The problem is that there has been so much killing in this crisis that the atmosphere is poisonous and there is going to be a lot of hatred and desire for revenge."

"Ouattara is now supported by a huge number of armed men who are not disciplined, who are going to want money and power in return for helping bring him to power," he told IRIN. "It is hard to see in the immediate term how the country can return to stability. There's no doubt about the fact that it's going to be a mammoth job."

"Ouattara has said the right things," Matt Wells researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IRIN. "He is not shying away from the need for accountability, for reconciliation and investigations." HRW has now documented extensively atrocities committed by both sides, its last report focusing in particular on rapes and killings carried out by pro-Ouattara forces in the far west. Wells stressed the need for even-handedness on the part of the international community in dealing with the perpetrators of serious abuses on all sides. "There is a fear now that one side will be brought to justice and the other side's crimes will be swept under the rug."

Wells argued that now more than ever was the time for Côte d'Ivoire to move away from "a decade of impunity" where those engaged in atrocities had never been held to account. He made it clear that the onus was on Ouattara to show his independence, collaborating with outside investigators and not impeding research into excesses on his own side.