DAKAR, 5 April 2011 (IRIN) - "The Forces Nouvelles played a very important role in our victory and that has to be taken into account," one of Alassane Ouattara's leading supporters acknowledged as the news from Abidjan pointed to Laurent Gbagbo's imminent departure.
For the past four months Ouattara has been recognized internationally as Côte d'Ivoire's elected president, but his final access to executive power owes much to the force of arms. While military support from the UN and France may have proved pivotal in destroying Gbagbo's last arsenals, the former rebels known as Forces Nouvelles (FN) made up most of the newly formed Forces Républicaines de Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI), which pushed south into the main city Abidjan after winning remarkably easy victories in the centre, east and south of the country in the past week.
Who are the military forces behind Ouattara and how will they proceed once their side takes power?
At a recent celebratory rally in the political capital Yamoussoukro, Ouattara's Prime Minister Guillaume Soro introduced the crowd to several FN senior commanders: Soumaila Bakayoko, Cherif Ousmane, Tuo Fozié and Touré Hervé, saluted as being amongst the architects of the FRCI's victories. Ouattara supporters also talk of the key role played by Col Miche Gueu. These men are associated with the September 2002 rebellion, which nearly dislodged Gbagbo. The Forces Nouvelles - a collective of three rebel factions - made offensives against Korhogo, Bouaké and Abidjan. Their secretary-general and main public voice was a then 30-year-old Soro, known primarily as a former student leader.
Ivoirian critics of Ouattara and Soro have not welcomed the sense of déjà vu. "This man is meant to be a prime minister, but he is forever talking about the need for a military offensive and moving on Abidjan," a man in the Yopougon District said. Many observers noted the difference between Ouattara's rhetoric and that of Soro in the weeks after the disputed November 2010 presidential election, with the prime minister much quicker to push for a military solution.
The Forces Nouvelles included soldiers, particularly northerners, defecting from the national armed forces, but also combatants from outside Côte d'Ivoire and the dozo, traditional warrior hunters - said to have mystical powers - who have long acted as informal community police.
In 2006 one of the FN leaders, Martin Kouakou Fofié, was hit with UN sanctions over allegations of child recruitment, abductions, sexual abuse of women, arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings by troops he commanded. [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=58587 ]
Whatever compromises were made in numerous peace accords signed in the years since the rebellion, the Forces Nouvelles have effectively retained control of national territory in the west, north and centre. A longstanding concern of Gbagbo supporters and neutrals has been the existence of a state within a state, whose sovereignty has gone largely unchallenged.
For Vincent Gnizako, a long-time Ouattara supporter who heads the Paris branch of Ouattara's Rassemblememt des Républicains (RDR) party, the incoming government will be taking over "a new Côte d'Ivoire that needs to be reconstructed after 10 years going backwards." Gnizako said the RHDP would supply the ministerial expertise, but the military forces could not be overlooked.
Ouattara and Soro now head a broad-based political-military coalition. The Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la Paix (RHDP) brings together the RDR, the Parti démocratique de Côte d'Ivoire and several smaller parties. Ouattara backers told IRIN his first priority would be national reconciliation.
Pro-Ouattara activists have reacted defensively to mounting criticism of their combatants in recent weeks. "The FRCI are establishing peace throughout the country," Maurice Guikahué, a senior figure in the RHDP, told IRIN. "The FRCI are disciplined. They do not commit violent acts; they respect human rights."
Guikahué said the FRCI had been through regions of the country dominated by Gbagbo's own Bété ethnic group "without laying a hand on a single person", instead holding meetings with residents and explaining they were there "solely to establish peace". He called reports of crimes by the FRCI "propaganda".
But Ouattara opponents paint a damning picture of serious human violations by at least some of the pro-Ouattara forces that have taken over towns and neighbourhoods in recent weeks. Speaking from Abidjan, a youth with the pro-Gbagbo Jeunes Patriotes told IRIN: " I have been to different districts of the city - Koumassi, Abobo, Port-Bouët - and I know what has been going on: looting, rapes and people having their throats cut. We know who the perpetrators are and they are doing this out in the open."
Human Rights Watch has documented extra-judicial executions by Ouattara's forces allegedly against Gbagbo supporters and combatants detained in Abidjan territory taken by Ouattara forces in recent weeks. "The killing of civilians by pro-Ouattara forces, at times with apparent ethnic or political motivation...risks becoming a crime against humanity should it become widespread or systematic," HRW says.
A local journalist told IRIN that on 5 April pro-Ouattara forces threatened workers at an Abidjan office building. The forces lined up civilian security guards and ordered them to undress, he said. "They fired at office doors to break in and ordered people to hand over their car keys. They took off in two luxury cars and said they'd be back."
The International Crisis Group has said worldwide support for Ouattara could unravel if the military that's behind him acts unlawfully. "[They] should take all measures to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. They should understand that international support for Ouattara's election victory, and his legitimacy, will quickly evaporate if their military campaign becomes responsible for mass atrocity crimes."
"Ouattara's side should avoid any kind of revenge talk, Crisis Group senior West Africa analyst Rinaldo Depagne told IRIN. "The pro-Ouattara forces know they will be watched closely and this should constrain them, but the problem in the far west is there are not as many witnesses so they could carry out exactions."
The RDR's Gnizako acknowledged possible excesses on all sides, but warned against premature condemnation of the FRCI for the recent killling of civilians in the western town of Duékoué. He pointed out that circumstances were still not clear and a large number of armed, pro-Gbagbo militia has been active in the town. He stressed Ouattara's willingness to hold an enquiry. "If people from our side were involved, they should be brought to trial. Justice must be done." [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=92372 ]