Feature - War and poverty drive Ivory Coast crime wave

Report
from Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
Published on 01 Aug 2005
By Peter Murphy

ABIDJAN, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Four men with Kalashnikovs attack the home of a government minister. Three robbers shoot a man dead in his car. Police kill five armed criminals in an exchange of fire. Robbers attack two hotels. The list goes on.

This security ministry summary of just one day's reported crime tells a tale of insecurity in Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan, since civil war broke out in September 2002.

The shiny skyscrapers and luxury hotels that once earned the former French colony's main city the nickname of the "Paris of Africa" still dominate the skyline, but its optimistic, cosmopolitan feel has given way to a sense of fear.

From the suburban shanty towns, where residents are awoken by soldiers banging on doors for dawn identity checks, to the villas of the wealthy suburb of Cocody, the sense of malaise is growing.

An electronically operated gate, a guard and a large dog protect a Vietnamese restaurant and its customers from trouble.

"If you don't have a door like that, people are scared to come in to eat," said the owner.

He said many of his customers no longer ventured across the lagoon city to his restaurant to avoid the security forces' nightly checks on the Charles de Gaulle Bridge, a thinly-disguised racketeering operation for bribe-hungry troops.

Long regarded as the jewel in the crown of West Africa's former French colonies, Ivory Coast used to be a regional economic powerhouse, attracting millions of migrant workers from its poorer neighbours.

With its glittering restaurants, luxury boutiques and nearby pristine beaches, Abidjan was the ideal base for international organisations and companies, and their expatriate staff.

Not any more. Abidjan was ranked the most dangerous city in the world after Baghdad in a survey conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting last year, and many governments advise their citizens against travelling to the world's biggest cocoa producer.

Anti-French riots by supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, who accuse the former colonial ruler of siding with rebels holding the north of the country, have triggered an exodus of foreign workers and businesses.

Those who have stayed fear that a presidential election due in October will lead to more street violence.

"PEOPLE ARE GETTING DESPERATE"

Morning and night, security company trucks criss-cross the city to drop off yellow-shirted guards and collect others at the end of their 12-hour shift. Group 4 Securicor, the biggest security firm with 3,300 guards, has about half the manpower of the U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in the country.

Doors and windows are reinforced with bars on upmarket homes in the tropical city, and demand for security guards, particularly those trained to use guns, is rising, says the security company's assistant director, Emmanuel Ehouman.

"People are asking for this service more now because they have seen attacks with machineguns," he said.

"In the last few months (robbers) have got more aggressive in car-jackings. A lot of companies have closed and some big companies have left the country."

Ehouman said all types of robberies, from thefts of wallets and mobile phones to downtown car-jackings -- to supply a growing market for cheap car parts -- are on the rise.

"They take everything they can sell easily, anything which is valuable but that people can't afford to buy so they can sell it on the black market. People are getting desperate," he said.

VICIOUS CIRCLE

The crime wave is partly the result of increasing poverty, which many Ivorians say is the worst they have known.

The number of unemployed shot up by 100,000, according to government figures, after days of rioting in November led by the pro-government Young Patriots militia, which caused about 8,000 mainly-French foreigners to flee.

Youths looted homes for days during the rampage, sparked by the French army's crippling of the Ivorian air force. France destroyed the planes after nine French peacekeepers were killed in a government bombing raid in the north of the country.

One U.N. official in Abidjan said the vicious circle of crime, causing more joblessness by deterring business and in turn causing more crime, would be hard to break because guns are easily available in the volatile triangle of Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The last two countries are just emerging from their own long and brutal civil wars.

"Small arms are a problem in the sub-region since the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Because of corruption, it's hard to control," he said.

However, many Abidjan residents say it is not only criminals with illegal firearms that are involved in violent crime and robberies, but also members of the security forces armed with rifles issued to them for their jobs.

"In one-tenth of the robberies we have seen, (the robbers) were in military fatigues and had arms," said Ehouman, adding that it was impossible to know whether they were genuine members of the security forces.

He said a shortage of cash in state coffers also made it hard to stamp out lawlessness. When his company notified security forces about a crime in progress, they sometimes asked for a lift to the scene because they had no vehicles or fuel available, he said.

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