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Story Publication logo August 29, 2012

Once an Oasis of Calm in West Africa, Ivory Coast Can't Shake Its Recent, Bloody Past

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In Ivory Coast—the world’s top cocoa producer—cocoa farmers bore the brunt of a civil war that...

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Pierre walked into the restaurant in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and paused briefly to look around. Seeing no one to be worried about, he chose a table and ordered lunch. He ate his papaya salad and drank his glass of juice. He laughed easily and showed me pictures of his two-year-old son. It wasn't until we started talking about the war that he leaned in and dropped his voice. Like he was trying to tell the tablecloth a secret.

"It's not getting better and it won't get better," Pierre said. (Pierre is not his real name. He asked me to change it out of concern for his safety.) "I don't want the war to come back. It was terrible. Every kind of weapon you could imagine. But I fear it will blow up again."

During Ivory Coast's civil war, Pierre had been an officer in the Young Patriots, a group that was born of a disaffected student union and grew into the most feared armed militia in the country. Its members were mostly unemployed young men and were funded by Laurent Gbagbo, the country's history professor turned despot who oversaw a decade of unprecedented upheaval after taking office as president in 2000. Today it is the remnants of the Young Patriots militia—and other renegade armed groups like it—that pose the most serious threat to Ivory Coast's fragile stability.

Pierre and I had met for lunch in Cocody, a neighborhood that has frequently been caught in the crosshairs of Ivorian unrest. A leafy part of town that is home to diplomats, government officials, and wealthy Westerners, Cocody is also where the state radio-and-television station is based—a favorite target of rebellious troops. It is also where the country's main university—prime recruiting grounds for the Young Patriots—is headquartered. And it is where the presidential compound is built, a cluster of marble and concrete buildings on a lush tract of land that slopes down to a private beach on a lagoon.

That compound had been, until April 2011, President Gbagbo's home. Now he sits in The Hague, an accused war criminal. Gbagbo is slated to become the first former head of state to be tried by the International Criminal Court, but thus far he has managed to put off his fate. His lawyers got the next phase of his trial, originally scheduled for July, postponed to mid-August, and then got it pushed back again after expressing concern over Gbagbo's health. The delays have been accompanied by surges in violence in Ivory Coast, prompting widespread fear there about the prospects for long-term peace.

It is a peace that was never all that secure to begin with. Once called the "miracle of Africa" and considered a bastion of stability in a turbulent region, Ivory Coast suffered its first coup d'état on Christmas Eve of 1999, and it's been a steady decline ever since. Gbagbo became president in 2000 after a controversial election that ended with street riots and mass graves in Abidjan. An attempt to oust Gbagbo in 2002 failed, sparking a civil war that saw rebels take control of the northern half of the country. Ivory Coast spent most of the next 10 years a divided nation, the two sides separated by a buffer zone monitored by the United Nations.

Gbagbo repeatedly postponed presidential elections, and when the vote finally came, in November 2010, he lost to Alassane Ouattara, his longtime nemesis. The result was hailed by the international community as a chance for the country to move on from Gbagbo's troubled reign and begin, at last, to rebuild. But Gbagbo refused to step down, and the war soon reignited in the west, near the border with Liberia.

Over the next four months, at least 3,000 people were killed in the fighting and more than a million were chased from their homes. Ouattara's troops eventually swept down to Abidjan, and by April 2011 the conflict was centered on Cocody, where Gbagbo was bunkered in his home. Attacks against his compound went on for several days, and Gbagbo was finally arrested on April 11, 2011, allowing Ouattara to assume power.

The power shift brought with it widespread chaos and insecurity, a problem that Ouattara has struggled to control ever since. In much of the country police officers that had served under the Gbagbo administration abandoned their posts once Ouattara assumed power, leaving the day-to-day safety of civilians in the hands of soldiers ill suited for the job. In the west, the heart of the cocoa-growing zone (Ivory Coast is the top producer in the world), many Young Patriot–militia members fled to the countryside or into Liberia. Meanwhile, dozos—traditional hunters from the north who are aligned with Ouattara—stepped in to provide ad hoc support for the country's new army.

The result was a populace at the mercy of roving armed gangs. When I was in Ivory Coast in March, I visited a half-dozen villages that still lay in rubble from the war. Another town, Zibablo-Yeblo, had been torched by unknown assailants just a few days before I arrived. Exasperated villagers showed me charred huts that had once held their stock of rice for the year. Further south, an armed group had attacked a village on the Cavally River around the same time, launching its raid from Liberia, across the river to the west. Some of the attackers were former Gbagbo militia who had fled when Ouattara came to power and now lived in refugee camps in Liberia.

The violence has only escalated since then. In June the same area on the Cavally was attacked again, and eight civilians and seven U.N. peacekeepers were killed. In July a displaced-persons camp was burned to the ground in Duékoué—7 dead, 5,000 chased into the woods. And in August there have been several flare-ups. Gunmen overran a military base in Abidjan early in the month, killing six and making off with a stash of weapons. A few days later attackers struck a security post and prison outside the city, and on August 25 at least four people were killed in a gun battle between soldiers and unidentified armed men about 50 miles away.

The Ouattara administration has been quick to blame Gbagbo supporters for the unrest and recently arrested the head of his political party. But not everyone agrees that the Gbagbo faction is responsible. Joseph Hellweg, an expert in Ivorian politics at Florida State University, told the Associated Press: "State representatives may be so adamant that pro-Gbagbo forces are behind the attacks because they know or suspect that some of their own former supporters are also involved."

It is a persistent problem in societies recovering from war—how to steer a country away from its reliance on armed force and back to the rule of law. Ouattara has yet to find a solution. The national army he formed after taking office did not include all the rebel soldiers who had fought for him, and today many of those men are jobless and angry. Meanwhile, members of Gbagbo's political party accuse Ouattara of victor's justice, pointing out that efforts to hunt down war criminals have targeted individuals from the Gbagbo side while leaving the Ouattara camp untouched.

If Gbagbo's I.C.C. trial ever gets up and running, it is certain to heighten tensions even further. And if the conversations I had with people in Ivory Coast are any indication, the country remains as polarized as ever. Ouattara may have won the war, but Gbagbo and his supporters seem determined to fight another battle.

Pierre and I sat and talked for a while after our lunch in Cocody. He seemed to lose his inhibitions as he spoke, and his tone became fiery. He told me that most of the high-ranking Young Patriots were in exile in Ghana, Ivory Coast's neighbor to the east. "They coordinate with each other, debate, discuss the situation, make plans," Pierre said. "They use Facebook a lot, sometimes Skype too. They're preparing for Ouattara's fall."

I asked if he and his comrades really wanted to risk reopening the conflict. Would they consider giving Ouattara a chance to see if he could get Ivory Coast back on its feet? He had a lot of the support in the country, after all—he'd won more than half of the vote against Gbagbo.

Pierre brushed me off. "We're unhappy with Ouattara and the way he is dealing with justice. No one likes him in Ivory Coast, except maybe in the north," he said. "We can't accept him. If the country grows and prospers, if the price of fuel drops, if food is cheap, if even he gives away free cars to everyone—we will never accept him. Never. It is not possible."






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