Wary of a backlash, Côte d’Ivoire’s government has hesitated to charge its own supporters of crimes committed during the 2010-2011 poll violence, something that has raised doubts about its commitment to impartial justice, say analysts.
The government’s National Commission of Inquiry into the conflict has accused both the Côte d’Ivoire Republican Forces (FRCI - now part of the army) and fighters loyal to deposed president Laurent Gbagbo, of crimes. It said FRCI was responsible for 727 deaths while Gbagbo’s forces killed 1,452 people.
In June 2011, two months after taking power, President Alassane Ouattara set up the Special Inquiry Unit - a special court - to try violence suspects. Prosecutors have charged more than 150 Gbagbo supporters but just a handful from FRCI.
Analysts argue that this lack of even-handedness is due to Ouattara’s weak grip on the army which is largely made up of fighters who backed him during the poll chaos. Many of the fighters are also loyal to Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader and now the National Assembly president.
Christophe Kouamé, head of the Ivoirian Civil Society Convention, said the slow pace of justice was because “social divisions are so deep that the president is certainly wary of rekindling conflict.”
“The one-sided approach to accountability is likely due in part to the president’s still tenuous hold over the entire military,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in an April report.
“Pursuing justice may prove to be deeply unpopular, including among segments of the population who believe that the forces loyal to President Ouattara who committed serious crimes were justified in doing so,” it added.
Only recently did the government go after its loyalists. In April, the trial of 33 FRCI troops - charged with crimes against the population, including premeditated murder, voluntary and involuntary homicide and theft - opened before a military court in the commercial capital Abidjan. Two soldiers were handed prison sentences on 2 May.
Other moves against FRCI members seem likely following the April exhumation of bodies from 57 mass graves across Abidjan. Thirty-six of those graves, containing the bodies of people killed during the post-election violence, are in the city’s Yopougon District which was a Gbagbo stronghold.
FRCI has also been accused of atrocities in the west. In March, a judge tasked with investigating a July 2012 attack on a camp for the displaced in the west of the country visited the scene to identify mass graves. According to the International Human Rights Federation (FIDH), there are 13 mass graves in 12 different sites containing the bodies of people who were summarily executed during the attack.
HRW West Africa researcher Matt Wells said the trial of the soldiers was “an important step forward in Côte d’Ivoire’s fight against impunity. But the Ivoirian authorities need to also pursue the more sensitive cases involving FRCI for which victims have seen no justice, particularly the grave crimes committed during the post-election crisis.”
A good start?
Observers and rights groups have urged the government to be even-handed in pursuing justice, to avert the threat of unrest. However, achieving equitable justice in Côte d’Ivoire is a long and difficult process, warned Kouamé.
“We should be realistic. Côte d’Ivoire has a long way to go. We are not going to change things in one or two years,” he told IRIN.
“The fact that the government is taking responsibility for the killings committed by the forces that supported it is a good thing. This is a good start.”
To attain fair justice, the government should target foot soldiers and low-level commanders in both the Ouattara and Gbagbo camps, and then work its way through the chain of command, Florent Geel of FIDH’s Africa bureau, told IRIN.
Such an approach would help “build the confidence of the victims in the system and also develop the experience and the expertise of the local judicial authorities to be able to go up the chain of command,” said Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at HRW.
“We are not asking for perfect justice immediately. Impatience will not help. But there is need for political will to move things forward, as well as concrete and visible proof that things are moving forward,” said Geel, stressing that the government “must demonstrate that people who committed crimes must be made accountable”.
However, another analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government should instead go after senior commanders in both camps.
“You can’t try every Tom, Dick and Harry,” said the analyst. “The authorities should target top and middle-level people and focus on people that were in a position of command, [involved in] policy-making and financing.”
More than a decade of violence and instability has heightened impunity and weakened the justice system in Côte d’Ivoire. “Impunity and lack of justice have led many people to conclude that there is no solution other than taking up arms,” said Geel.
Justice Minister Gnenema Coulibaly recently told reporters that the government inherited a dysfunctional justice system and announced a broad plan to reform the sector by 2015.
“A transitional justice process is vital for any country recovering from a situation like Côte d’Ivoire’s to ensure guarantee of non-repetition,” said Mohamed Suma, head of the International Centre for Transitional Justice office in Côte d’Ivoire.
“The risk of not doing anything is too much for the country," he told IRIN.
In the second half of 2012, Côte d’Ivoire was rocked by a series of attacks targeting army bases, police stations and other targets in Abidjan and elsewhere. The government blamed the deadly raids on Gbagbo supporters exiled in Ghana and Liberia, but they deny responsibility.
In March, at least 14 people were killed in a spate of attacks in the country’s volatile western region where long-standing land and ethnic disputes have repeatedly sparked violence.
Côte d’Ivoire handed over Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in November 2011 for trial over crimes he allegedly committed during the post-election violence that claimed at least 3,000 lives, but it is yet to surrender Gbagbo’s wife, Simone, despite the court’s arrest warrant issued in November 2012. Simone Gbagbo is charged with crimes against humanity.
The government is concerned that Simone would be able to get in touch with former regime officials if she is out of its hands, a Western observer told IRIN on condition of anonymity.
“The authorities have two options: they can surrender Simone Gbagbo or challenge the admissibility of her case before the ICC. They have done neither,” said HRW’s Singh.
“It is okay to try her in Côte d’Ivoire if she can get a fair trial and if the ICC agrees that the national authorities have the ability to do so, but they have to respond.”