Guns of war feed crime explosion

The six shoeless thieves that robbed the widow’s house in the well-to-do suburb of Cote d’Ivoire’s main city Abidjan took off with all her money and jewellery after scaring the guard out of his wits with their AK-47 assault rifles.

“They tied up the watchman, took his key and opened the gate,” said Rene Kanga, still shaken from the night attack that left his widowed aunt without the cash she had laid out for her husband’s funeral.

The thieves were all young, said Kanga, and clad in t-shirts and military camouflage trousers and targeted several houses in the neighbourhood that night.

“They were barefoot, so you wouldn’t hear them, and they just broke into the house and tied us all up, saying they’d kill us if we made a sound,” Kanga said. “There is just no security in Abidjan anymore.”

The cheap but durable AK-47 has been the firearm of choice for generations of armies, rebels and child soldiers alike across West Africa. And in Cote d’Ivoire, three years into a conflict where rebel forces hold the northern half of the country, the assault rifles are increasingly being used in armed robberies in southern, government-controlled Abidjan.

Every morning, the back page of daily newspaper Soir Info serves up detailed and often gruesome accounts of hold-ups and robberies to thousands of curious Abidjan residents.

Although crime was rampant in the late nineties too, analysts say criminals are getting tougher and tend to use heavier weapons – in particular AK-47s.

Worse, victims who resist giving up their money or car are often executed on the spot.

And government security forces are among the offenders, according to a recent UN report on human rights, carrying out summary executions with impunity.

Though official crime data is not available, a survey of international personnel by Mercer Human Resources Consulting published earlier this year earmarked Abidjan as the most dangerous international posting in the world for expatriate staff, after the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Following a resumption of hostilities last November, angry anti-French mobs took to the streets targeting the homes and businesses of foreigners and subscriptions to private security companies shot up as a result.

“We can hardly keep up with demand,” said Francois Gomis of the international security company Group4Securicor, whose white-and-red logo is popping up on spike-topped gates and fences across the city.

“Before the crisis, we had ordinary thieves, guys who’d commit robberies with a pistol, a sawn-off hunting rifle or a machete,” said Gomis. “Now, the situation has brought us another category of criminals: commandos with camouflage gear and AK-47s.”

“It’s a new phenomenon, really. Most attacks are targeted – the thugs seek out the homes of rich traders, businessmen, and former ministers,” he said.

While the rich are increasingly targeted for their cash, the number of Ivorians living below the poverty line has risen from less than 34 percent in 1998 to over 40 percent today, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Cote d'Ivoire's main city, Abidjan, is built on a lagoon

“The crisis is responsible for the degradation of the lives of millions of our citizens and accentuates the poverty that gains a bit more ground every day,” Development Minister Boniface Britto Nama said last month.

With rebels holding the north and loyalist forces and pro-government militias controlling the south, and its porous borders in a region marked by civil war and unrest, Cote d’Ivoire is awash with guns, analysts say.

“Legally, it’s very easy to get a gun if you know the right person who can give you a permit,” a western security analyst told IRIN on condition of anonymity. “I can only assume it’s very easy at the black market as well.”

Several deadlines for disarmament have passed without fighters on either side of the divide handing in a single gun. And a timeline has not been set.

The thousands of pro-government militias are of particular concern. Most groups were created in the early days of the crisis as the government recruited hundreds of unemployed young men and gave them a rudimentary military training in disused barracks.

Some militias were disbanded under pressure from the United Nations and international mediators, but nobody knows where the young men went after they left their training camps.

“Most people in the business are convinced that these companies are going to be used to employ the demobilised militias,” the western security analyst said.

The security business is so brisk even the presidency is investing. According to diplomats, the wife of President Laurent Gbagbo recently bought shares in two expanding Abidjan-based security groups, Omeifra and Vigassistance.

As well as the growth in private security firms, Gbagbo announced in July, the creation of a new special rapid intervention force to combat the “insupportable” levels of insecurity in the city.

Upon the announcement, many Abidjan residents feared the new unit, known as CECOS (Command Center for Security Operations), would become an instrument of state repression.

In October, CECOS-chief Colonel Guiai Bi Poin said that after two months of operations, crime levels had been reduced.

The rapid intervention force killed 14 bandits and arrested 119, including two members of a pro-government militia based in the west of the country, according to Guiai Bi Poin.

“We’re waging a permanent war against the forces of evil,” he told reporters, though he acknowledged that his team are no strangers to bad behaviour either.

In total, 117 CECOS personnel have been dismissed for violation of instructions, causing injuries with rifle butts or downright extortion.

Some have guardedly welcomed the CECOS initiative nonetheless, saying that the police is just not up to the task of protecting ordinary citizens.

“I think we should have confidence in them. But we would like to see even more of them, because that would reassure us,” said security agent Francois Gomis.

Gomis is right to seek reassurance, as even security companies such as his are preyed upon by the armed robbers.

Last week, in broad daylight, three thugs armed with AK-47s broke into Vigassistance and robbed the chief accountant of 30 million CFA (US $54,000) upon his return from the bank.