Awash in arms

While Ivorian politicians and the international community lament a lack of progress in disarmament and other aspects of the country’s peace accord, ordinary citizens are increasingly falling victim to violent crime in their daily activities.

In one incident in October, seven masked men, each carrying two AK-47s, held up market trucks in the northwest.

“They shot in the air and forced us off the trucks,” a woman merchant in the regional capital, Odienne, told IRIN. "Among them they had 14 Kalashnikovs." As citizens face criminals armed with AKs and even rocket launchers, few weapons have been rounded up in a disarmament process called for in the peace agreement signed more than eight months ago.

The merchant, who was afraid to give her name, was making her weekly run to the western town of Gbelegban to buy smoked fish and meat to sell in Odienne.

Such attacks are becoming increasingly common in the Odienne area, residents and aid workers told IRIN. Reports from the UN humanitarian office in Cote d’Ivoire regularly cite violent crimes throughout the country, including armed home invasions, highway robbery and rape.

“This is becoming more and more worrying,” Marc Sibiri, head of the Odienne office of the World Food Programme (WFP), said of recent attacks in the region. “This is the worst violent crime we’ve seen since the time of [the rebellion],” he said, referring to the 2002 uprising that split Cote d’Ivoire into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south.

In recent weeks, two trucks carrying WFP food were attacked by armed robbers. Sibiri said it would become more and more difficult for WFP to find drivers willing to take the risk.

UN sources and Odienne residents told IRIN some of the assailants – always masked and armed with AK-47 rifles – are thought to be frustrated ex-rebels.

“They have to live,” said one UN official on condition of anonymity, “one way or another.”

How to disarm and demobilise the ex-rebels – known as “Forces Nouvelles” – and pro-government militia remains one of the greatest sticking points in Cote d’Ivoire’s peace efforts. But observers say many factors feed the lawlessness.

“Disarmament is something that could help bring such things under control,” said Daniel Balint-Kurti, West Africa researcher with the London-based think tank, Chatham House. “But it’s more a result of an awful lot of weapons, a lot of poor, angry men and a lack of law and order.”

The lack of law and order is something Odienne merchants recently brought to the region’s Forces Nouvelles (FN) leader, who – despite the gradual reinstallation of local government officials – remains the authority.

“The prefect and the deputy prefect are here,” Odienne Mayor Amidou Kourouma told IRIN. “But they don’t yet have their normal administrative power, so we still have to deal with the Forces Nouvelles.”

''...It's just so difficult to earn any money, and these criminals come and strip it all away...''

A group of women merchants recently went to see Odienne’s FN commander, who goes by the name Bin Laden.

“We told him to do something about the banditry – we’ve had it.” She added, “The roads here – it’s just impossible. This is just too painful for us. It’s just so difficult to earn any money, and these criminals come and strip it all away.”

She said women market vendors and other residents in Odienne are considering marching to protest the violence. But some are against the idea: “They are afraid that if we march the assailants will come and kill us.”

In a recent report, a UN panel of experts said untraced weapons in Cote d’Ivoire “remain a matter of concern” and called illegal arms trafficking in the region “a worrying phenomenon”.

The panel said recent arms-burning ceremonies touted as the beginnings of disarmament needed further investigation, “given the great quantity of working weapons that are known to have disappeared and the threat that they represent”.

np/nr/mw