Côte d’Ivoire’s recent turbulence - including the ouster of president Henri Konan Bédié in 1999, a long-running insurgency and deadly poll unrest in 2011 - has left the country awash in arms, which have contributed to human rights abuses, widespread crime and persistent insecurity.
Two years after coming to power in 2000, Laurent Gbagbo’s administration faced an army mutiny, which morphed into a full-scale rebellion. In response, the government underwent a “frenzied arms-acquisition programme”, Amnesty International said in a recent report.
Angola, China, Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Israel sold weapons to the Ivoirian government between 2002 and 2003, according to the report. A 2004 UN arms embargo did little to halt the flow of weapons into the country, according to Salvatore Sagues, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher.
“Arms continued to be delivered to pro-Gbagbo forces during the 2011 post-election crisis,” Sagues told IRIN. “This shows that even a UN arms embargo is not enough to stop the illegal trade of weapons.”
Arms acquisition by the New Forces rebels, who controlled Côte d’Ivoire’s north between 2002 and 2009, is harder to trace, as most of their weapons are unregistered. Still, they are known to have used a range of Chinese, Polish and Russian assault rifles, Amnesty said.
It is unclear how many arms are in circulation in Côte d’Ivoire, said Désiré Adjoussou, the head of the National Commission to fight against the Proliferation and Illegal Circulation of Small Arms (ComNat).
“These weapons are held illegally. They are easy to disassemble, hide and transport around,” said Adjoussou.
Arms in the 2011 crisis
During the post-election conflict, in which some 3,000 people were killed, weapons were looted from police stations and army barracks, contributing to the wide circulation of arms in the country.
Since the crisis, the country has been rocked by several armed attacks, which President Alassane Ouattara’s administration blames on supporters of his election opponent, Gbagbo.
Military bases, police stations and other targets came under attack in late 2012, both in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and in other regions. Those attacks, purportedly by supporters of Gbagbo, led to a government crackdown and alleged human rights abuses.
Côte d’Ivoire’s western region also remains a tinderbox of ethnic-driven political rivalry and intractable land disputes. In March, at least 14 people were killed in raids near the Liberian border over the long-standing land and ethnic conflict.
“Many people are armed in the west of the country, especially the dangerous dozos,” said Sagues, referring to a group of traditional hunters who fought alongside Ouattara’s forces during the post-election crisis.
“They have traditional arms and AK-47 supplied by the authorities, and they use them to make arbitrary arrest or extort money,” said Sagues. In a February report, Amnesty International described the dozos as “a militia supported by the state.”
“There is a huge trafficking of arms and munitions in towns, villages … which goes on at times with the complicity of some security forces members,” said a recent ComNat report, referring to western Côte d’Ivoire.
The ComNat report said that “during the post-election crisis, everybody sought to protect him or herself and so everyone was armed. Weapons are now easily available, and acquiring one is simple.”
In Abidjan a firearm can be bought for between 30,000 and 50,000 CFA francs (US$60-100). In the country’s restive western region, an automatic pistol costs 10,000 francs ($20) and an AK-47 goes for 20,000 francs ($40), according to ComNat.
“There is a climate of fear that is pushing some people to withhold their weapons in case they would need to defend themselves,” Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa researcher for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN.
A former pro-Gbagbo fighter, who gave his name only as Noël, told IRIN that many ex-combatants are not yet ready to give up their arms because they are wary of the government, which has made several demands for general weapons surrender.
“They doubt [the government]. Their weapons are what reassure them, and they prefer to keep them close,” said Noël, explaining that he has buried his four firearms somewhere near his house in Abidjan.
“Many [of Gbagbo’s former fighters] say that if they show up to hand over their weapons, something may happen to them,” he added.
Disarmament efforts since the poll violence have so far borne few results. Some 2,800 people have surrendered weapons, around 1,900 different types of firearms and 1,850 grenades have been collected, said ComNat’s Adjoussou.
In a renewed push in 2012, the government formed the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Authority (ADDR), replacing six different disarmament bodies.
Some 64,500 ex-fighters are set to be disarmed, according to Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan, but the head of opposition group Lider, Mamadou Koulibaly, puts the figure at around 100,000.
Duncan also recently announced that 30,000 ex-combatants will be demobilized this year, with the majority set to be integrated in the private sector and others hired in the customs department or as prison guards.
Adjoussou said that some people have turned to theft with their weapons to survive.
“Disarmament cannot work until unemployment is tackled,” he said. He also urged the lifting of the arms embargo to enable the government deal with the insecurity. “How can we ensure security of the people and property with bare hands?”
In a January report, Doudou Diene, a UN independent expert and human rights specialist, also argued that Côte d’Ivoire’s insecurity warranted the lifting of the arms embargo.
“The fact that the security situation is weakened by the rise of a culture of violence and by repeated attempts to destabilize state security is justification for lifting the embargo and providing technical reinforcement to state security agencies on an urgent basis,” he said in the report.
But ICG’s Depagne warned, “Côte d’Ivoire still has a weak arms control mechanism to regulate new imports of weapons.”