After recent attacks in Côte d’Ivoire’s volatile western region in which more than a dozen people were killed, the authorities announced new security measures, but observers say more than a military response is required.
In the latest spate of armed raids in March, at least 14 civilians and soldiers were killed. The region saw some of the worst fighting during the country’s 2010-2011 post-election conflict. In 2012, at least 10 civilians and seven UN peacekeepers were killed. Weeks later gunmen raided and torched the last remaining internally displaced persons (IDP) camp hosting some 5,000 people.
At the start of 2012 there were 186,000 IDPs in Côte d’Ivoire, most of them in the country’s western region. An estimated 45,000 people remained displaced by the end of 2012.
Ethnic rivalries, and disputes over land that are worsened by political rivalry, have turned western Côte d’Ivoire into a tinderbox. Mistrust and enmity have often degenerated into violence. Greater efforts are needed to reconcile communities, restore confidence and address grievances, say observers.
“The government must fully appreciate this problem and bring a lasting solution,” Francis Niangoran, a lecturer at Abidjan’s Sainte-Marie Teaching Institute, told IRIN. “Aid groups are faced with recurrent population displacements, organizing their return, distributing relief aid - it’s a vicious circle.”
While on a visit to the west following the attacks, Interior and Security Minister Hamed Bakayoko announced an emergency security plan to bolster troop numbers, set up attack brigades and equip them with modern radios as well as build an additional police station.
“When you travel across the region, you see ill-equipped soldiers. They don’t even have radios. The telephone network is also unreliable and they cannot use their mobile phones,” said Séraphin Zégnan, who fled the western Petit Guiglo area to the commercial capital Abidjan after an attack in the area in 2012.
Army chief Soumaila Bakayoko, also visiting after the attacks, said a permanent military base would be set up in the region. In 2012, the government formed a 600-strong force to secure the western region. The force is backed by both the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire and the UN mission in neighbouring Liberia.
“The government has the will to end the instability in the west - only it seems to lack the military capacity to achieve that. The western region is a difficult zone to secure and there is need for better trained and better equipped troops,” said Rodrigue Koné of the Centre for Research and Action for Peace (CERAP), an Ivoirian organization.
Others are also sceptical about the military efforts.
“Moving from a security plan to an emergency security plan is to play with words rather than having a real will to resolve the problem. It is proof that the government is unable to contain the situation. It doesn’t know where and how to tackle the problem,” said Niangoran.
The Interior and the Defence Ministries declined to comment.
A matter of trust
Alexandre Neth Willy, secretary-general of the Ivoirian Human Rights League (LIDHO), told IRIN that the use of drones as recently requested by Côte d’Ivoire’s UN ambassador Bamba Youssoufou “will not be sufficient to solve the problem. The confrontations, recriminations and hatred are deeper [in the west] than in the rest of the country.
“On the one hand there’s a need to build confidence among the people themselves and on the other between the people and the army.”
CERAP’s Koné said: “Today the majority of the people in the west consider the army as the government’s militia. They have not overcome the events of the post-election crisis and the army has not been able to gain their confidence.”
He argued that the government should work to forge an army with a national outlook following the deep divisions caused by the post-election unrest.
Who are the gunmen?
Residents of the region - an area covering 73,000sqkm and home to nearly seven million people, or a third of the country’s population - say that apart from gunmen attacking from neighbouring Liberia, there are several armed groups operating inside the region with bases in the forests.
These militias fought for current President Alassane Ouattara during the violent dispute with his erstwhile election opponent Laurent Gbagbo, they say.
“The most famous of these armed groups is headed by Amadé Ourémi, a Burkinabé, who with his 1,000 fighters, is extending his area of operations without the slightest response from the authorities,” said Fabien Dotonin, an administrator in the western Duékoué District.
“The authorities in Abidjan make threatening statements about dislodging him. But once they come to the west, they neatly avoid talking about the problems caused by Ourémi or even meeting him, yet this is a typical case which if resolved will help a great deal in easing the security crisis,” he added.
Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan on 4 April said all those occupying government forests will be expelled by the army, but so far no action has been taken.