Bringing war criminals to justice is a cornerstone for building reconciliation and stability in countries emerging from armed conflict. But in Côte d'Ivoire, six years of trials involving 83 suspects have left many people bitter and pessimistic, just as the country starts to gear up for pivotal 2020 elections.
Some 3,000 people were killed in post-election violence after Laurent Gbagbo, in power since 2000, refused to concede defeat to Alassane Ouattara in the December 2010 presidential election. Ouattara, who had headed a rebellion that controlled the north of the country since 2002, has been the country’s head of state since April 2011.
A final cluster of verdicts, delivered mid-January, brought to 588 the total years of jail terms handed down to people implicated in the unrest. Yet all the convictions have involved people in the Gbagbo camp.
They include former first lady Simone Gbagbo – jailed in 2015 for 20 years for attacks against the state, insurrection, and undermining public order – and Gbagbo himself, found guilty of looting the Central Bank of West African States and several commercial banks in 2010.
Gbagbo was tried in absentia. Since his April 2011 arrest by French forces he has been detained by the International Criminal Court in the Hague on charges of crimes against humanity. For the looting, the former president and three former ministers were sentenced last month to 20 years in jail and ordered to pay some 329 billion CFA francs (about $660 million) in damages and interest.
Watch: The unrest of 2010-11 from the IRIN archive
In a country still bitterly divided on the political front and prone to sporadic army mutinies as well as outbreaks of violence, perceptions of one-sided courts serve as an unwelcome destabilising factor, analysts and observers say.
“From the moment we had selective justice after the post-election crisis, the entire process towards real peace in Côte d’Ivoire was flawed,” said Aboudramane Bamba, a political analyst who teaches law at a private university in Abidjan.
“Judges have been endlessly convicting to keep the government happy. But they haven’t realised that they have distanced the country from reconciliation by pushing it further into uncertainty, which could reignite the same problems we’ve had in the past,” he warned.
Accusations of wrongdoing go both ways.
“Judges have been endlessly convicting to keep the government happy. But they haven’t realised that they have distanced the country from reconciliation."
In the wake of the 2010-11 violence, the National Commission of Inquiry said Ouattara’s forces had been responsible for 727 deaths and that Gbagbo’s troops had killed 1,452 people.
International human rights groups and the UN put the death toll much higher. In a single day in late March 2011, Ouattara’s forces allegedly massacred 800 civilians in the western town of Duékoué. Around the same time, they also executed Gbagbo supporters in Yopougon, a district of Abidjan.
“Same old bitterness”
Simone Gbagbo’s March 2017 acquittal on further charges of crimes against humanity – two years after her earlier conviction and sentencing – is seen as a missed opportunity for President Ouattara to have made a powerful gesture by releasing all political prisoners.
“He did not seize the moment,” said Bamba. “Since then, it’s been the same old bitterness among Ivorians.”
Danielle Boni-Claverie, who heads the opposition Union Républicaine pour la Démocratie party, echoed these concerns.
“Seven years after Mr Ouattara came to power, the two camps are still facing off in this country… whereas there should only be one camp: reconciled Ivorians,” she said at news conference in early January.
“It’s proof that reconciliation has not been effective until now. The government has not shown itself willing to find sincere and calming solutions so that a climate of confidence takes root among Ivorians.”
Promotion, not prosecution
Touré Mamadou, spokesman and deputy secretary-general of the ruling Rassemblement des Républicains party, told IRIN that Ouattara had worked hard to foster “reconciliation and dialogue with the opposition”, and called for justice to be allowed to take its natural course.
“There is a process of normalisation, and the courts are doing their job,” he said. “They should be left to do so in total independence.”
But this is not how things are viewed by the other side.
In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, the opposition’s hopes for some judicial balance were raised when four former commanders of pro-Ouattara forces now serving in the army were charged with atrocities and war crimes. They included Losséni Fofana, who is alleged to have led the notorious March 2011 attack on Duékoué.
Not only did the case never go to trial, but in December 2017 the four were promoted to senior army ranks and given important command posts.
"There should only be one camp: reconciled Ivorians"
“It’s an attitude that threatens the rule of law,” Israël Yoroba, who heads Action Pour la Protection et la Défense des Droits de l’Homme, a human rights NGO, told IRIN.“The judicial system is an important part of the reconciliation process. But again we are wondering why it is not taking the trouble to do its work.”
Losing faith in the courts, some Ivorians are also growing increasingly frustrated with a civil society they feel has become largely impotent after losing several senior figures to government jobs.
“Seeing that the opposition has given up, our civil society could have stood up to the government to demand equitable justice or at least call for a general amnesty. Unfortunately, it is silent and cannot mount any kind of fight,” said Timothée Trazié, a civil servant.“We don’t have an independent justice system; we don’t have a credible opposition; and we don’t have a strong civil society. Two years ahead of the next presidential election, we’re up against a brick wall.”
(TOP PHOTO: A photo of former president Laurent Gbagbo's arrest in 2011. CREDIT: Maxence Peniguet/RNW)