Infighting Threatens Ivory Coast's Path To Peace
Ivory Coast is struggling to get back on its feet after a five-month presidential tug-of-war that claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than a million people.
But there's possibly more trouble brewing for the incoming president, Alassane Ouattara, with infighting among former rebels who propelled him to power.
Ouattara ordered militiamen to lay down their weapons and combat units from all sides of the conflict back to barracks on Friday. Ouattara says his top priority is to restore security after weeks of fierce fighting in the commercial capital, Abidjan, and that the regular and paramilitary police gendarmerie should take over patrolling the streets to stop looting and extortion.
All sides to the bloody conflict are accused of human rights violations and atrocities, as well as targeting civilians. Some may face local prosecution or international justice.
Ivory Coast's incoming president said fighting was over and the war had ended as he gathered together security chiefs and former rebel commanders. He instructed them to pacify the West African nation following deadly clashes between the rival armed forces and warned that those who do not disarm will be forced to do so.
But clearing a city awash with weapons and fighters, where pockets of violent resistance remain, and holding together a fractured military alliance is a tough challenge. In addition, Ouattara faces a battle for power among the troops who helped dislodge disgraced former President Laurent Gbagbo.
A Renegade General
In Abidjan's volatile Abobo suburb, local residents thank Ibrahim Coulibaly for protecting their neighborhood. He's a renegade, self-styled general who says he's the head of the militia called the Invisible Commando.
Coulibaly, who goes by the initials IB, is an imposing, bearded figure in fatigues and a red beret. Coulibaly defended the pro-Ouattara stronghold in the north of Abidjan, and first began the battle for control of the city on behalf of the incoming president.
Speaking to NPR, Coulibaly called for national reconciliation and pledged his allegiance to Ouattara, the commander in chief, who he says is a father figure dating back to the 1990s. Ouattara was then prime minister and Coulibaly was his wife's bodyguard.
But Coulibaly's rogue unit is made up of irregular soldiers. They fought against Gbagbo's forces, but have not joined the newly renamed army, the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast.
On Friday, Ouattara mentioned Coulibaly by name in his warning.
"I ask all the militia leaders, and Commander Ibrahim Coulibaly, to lay down their arms," Ouattara told former rebel commanders who fought for him and the generals from Gbagbo's disgraced army who turned their heavy weapons, including rockets and mortars, on civilians.
"If that does not happen," warned Ouattara, "your role will be to disarm them by force."
Coulibaly has indicated that he supports Ouattara and wants his forces incorporated into a unified national army. It's not clear whether that option is on offer.
Coulibaly says he's waiting for an audience with Ouattara to discuss these matters.
On Wednesday evening, terrified Abobo residents reported the ring of renewed heavy weapons fire. Analysts conclude these gunbattles were fueled by animosity between Coulibaly and Ivory Coast's prime minister, Guillaume Soro, who also serves as Ouattara's defense minister.
A spokesman for Soro, Meite Sindou, says Coulibaly's forces, based in their Abobo headquarters, are acting against the law, because no soldiers other than those of the national army should be manning positions or checkpoints.
Soro and Coulibaly have been rivals since the two fought for the rebel leadership in 2004 at the end of a civil war that split Ivory Coast in two. Coulibaly lost that bitter battle. In the recently ended struggle for power, it was Soro's military allies who swept into Abidjan and drove Gbagbo out of the presidential bunker, with U.N. and French help.
Ouattara hopes to focus on rebuilding Ivory Coast's crippled cocoa, coffee and oil-based economy and getting the world's top cocoa grower back to work. But he will likely be bogged down, battling to resolve lingering security problems.
Military infighting aside, Abidjan is witnessing, for the very first time, young and heavily armed soldier-fighters zooming around this lagoon-side city in vehicles they have commandeered, bristling with weapons and what appear to be looted goods.
Observers warn that unless the former rebel commanders rein in their men, peace may be a long time coming.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.