ABIDJAN, 21 December 2010 (IRIN) – Gunshots at night, beatings, unexplained disappearances of ordinary civilians and makeshift barriers around homes have become commonplace in Côte d’Ivoire’s main city, Abidjan, in the chaotic aftermath of the presidential election. As violence threatens to spiral, Ivoirians say ethnic and regional divisions are sharper than ever.
Both the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara – a northerner – have claimed victory in the 28 November presidential run-off. Independent electoral commission results put Ouattara as the victor, but the Gbagbo camp rejected that, threw out poll results in seven northern departments – alleging mass fraud – and said the incumbent had won. The third main candidate, former president Henri Konan Bédié, a Baoulé, from central Côte d’Ivoire, has backed Ouattara.
Hopes of a dialogue between the protagonists rapidly vanished and a period of diplomacy gave way to armed confrontation. International support for Ouattara and calls by the UN, African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union and the USA for Gbagbo to go seem only to have made the veteran opposition leader-turned-president more determined to stay in power. The political deadlock has been accompanied by outbreaks of serious violence.
With the army backing Gbagbo, people of northern ethnic groups say they have been the target of harassment by security forces, pro-Gbagbo youths and Liberian and Angolan mercenaries, who they say carry out random beatings, home invasions and illegal detentions throughout Abidjan’s ethnically-mixed neighbourhoods.
The support base for former prime minister Ouattara – who was long barred from running for president over allegations he did not fill the eligibility requirement of two Ivoirian parents – is drawn significantly from the north, where many are descendants of people in neighbouring countries. Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict erupted when northerner soldiers staged a rebellion in 2002, saying northerners faced discrimination. Since then the north has been controlled by these soldiers.
“The current violence against northerners harks back to the early 2002 conflict and it shows the main fault line around citizenship and Ivoirité [the state of being pure Ivoirian] hasn’t been resolved,” Eurasia Group analyst Anne Frühauf told IRIN.
In campaigning, Gbagbo supporters regularly referred to Ouattara and his camp as “foreigners”, and Gbagbo accused Ouattara of leading the rebellion; a pro-Gbagbo newspaper ran the headline, “The democrat versus the putschist”.
Presidential elections had been repeatedly scheduled and cancelled since 2005, when Gbagbo’s first term should have ended. Voter registration efforts in the country of more than 60 ethnic groups were repeatedly interrupted by pro-Gbagbo youth, some charging that Malians and Burkinabé were registering to vote.
Harassment of UN personnel?
The UN says at least 50 people have been killed since the election, with hundreds injured or kidnapped.
UN Special Representative for the Secretary-General Y.J. Choi told reporters that since 18 December, when Gbagbo called for the departure of UN and French troops, Gbagbo’s camp has been harassing UN personnel. “[They have been] sending armed young men to the homes of some UN staff, knocking at the door and asking them their departure date or entering their residences under the pretext of looking for weapons,” Choi said. “Their preferred time for such visits so far has been during the night.”
Gbagbo’s interior minister, Émile Guiriéoulou, has said the Gbagbo government refuses to collaborate with the “partisan” UN operation.
IRIN spoke to some people in Abidjan who say they have witnessed or experienced attacks:
Father of three, Abobo District: “Last night we heard a burst of gunfire and then screaming. The noise was horrible, just wailing, and the gunfire. We huddled in our room and prayed nothing would happen to us. In the morning, a neighbour told us her son had been taken away. There was blood outside their house.”
Keïta*, 29, Yopougon District: “I was walking home at around 9pm on 19 December – that’s three hours before the curfew. Three soldiers stopped me and asked me for money.
“I told them, ‘Who’s got any money these days? I don’t have any money.’ Then they asked for my ID. When they saw my name, Keïta, they shoved me to the ground and jumped on me, pressing my face against the ground. A man who was passing by asked what the problem was. They [the soldiers] said I am a Keïta, I am among the rebels – among those who brought the country to war. The man asked them, ‘Was he armed?’ They shouted, ‘Oh – now you’re going to tell us how to do our job’ and went after him. That’s when I was able to run away.
“In my neighbourhood I am surrounded by people of Gbagbo’s party. So when they asked me why my face was banged up, I said I had had a motorbike accident. I did not want to call attention to what happened – that would just provoke questions and more trouble. I am in a hurry to move to another neighbourhood, where I’ll be with other Dioula [word used for Ivoirian northerners who speak the Dioula language]; I do not feel safe at all. We don’t know how things are going to evolve so it’s better to be among your own… People are building barriers around their homes because of the night-time invasions.
“Even in the office – people who’ve been friends for years no longer say hello to one another. In this post-election conflict, people are showing their true positions. A Bété [Gbagbo’s ethnic group] said to me: ‘You’ll see. We’re going to kill you’.
“It’s as if we are being forced to rebel, even if that was not our wish for this country.”
Anonymous, 33: “I live in Yopougon and since this trouble started, every single night we hear heavy shooting in a nearby forested area.
“I am a technician and one evening I got a call to come and do a repair. Some armed men stopped me and asked me why I was out. They wore camouflage pants and green T-shirts; some of them were masked. I don’t know whether they were real military; in any case they were speaking French and Nouchi [slang widely used in Abidjan]. I tried to explain to them where I was going and why, and gave them the number of the place so they could verify. But they weren’t hearing any of it. They searched my pockets and took my cell phone. They saw my name on my ID card. One of them gave me a heavy blow to the chest with his gun. They shoved me in a vehicle, saying, ‘You damned Dioula – you’ll see. Dioula will not govern this country’.
“They picked up other people along the way, including two young women. [He said the women were later put in a separate vehicle.] At one point the men bound our eyes and stripped us down to our underwear or naked. They took us to a field about 200-300m from a main road; we sat on the ground while they interrogated us: ‘Where are you from? Where are your parents?’ They called some of the people’s families and asked for ransom.
“Hours later they finally let us leave, warning us to ‘watch out’. I still have some marks from the beating. I wish I could file a complaint, but I wouldn’t know which police station would help me.”
*not his real name