Rebellion in Côte d’Ivoire

Solving the Ivorian Puzzle

French soldier in Cote d'Ivoire
A French legionnaire patrols the road to Man, near Duekoue, northern Côte d’Ivoire, Dec. 24, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Despite the hope raised by the diplomatic efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to resolve the ongoing crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, and despite a cease-fire signed on Oct. 17, 2002, and subsequent peace talks in Lomé, Togo, the situation in this Western African nation is getting more complex daily. Formerly considered an oasis of peace in turbulent West Africa, Côte d’Ivoire has slipped into a spiral of violence and anarchy similar to the ones in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.

When the rebellion started on Sept. 19, 2002, nobody on either side believed that it would get this complicated. The trouble began when a group of soldiers recruited and trained during the 1999-2000 military dictatorship of Gen. Robert Gueï protested having been demobilized by the current president, Laurent Gbagbo. But it wasn’t long before the mutiny escalated into a full-fledged conflict between rebels and troops loyal to the government.

After seizing the government’s major arsenal at the Bouaké military base in the center of the country, the rebels were better armed than their loyalist counterparts. Having been part of the Ivorian army and knowing its logistical weaknesses, the rebels who stormed Abidjan on Sept. 19 thought they could take over the capital city in just 24 hours. To their surprise, though, they met significant resistance from loyalist forces.

Likewise, having crushed several armed uprisings since early 2001, the Ivorian government was initially unperturbed. From the beginning, it handled the crisis as just another attempted coup that would soon be crushed. This nonchalant attitude was portrayed in President Gbagbo’s Sept. 21 state address on his return from a state visit to Italy, in which he instructed his fellow Ivorians: “Be calm. This is just another coup d’état; we know who sent them and we will get rid of these boys in the next 24 hours.” Gbagbo spoke too soon, however: Within days, the government was caught off guard by the firepower, financial strength, and determination of the rebels.

Since then, the rebels’ tenacity has led the government to assert that the opposition forces have considerable international backing. While the government has refused to name any of the suspected backers, some Ivorian newspapers and analysts are tracing the rebels’ arms procurement to Libya via Burkina Faso, while others are linking the Aug. 27 robbery of 2 billion CFA francs (approximately US$3 million) from the West African Central Bank (BCEAO) in Abidjan to the rebels.

Many Ivorians believe that the main force backing the rebels is none other than the “Mother Nation”—a name given to Côte d’Ivoire’s former colonial master, France. “Paris can’t stand a leader who is not part of the establishment—a leader who is not a yes man. Resist, Gbagbo. We are behind you!” shouted Charles Blé Goudé, president of the Pan African Congress of  Young Patriots (COJEP)—an association of militant youth loyal to Gbagbo—during a conference in Abidjan. “If France wants this rebellion to stop tomorrow, they know who to talk to,” he concluded amid thunderous applause.

As if to confirm a political adage that says, “To prepare for peace, one must prepare for war,” the government and the rebels have been using the cease-fire period to buy arms and reorganize their troops. New Mi-24 combat helicopters can be seen hovering over the capital city and other government-controlled territories, and loyalist forces now patrol the streets with shining new pickup trucks fitted with cannons and automatic machine guns. “We were caught unawares by the rebels but are now ready for them,” said President Gbagbo in response to a call for resistance by COJEP.  The president, who has admitted buying arms and ammunition from a private arms dealer in Luanda, Angola, with the consent of the Angolan government, concluded, “We’ve found our bearings and we will defend the nation.”

But recapturing rebel-held areas is not going to be easy. A tour through the rebel-occupied northern territories, from Bouaké to Korhogo, reveals that the rebels are not cash-strapped and have no difficulty getting gasoline for their vehicles. Since the only supply route, through Abidjan, has been cut off since the beginning of the rebellion, there is ample speculation as to where the rebels’ supplies are coming from.

When they buy from the few functioning stores in the region, the rebels produce crisp, new bank notes. In one noted incident, a World Food Program depot was raided in Bouaké and more than 20 metric tons of rice was stolen by a group of rebels. When rebel spokesman Tuo Fozie was informed of the attack, he called the depot manager, apologized, and asked if he wanted to be paid in dollars or CFA francs. The bill was settled on the spot.

“We are aware that the government has been buying arms and is planning to attack our base through Ghana. We are ready for a total war,” said Soro Guillaume, secretary-general of the main rebel group, the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (MPCI), at a press conference in Lomé. Asked by journalists if his movement could withstand the firepower of the Ivorian government, he replied rhetorically, “You guys think we’ve been sleeping?”

Meanwhile, as the government and the MPCI continue hostilities, two new rebel groups announced their arrival by attacking cities in western Côte d’Ivoire. The Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) took the popular tourist town of Man, 450 kilometers northwest of Abidjan, and the Ivorian Popular Movement of the Great West (MPIGO) attacked Toulepleu and the city of Danané, 20 kilometers from the Liberian border. Both groups say they are avenging the death of Gen. Gueï and members of his family, who are believed to have been murdered by forces loyal to Gbagbo.

Joining MPCI in their conditions for the cessation of hostilities, MJP and MPIGO said they will continue fighting until the president resigns. They have promised to take Abidjan as soon as possible. Most of the new rebels are from the same ethnic group as Gen. Gueï, the Yacouba, though eyewitnesses in the newly captured towns have reported that some fighters have Liberian and Sierra Leonean accents. The Ivorian government has reacted by launching an offensive on the towns of Man and Danané, and closing the border between Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia.

But the government’s credibility suffered a fearsome blow at the beginning of December, when a mass grave was discovered in the village of Monoko-Zohi in western Côte d’Ivoire. According to eyewitness accounts, on Nov. 28-29, men in army uniforms, driving vehicles with government license plates, entered the village and killed an estimated 120 people after accusing them of sheltering rebels. The massacre was widely reported, and an Ivorian human-rights group asked the U.N. to send an international fact-finding mission to the area.

Despite the shadow cast on the government’s record by the reports of the massacre, thousands of young men responded to an army recruitment drive in December seeking 3,000 new troops to address the crisis. Under pressure from eager volunteers, officials raised the age limit from 26 to 30.

At the time of this writing, peace talks were at a standstill, and the chief mediator, Togo’s President Gnassingbé Eyadema, was threatening to pull out. In rebel-held areas, public services and businesses are closed, but even in government-controlled areas, businesses have been paralyzed and a dusk-to-dawn curfew has made life extremely difficult. As a result, even some former loyalists are beginning to pose a question that would have been unthinkable a few months ago: “Save Gbagbo or save the nation?”