THE one thing that proud Ivorians can agree on is that there was no civil war last year. Francophone Africa’s foremost country does not have such things. Instead, politicians, soldiers and civilians claim that they merely endured a crise post-électorale.
After his defeat at the ballot box in November 2010, President Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave gracefully and retreated to his palace. Winkling him out over the next four months required mortar duels, tank battles and barrages from helicopter gunships. More than 3,000 people died; a million fled their homes. The financial system collapsed as armed groups swarmed across the country. This capped a decade during which Côte d’Ivoire was cut in half, following an earlier rebellion. The UN patrolled a buffer zone that became a no-man’s land. But, absolument, it was no more than a passing hiccup.
Ivorians may be forgiven their euphemisms. Their country was once the all-round best run in west Africa. And now, on the first anniversary of the presidential inauguration of Alassane Ouattara, the 2010 election winner, things are looking up. Côte d’Ivoire’s two halves have been reconnected; public administration has returned to the rebellious north. Cocoa producers need no longer export via neighbouring countries. Roads in Abidjan, the commercial capital and de facto seat of government, have been repaired; rubbish is being collected again. The finance ministry’s windows were recently cleaned for the first time since 2007. The economy is growing at a jolly 8% and tax revenue has shot up. Overdue reforms, such as raising the retirement age, are being tackled. Funds are pouring into new infrastructure.
Mr Ouattara, a former IMF man, is doing what he knows best: imposing much-needed discipline. Once terrible timekeepers, his civil servants are made to turn up for work at 7.30 every morning. As proof of the president’s effectiveness, Abidjan’s traffic starts jamming up a lot earlier than before. Africa’s wars rarely produce good peacetime leaders, but Mr Ouattara may be an exception.
Still, pity the man who little more than a year ago strode out of Abidjan’s Golf Hotel after a long siege by government militias, vowing to bring peace to his people. Violence persists. Fear still stalks the countryside. Few dare venture out at night. Even in daylight drivers speed anxiously through trouble-spots such as Bangolo, a day’s drive west of Abidjan. “They shoot out the tyres to stop you,” says an official in nearby Man. “They” refers to ex-combatants with guns who have taken to fleecing travellers, either in ambushes or more brazenly at checkpoints. Lorries pay them $20 for a safe passage of 30km (19 miles).
The culprits come from both sides. In Duékoué people fear the president’s supporters, who massacred 800 locals there in early 2011. The priest at a Catholic mission says things got calmer late last year, but have worsened again. Further south, several thousand fighters carry out deadly raids from across the border with Liberia. These are former government soldiers who have become rebels, nicknamed “so-bels” by UN types. More than 4,000 displaced farmers in a nearby camp dare not return home. “People in the villages still get taken away,” says one.
The root of the problem is political. The new rulers do not trust the police force that was trained in the Gbagbo era, so they have disarmed it. A gendarme in Man says, “I have only this,” and throws a few punches. His 40 colleagues have three guns between them; the town’s 200 regular police have no guns at all. Nominally the peace is kept by 400 armed soldiers, many of them ex-militiamen. They are the only ones trusted by the new rulers. A policeman in a Heckler & Koch T-shirt says, “If I had a gun, they would arrest me.”
The entire security sector needs overhauling, but so far the government’s efforts have been hamfisted. Tens of thousands of former pro-Ouattara rebels were pushed willy-nilly into the regular army, which has grown to somewhere between 40,000 and 110,000 men: nobody knows the exact number. Integration is snared in bureaucracy. Every ministry has a finger in the lucrative security pie.
Meanwhile, members of the old officer class are appalled at being squeezed out of air-conditioned barracks by men they consider thieves. The rank-and-file occasionally fight among themselves. Mr Ouattara has made himself defence minister to sort out the mess. But he has also chosen to head the 15-country Economic Community of West African States, better known as ECOWAS, the main regional mediating club. After recent coups in neighbouring Mali and nearby Guinea-Bissau, the 70-year-old is often too busy or tired to deal with security at home, where a rough balance of forces makes an Ivorian coup unlikely, at least in the short run.
On top of such worries, Côte d’Ivoire is struggling to deal with past atrocities. All sides demand justice and talk of reconciliation. With much fanfare, the government has set up a truth commission; yet it lacks momentum and political legitimacy. Many see the former prime minister who has been put in charge as partisan. The government’s focus so far has been on prosecution rather than reconciliation. Mr Gbagbo has been sent to the International Criminal Court, and many of his men are in prison, but not a single pro-Ouattara rebel has been indicted, though both sides fought dirty. This smacks of victor’s justice.
Mr Ouattara may have had no choice. He made a deal with the devil last year when he recruited the rebels of the Forces Nouvelles, who were allied to other shady armed groups, to eject his predecessor. Now it is payback time. Guillaume Soro, the leader of the Forces, has become parliament’s speaker. His commanders still control swathes of the countryside and extract rent. Since they are heavily armed, the official army dare not confront them. And in many cases they are indeed the army.
The legal opposition, inside and outside parliament, is doing its best to impede the president. Parts of the old regime are regrouping beyond the country’s borders, and talk of fighting another day. The rest refuse to engage in politics and have rejected offers to join the government. The old ruling party boycotted a general election in December. So the government controls 88% of the seats, with the result that a good third of Ivorians are unrepresented. A new opposition party, Liberty and Democracy for the Republic (known as LIDER), looks promising, but got few votes.
Mr Ouattara can still be hopeful. Most of the violence is criminal, not political. Many of his countrymen are tired of fighting. A civil war is unlikely to erupt soon. The opposition is weak militarily. But that could change. The president must keep moving fast before another crise looms.