After war, Ivory Coast struggles with reconciliation process

Ivory Coast set up a truth and reconciliation commission after a brief civil war two years ago. But rights activists say the new government is less interested in reconciliation than settling old scores.

By , Correspondent

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    Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara talks to the press after casting his vote in local elections, in the Cocody neighborhood of Abidjan, April 21. Around Abidjan, new roads are being built, the downtown is being revitalized and the African Development Bank, which fled in 2003 after rising violence, is planning to return.
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Taxis honk, hawkers shout, and pedestrians chatter, but the barren field cordoned off by a wall of sheet metal is easily missed in the bustle of Abidjan’s Abobo neighborhood.

As former President Laurent Gbagbo made his last stand two years ago, mortars rained down on a market that once stood on the field, killing 30 and wounding scores. A stronghold for the Alassane Ouattara, who would seize power after weeks of fighting, Abobo at the time was a violent place, riven with dueling militias that forced people to hide in their homes.

The market is gone now but the crude cordon remains as a fitting metaphor for Ivory Coast’s reconciliation process: out of sight and often out of mind amidst an economic revitalization that the government hopes will heal the divides caused by almost a decade of strife and division in the world’s largest cocoa producer.

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“It’s always impunity,” says Saleh Toure, a student who lives in Abobo and stayed through the crisis. “We have a kind of justice of winner’s still.”

Two years after former President Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power led to a brief civil war that killed over 3,000 people, Ivory Coast’s formal reconciliation process has been hobbled by an anemic commission and courts focused squarely on prosecuting supporters of the former regime.

President Ouattara, a former official with the International Monetary Fund, has hoped that putting the country’s fiscal house in order will bring the two sides together. But many worry Ouattara’s government will ignore victims and allow killers to stay free, a recipe that would keep the venom behind the country’s trouble potent.

Root causes

“The recent history of Cote d’Ivoire has shown that without addressing the root causes of conflict, issues of impunity, land rights, the broken justice system, conflict is likely to renew,” says Matt Wells, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, using the country’s French name. “Economic progress has been notable, but it will only be sustained if the root causes are addressed.”

Around Abidjan, new roads are being built, the downtown is being revitalized and the African Development Bank, which fled in 2003 after rising violence, is planning to return. The economy is indeed getting better: The IMF predicts a growth rate of 8 percent this year.

Ivory Coast set up the Commission for Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation shortly after the conflict ended. The commission received high-profile support in the form of international soccer star Didier Drogba and a two-year mandate to produce a report similar to those that came out in South Africa and Chile.

But the mandate expires in June, and the commission has done little during its existence, says a man who has worked with the commission in the past and asked not to be named.

“The report is not going to be based on anything like research or anything like statement-taking,” he says. “It’s going to be based on what the president wants. They have not done any statement-taking yet. They have not done any investigations.”

And the chairman of the commission, former prime minister Charles Konan Banny, has been accused of using the commission to further his own political aspirations.

“The head of the commission seems to have divided attention, focusing a bit more on his political future with an eye on the 2015 presidential election,” says Murtala Touray at IHS Global Insight, which conducts economic and political risk analysis. “The government seemed to be paying a lip service to the reconciliation process by providing the Commission a short mandate ... and inadequate financial and logistical support.”

Arrests

Instead, the Ouattara commission has carried out high-profile arrests of pro-Gbagbo supporters, though it did arrest the head of a pro-Ouattara militia that is accused of carrying out a massacre in the western city of Duékoué in May.

In the criminal courts, Mr. Wells says more than 150 charges have been filed against former Gbagbo officials, but none against backers of Ouattara.

In a vacuum of formal reconciliation, Ivorians are finding uneasy camaraderie with each other.

Before the crisis the Yopougon neighborhood had a reputation for nightlife and partying, something Francis Kone does his share of promoting from behind the bar he manages. Neighbors sit together on plastic chairs to talk over drinks, he says, even those on opposite edges of the very deep Ivorian political divide.

“The thing is, some people can talk to each other, but they might not be sincere,” Mr. Kone says. “They know that during the crisis they contributed to the loss of someone.”

A Gbagbo supporter himself, Kone fits in with most of the Yopougon neighborhood, which has been targeted, rights group say, for particularly heavy treatment under Ouattara’s regime because it is traditionally a stronghold for Gbagbo.

“When Gbagbo was here it was maybe difficult,” he says. “We still had some money circulating, and you had some money sometimes.”

Because of the crisis, Kone lost his job at a factory. The best President Ouattara can do for reconciliation, he says, is bring the jobs back.

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