Is Ivory Coast zeal to prosecute former bad guys setting up war in West Africa?

Strongman Laurent Gbagbo is gone, facing a war crimes trial. But is the new president ignoring the reconciliation needed for a lasting peace?

Rebecca Blackwell/AP/File
Soldiers allied with President Alassane Ouattara walk through a deserted remote campsite along the forest track leading from Blolequin, Ivory Coast toward western Ivory's Coast border with Liberia, June 2011. Three prominent former supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo were extradited swiftly to Ivory Coast to face trial in a court presided over by the government of President Ouattara.

These days, Noel Evrard tries not to sleep in the same place for too long. He goes out less. He minds who he calls and who he talks to. When he meets people, he makes sure someone knows where he’s going and who he is visiting. 

Mr. Evrard, an ex-campaigner for deposed Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, has good reason to keep an eye on his back, even here in the capital of nearby Ghana, where he is in exile.

Over the last two months, Ghanaian authorities have pounced on three prominent former supporters of Mr. Gbagbo, including former youth leader Charles Blé Goudé, accused of running a deadly Ivory Coast youth militia. 

All three figures were extradited swiftly to Ivory Coast to face trial in a court presided over by the government of President Alasaane Ouattara, who replaced Gbagbo.

“We think that Ouattara has people ready to go at any time to catch you and take you to Cote d’Ivoire,” Evrard says, using the French name for the West African state. “We think that they know us. They know maybe where we live. We think we are not in security.”

President Ouattara inherited a nation divided between his supporters and those of Gbagbo, whose refusal to accept the results of the 2010 presidential election led to a short civil war that killed 3,000, and a brief, high-profile French military intervention that led to the strongman’s departure.

Gbagbo now awaits trial on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). His former budget minister is fighting extradition from Ghana to Ivory Coast on one of many arrest warrants issued for the former president’s officials.

But human rights groups say the military and loosely affiliate militias that support Ouattara have engaged in a dragnet-style crackdown against suspected militants in Ivory Coast, and were also involved in brutal attacks in the country’s western region.

The reports raise questions about whether Ouattara’s regime can heal the rifts that have torn apart one of the region’s most vibrant economies, a success-story for years, and the world's No. 1 exporter of cocoa.

A lack of accountability for both sides in Ivory Coast’s civil war could undermine Ouattara’s legitimacy, sidetrack the reconciliation process, and potentially lead to another war in a country struggling with intermittent armed conflict for more than a decade.

“Mr. Blé Goudé, Mr.Gbagbo, they did for sure nasty things. But it’s only half of the story,” says Rinaldo Depagne, a senior West African analyst based in London with the International Crisis Group.  

An Amnesty International report in late February laid out allegations of murder and beatings by a government-allied militia during an attack on a refugee camp last year.

And a November Human Rights Watch report said that after a series of attacks on government targets last August and September, security forces detained dozens of young men in neighborhoods in Abidjan, subjected them to cruel treatment without any charges, and only released them after getting paid.

The Ivorian Minister of Human Rights and Public Liberties wrote in response to HRW's report that the arrests were targeted operations against people suspected of "coldly" killing Ivorian soldiers, ditching their weapons and melting back into Abidjan's neighborhoods.

"[The arrests] are based on a body of evidence and often denunciations," the ministry wrote. "They were well targeted and not massive."

"Things have changed since then, says Matt Wells, a Human Rights Watch researcher who just returned from a month-long trip to the country.“The general human rights situation in terms of the severity and the number of abuses are definitely down,” Mr. Wells says.

“It remains a question, are they down because of a true change in … the military or are they down because there haven’t been any security threats like what happened in August?”

Either way, those who carried out the torture and detention still haven’t been held to account, Wells says.

Perhaps the reason is because taking on the rebel forces who chased Gbagbo out of power would come with its own risks, says Scott Strauss, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“[Ouattara] depended on them for coming to power and keeps depending on them for security. So Ouattara is in a bind,” Mr. Strauss says. “I think he probably understands the importance of having accountability of all sides, but he feels vulnerable.”

Gbagbo’s supporters also have plenty to answer for, Mr. Depagne says.

As leader of a militia group known as the “Young Patriots,” Mr. Blé Goudé, the youth leader, was instrumental in stoking anti-foreigner sentiment in the country, turning militias against people from the country’s northern half and immigrants from surrounding West African countries – both groups seen as supporting Ouattara.

In Gbagbo’s final days, the Young Patriots set up roadblocks, and persons labeled or seen to be foreign were often beaten or killed. Methods included the infamous “necklacing,” burning victims to death with gasoline-soaked car tires around the neck, according to evidence in a Human Rights Watch account. Blé Goudé later went into hiding.

But in January he was caught in Ghana, and authorities there also arrested former gendarme head Jean-Noel Abehi and, in early February, student union leader Jean-Yves Dibopieuin.

“Part of the population sees those people, especially Blé Goudé, responsible for very, very serious violence,” Depargne says. “And this part of the population will be probably happy to see him in front of the court.”

But reconciliation requires justice for the winners as well as the losers, Mr. Strauss said.

“There’s a large middle in Cote d’Ivoire that I think is persuadable, that looks at the current situation and asks if this is really different than what we had before,” Strauss said. “Has the music just changed and the dance is still the same? I don’t think Ouattara’s convinced people.”

Evrard, the former Gbagbo campaigner, remains unconvinced, and related a story of his brother being detained and beaten for five days in Ivory Coast during last year's crackdown. 

“He has not forgot, he thinks about it a lot,” Evrard says. “We cannot accept reconciliation when our children are in prison.”

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