Three years after bloody election violence in Ivory Coast, tension simmers

Since 2010, the country's politics has grown dangerously polarized. Is Ivory Coast's democratic future in jeopardy?

Luc Gnago/Reuters
A woman in Gbangbegouine village, western Ivory Coast wears a shirt proclaiming her support for the country's president, Alassane Ouattara, on July 4, 2013. Political conflict between supporters of Mr. Ouattara and former president Laurent Gbagbo continue to simmer three years after they faced off in elections here.

•A version of this post first appeared on the blog of the international NGO Freedom House. The views expressed are the authors' own. 

Côte d’Ivoire has yet to reckon with the crimes committed during the conflict that followed its November 2010 presidential election, in which 3,000 people were killed and more than 150 women were raped. Although the country has taken some steps to pursue justice since, they have been slow and largely ineffective.

The unresolved issues from the post-election period have contributed to countrywide political polarization and reduced faith in both the government and the electoral process. If these crimes are not addressed, the country’s prospects of becoming a successful democracy will be in jeopardy.
The root of these problems lies in the contested election of 2010 and the ensuing power struggle between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara. Following the vote, the Independent Electoral Commission proclaimed Mr. Ouattara the winner, and the special representative of the United Nations secretary general certified both that the electoral process met international standards for free and fair elections and that the results proclaimed by the electoral commission were indeed credible.

However, Mr. Gbagbo contested the results through the Constitutional Council, then chaired by one of his close associates. The council nullified the results in several electoral districts and proclaimed Gbagbo the winner, in violation of the electoral law. The move prompted a political crisis that soon transformed into violent conflict, pitting security forces and militias loyal to Gbagbo against former rebel forces that supported Ouattara.
After several months of fighting, and with the aid of UN and French forces, Gbagbo was arrested. During the conflict, numerous human rights abuses were allegedly committed by both sides, including murder, rape, and the torture of civilians.

In the aftermath, Ouattara declared that anyone found responsible for such crimes would be held accountable, pledging that reconciliation would be a priority of his administration. These commitments led to the formation of several institutions tasked with addressing past abuses. In 2011, the government established the National Commission of Inquiry, the Special Investigative Cell, and the National Commission on Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation.
The National Commission of Inquiry was created to document the specific events that had transpired during the conflict and identify people who would be subject to prosecution. Although it found evidence that both the pro-Ouattara forces and fighters loyal to Gbagbo were involved in numerous human rights abuses, criminal proceedings against the identified perpetrators have been painfully slow.
The Special Investigative Cell within the Ministry of Justice was charged with investigating attacks against state security, economic crimes, and violent crimes. Though the cell was designed as an impartial judicial body, expected to indict forces on both sides of the conflict, this balance has not been achieved. More than 150 Gbagbo supporters have been accused of crimes and arrested, but few from the Ouattara side have been similarly charged and detained, leading observers to point to the cell’s politicized leadership and a strong current of “victor’s justice.” In July 2013, the Indictment Chamber of the Abidjan Tribunal confirmed charges against 84 of Gbagbo’s close associates.
The National Commission on Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation was given a two-year mandate to “seek truth and determine where responsibilities lie regarding past and recent national socio-political events.” The commission has carried out little substantive work so far due to a lack of funds and institutional capacity, the tense political and security environment, and the questionable designation of a prominent political figure, Charles Konan Banny, as its leader.
Although the results of these three justice mechanisms have been disappointing to date, the broader effort to address past abuses features small but growing bright spots.
In May 2013, a warlord who fought with pro-Ouattara forces was arrested. While he was detained on the grounds that he was illegally living in a protected forest, he is accused by several domestic and international human rights groups of being responsible for the massacres of hundreds of people in western Côte d’Ivoire during and after the post-election crisis. Also in May, bodies from 57 mass graves across Abidjan were exhumed, and at least 36 of the sites contained bodies of people killed during the post-election violence. Separately, the Ivoirian government has announced plans to reform the justice system by 2015.
Although each of these constitute important incremental steps toward both transitional justice and a sustainable democracy, genuine progress and ultimate success depend in large part on a vigilant and engaged civil society. Independent civil society organizations can monitor official justice mechanisms to enhance their work, highlight their constraints, and serve as a check against abuses, bias, and negligence in the implementation of their mandates.

Civic groups can also contribute by conducting high-risk investigations to expose ongoing adverse actions by security forces and flawed judicial processes that perpetuate rights abuses and distrust, and by insisting on specific security-sector reforms, including immediate personnel vetting and increased oversight.

Only civil society is in a position to develop new means of reaching out to victims and convincing the wider population to abandon a culture of silence and fear. Finally, civil society can use the official transitional justice institutions to champion victims’ claims. This includes intensified efforts by lawyers to file court cases on behalf of victims from different sides of the conflict, to correct what increasingly appears to be a one-sided process.
Many of these activities are already under way. RAIDH (Regroupement des Acteurs Ivoiriens des Droits Humains), a coalition of five prominent human rights groups, produced a report entitled Pourquoi sommes-nous arrivés jusque-là? (How did we get this far?) that does what the National Commission on Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation has yet to do. It documents specific human rights abuses in several areas throughout the country from September 2002 until May 2011.

Its recommendations comprise both immediate and longer-term changes, such as urgent disarmament of the Dozos, traditional hunters who joined pro-Ouattara forces during the post election crisis, and stopping the use of torture and other abuses in detention facilities. The recommendations also suggest pursuing cases of rights violations committed by the former rebel forces that supported Ouattara, and accelerating security-sector reform.
Others within the Working Group on Transitional Justice, a platform comprising eight local civil society organizations, provide legal aid and psychological assistance to victims and engage in peace-building and reconciliation efforts. Recently, three prominent human rights organizations jointly established the Observatory of Transitional Justice, which monitors the work of the National Commission on Dialogue, Truth, and Reconciliation, the Military Tribunal, and the Special Investigative Cell.

Despite these positive actions taken by civil society, deep political divisions and persistent impunity continue to obstruct reconciliation and a successful democratic transition. To bolster the process of transitional justice that started two years ago, Freedom House launched a project to work with Ivoirian human rights groups as they engage the government and the population on coming to terms with the country’s legacy of violence. Freedom House has partnered with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) to train local groups and leading activists and enhance their monitoring and advocacy efforts. 

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