Immense Humanitarian Issues Still Remain in Ivory Coast

By Dr. Jean G. Tompihe


After five months of crisis following a presidential election, the security situation in Ivory Coast remains precarious and the humanitarian problem immense, said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokesman for the Office Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the UN. According to Byrs, the UN has received only 20 percent of $160 million needed. The immediate problems are medical care, clean water and the protection of refugees. The militia, who remain in some areas, are still terrorizing the population and preventing access to humanitarian help. Nothing is completely settled.

Of special importance are human rights violations. If Ivory Coast fails to address this long standing issue, the risk of renewed violence will be high. A test of the new administration will be how it addresses the massacre that took place in the West side of the country. As widely reported in the press, the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Roman Catholic charity Caritas respectively estimated that 800 and 1,000 civilians were killed between March 27 and March 29 in the town of Duékoué. The killings were based on ethnic affiliations tied to presidential candidates Ouattara and Gbagbo. For its part, the UN advanced the number of 330 people killed in a neighborhood controlled by fighters of the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, a group loyal to President Ouattara. But it added that out of the 330 deaths, 100 were killed by pro-Gbagbo’s mercenaries.

Human rights violations in many places were perpetrated by forces loyal to both sides. What took place in Duékoué could easily have been avoided. The UN campground is only a mile from that city. Ouattara’s appointed Ambassador to France, Ally Coulibaly, blamed the UN for being absent when the Republican Forces arrived and took over Duékoué. But the UN alone should not be blamed. Prior to the arrival of those Republican Forces, Gbagbo’s militiamen and Liberian mercenaries protected the indigenous Guéré ethnic group, but they had killed members of other tribes and West African foreigners considered pro-Ouattara. The Republican Forces’ leadership should have anticipated “revenge” against pro-Gbagbo’s groups. Instead they allowed local informants to identify Gbagbo supporters and members of pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups for retribution. This local ethnic knowledge explains why, in Duékoué, people were killed person by person, quite willfully and at close quarters. The deep-seated motivation of revenge predicted that if left unchecked, forces loyal to Ouattara would have failed to adhere strictly to the rules of international humanitarian law. Asking “Where was Amnesty International when Gbagbo massacred his fellows?” cannot justify these additional crimes against humanity, as one of the leaders of the Republican Forces, Konaté Sidiki, puts it.

President Ouattara expressly distanced himself from these atrocities. “These killings are unacceptable, unworthy…I am appalled,” he has said. He has also asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to under-take legal investigations into these massacres. That is hopeful; his supporters are accused of committing some of these killings, which occurred particularly during their victorious offensive launched from the Western region.

Since 2000, Ivory Coast has been plagued by a chronic pattern of human rights violations that directly derives from the engineered ideology of “Ivoirité,” a concept of pure Ivorian parentage that divides the country into “pure Ivorians” (the so-called original natives) and “circumstantial Ivorians” (immigrants and their descendents), the latter composing a large part of Ouattara’s Northern and Muslim support groups. That triggered the 2002 civil war. For eight years, the south of the country was under pro-Gbagbo forces and the North under pro-Ouattara troops. It was common knowledge that belonging to the wrong side could get someone killed. Turning the page on those years of atrocities can only be accomplished if both sides are fairly held accountable. If the Ivorian people fail to do so, I am afraid that ethnic killing will now become an impulse: individuals will kill others who they believe would kill them if they could on the basis of ethnic markers. As in Rwanda, the mistrust of non-kin could fuel ever more violence. The antidote is for the government to allow the ICC to investigate crimes against humanity and punish murderers with rigor and impartiality.