Bitter Divide Remains in Ivory Coast a Year After Civil War

Ivory Coast's war ended last year, but the country remains as divided as ever owing to a lack of action by its neighbors to root out rebels hiding on their sides of the border

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Luc Gnago / Reuters

The bodies of the U.N. peacekeepers killed the previous day in western Ivory Coast, near the Liberian border, arrive at Abidjan's international airport on June 9, 2012

The killing of seven U.N. peacekeepers, eight villagers and an unspecified number of soldiers in western Ivory Coast highlights how, a year after this small West African country was plunged into a brief, bloody civil war, a violent power struggle still divides it. The attack occurred on Friday near the villages of Tai and Para on the Liberian border. It is the latest and most lethal in a series of assaults in the same area in the past year in which close to 60 people have died. 

There is almost no doubt that the attacks are being carried out by forces loyal to the government of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo. Last week, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report on those forces and accused Liberia of refusing to take action against well-armed militia commanders and hundreds of fighters hiding in jungle camps on its side of the border. The rebels had committed war crimes in the months of violence that followed the contested November 2010 election — which Gbagbo refused to hold for five years, then lost to his rival Alassane Ouattara, and then tried to nullify — and are now perpetrating more by conscripting Liberian children and attacking civilians in cross-border raids, Human Rights Watch says.

(MORE: A Year After the War, Promise and Peril in Ivory Coast)

“For well over a year, the Liberian government has had its head in the sand in responding to the flood of war criminals who crossed into the country at the end of the Ivorian crisis,” said Matt Wells, the group’s West Africa researcher. “Rather than uphold its responsibility to prosecute or extradite those involved in international crimes, Liberian authorities have stood by as many of these same people recruit child soldiers and carry out deadly cross-border attacks.”

Liberia is not the only country being accused of inaction. Gbagbo, physically dragged from power in April 2011 by an aggressive U.N. assault on his hideout in the business capital, Abidjan, is now awaiting trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Ouattara, the country’s new President and a former official at the International Monetary Fund, is making good progress in restoring Ivory Coast’s economy, which contracted by 4.7% in 2011 but should grow by 8% this year, according to the IMF.

(VIDEO: Ivory Coast: Human Rights Watch Documents Massacres of Civilians)

But there has been little effort by the President to address the stubborn, bitter enmity at the heart of Ivory Coast’s divide, which pits mostly Christian southerners against northerners who are often Muslim and descended from immigrants from neighboring countries. The makeup of the Ouattara Administration displays a marked northern bias, and though both sides were guilty of atrocities in the postelection violence, not one of Ouattara’s supporters has been prosecuted. Meanwhile, neighboring Liberia and Ghana, where many Gbagbo supporters fled to, have prevaricated over the presence inside their borders of militia leaders and their funders who are wanted in Ivory Coast and who continue to plot to overthrow the Ivorian government.

At a time when Africans elsewhere — notably in Somalia and Senegal — are increasingly living up to the mantra of “Africans solving African problems,” Ivory Coast remains an example of the opposite. As one pro-Gbagbo militia fighter in Liberia told Human Rights Watch: “There are two possibilities: either we will kill them, or they will kill us.”

It is the signal failing of the governments of Ivory Coast, Liberia and Ghana that they have been unable or unwilling so far to offer a third, more peaceful option.

MORE: The ICC Is Scrutinized Even as Ivory Coast’s ex-President Goes on Trial