In 2011, Cote d'Ivoire - or Ivory Coast as it is known in the English-speaking world - was torn apart by inter-community violence that broke out between supporters of newly elected President Alassane Ouattara and his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. It was the latest round in a bitter ethnic struggle that had wrought havoc in this former French colony for a decade. Three thousand people were killed; more than a million, from both sides, were displaced.
The fighting was only brought to an end with the help of French and UN troops who intervened on Ouattara's side. Today, the government says its aim is to lay these tensions to rest and return to the peace and stability that once made Cote D'Ivoire one of the most prosperous nations in West Africa.
But although violence has indeed diminished and the country is enjoying a degree of economic success, dangerous ethnic and political rivalries still simmer. Last year saw protests over constitutional reforms aimed at preventing the exclusion of presidential candidates based on their ethnicity, and in January a pay dispute involving the army broke out into a short lived mutiny.
The country's former president, Gbagbo, who still commands support in parts of the country, is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed before and during the election conflict six years ago. But while Gbagbo faces justice at The Hague, and some of his followers have already been jailed back home, it seems that no Ouattara followers have yet been prosecuted.
People & Power sent filmmaker Victoria Baux to the west of the country, where pro-Gbagbo communities were savagely targeted by pro-Ouattara forces during the violence of 2011.
We wanted to find out why the government's promises to provide impartial justice to the victims hadn't yet been kept. We also wanted to investigate disturbing claims about ethnic attacks that took place well after Ouattara came to power - events that, it has been alleged, were witnessed by UN peacekeeping troops who failed to intervene.
|President Alassane Ouattara meets commanding officers from the republican forces, at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan, the day after the capture of ex-President Laurent Gbagbo [Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]
The town of Duekwe, in the west of Cote d'Ivoire, is the kind of place that reminds you of the heart-breaking reality of Africa.
It could and should be a quiet and prosperous, if remote, outpost at the edge of the country, living off its rich tropical soil, rice fields and even the gold that can be found in these parts. Above all, it is a nerve centre of the cocoa bean industry, of which Cote d'Ivoire is the world's leading producer and exporter. In fact, bitter disputes over its land have long generated ethnic tensions that continue to this day. During the savage pre and post-election strife in 2010 and 2011, Duekwe was the site of some of the worst violence - with thousands of attacks and killings taking place here.
Growing up in Cote d'Ivoire and going back on occasional trips since my departure in 1998, I've been able to see the drastic changes the country has gone through.
On a previous trip to Abidjan, the country's main city, in 2008, two years before the disputed presidential elections, Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo was still clinging to power.
It was difficult to travel around; the roads of Abidjan were unsafe and any journalistic work was very difficult. Then came the election of Alassane Ouattara in 2011 and, when I went back in 2015, it seemed that the population had finally been given respite. But on this most recent trip towards the end of 2016, I managed to spend some time in the west of the country and my feelings about it changed again.
Now in his second term, Ouattara is facing growing opposition. In January this year, the image of a peaceful Cote d'Ivoire, which the government is so eager to show to the world, began to crack when a group of army officers went on strike, demanding a pay rise.
A new crisis was only just avoided after the government agreed to meet the mutineers' requests, but the episode was troubling because for the first time the discontent included people who were among Ouattara's own supporters.
Since he reached power in 2011, his international backers - the United Nations and French troops had helped him overcome Gbagbo when the outgoing president contested the results of the 2011 election - have applauded Ouattara's economic successes and ploughed investment into new infrastructure projects, most of which can be seen in the country's economic capital, Abidjan.
For the most part, but especially for his supporters, this had led to increasing prosperity and security and helped cement Ouattara's popularity. However, some sections of the population were neglected - most notably those who had backed Gbagbo
For more than a decade until he was ousted from office, the dictatorial Gbagbo had faced down his critics at home and abroad.
He refused to hold presidential elections and marginalised entire tribes and communities to secure his hold on power. Human rights organisations routinely reported on the extrajudicial killing of supporters of Ouattara, his principal political rival, and when Gbagbo did finally give way to popular opinion and hold elections, he allegedly brought in Liberian mercenaries and death squads to clamp down on the opposition.
Now, the deposed president is facing four counts of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, while some of his former allies, including his wife, Simone Gbagbo, have been taken to court in Abidjan.
To avoid reprisal killings against Gbagbo supporters and to bring lasting stability to the country, Ouattara launched a project of national reconciliation and promised to bring justice to victims from both sides of the conflict. The Hague also declared that it would be investigating crimes committed by pro-Ouattara militias. But so far there has been no sign that this promise will be kept.
The skulls of young brothers who witnesses said were killed in March 2011 by being locked inside a house that was then set on fire by soldiers allied to President Ouattara, in Bably Vaya, western Ivory Coast [Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]
As expected, Ouattara was re-elected in 2015 in a peaceful vote, but his second mandate is proving more complex. As time passes, reconciliation is far from being a national reality and victims of the crisis are waiting for justice.
In the western part of the country, one of the most affected by the 2011 violence, the tensions between the local Guere tribe, who traditionally support Gbagbo, and tribes from the north of the country who support Ouattara are still palpable. Insecurity is high and the fragile truce that has held for four or five years is beginning to break apart once more.
For decades disputes here have centred on land traditionally owned by the Gueres, many of whom had exploited non-native workers coming from the arid north in search of work.
We spoke to one Dioula man who told us how families of his ethnicity had been decimated by Guere militias when a failed military coup against Gbagbo triggered a wave of violence in the country in 2002.
But a few years later, during the 2010-2011 election crisis, the roles were reversed, with the Gueres being the ones persecuted. That no one has yet been called to account for these crimes is seriously undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of Ouattara's project of national reconciliation.
The mood is darkening. On the last day of our stay in Duekwe, the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Muslim girl from one of the northern tribes nearly caused an uprising. Although no suspect had been identified by the time we left town, it was widely believed that the girl had been attacked by a young Guere. At the funeral, we were asked not to revive tensions by covering the incident: "We cannot afford another massacre," the mayor pleaded.
We spoke to numerous Gueres who say they have little, if any, faith in either the government or the various UN agencies that operate in the country. Of the latter, they accuse the organisation's peacekeeping troops - which are due to leave this year - of failing to protect them when armed groups attacked them in two major incidents in 2011 and 2012 that left hundreds of people dead.
An investigation of sorts is currently taking place; the International Court of Justice has auditioned witnesses, for example, but many think that not much has been done with the testimonies they have gathered.
People here are concerned that efforts to investigate those incidents are at best half-hearted. In the centre of the town they can point to six mass graves that have yet to be exhumed. Yet conversely, even if the graves were to be examined, we are told, few people here would have much confidence in any enquiries that might result.
One discovery of six bodies some years ago led to an inconclusive autopsy and the removal of the remains to Abidjan for "further inquiries" of which nothing more has been heard since. The families of those killed in the massacres have all but given up on ever getting answers. And this, according to local NGOs, such as the Ivorian Human Rights League, has created such a climate of fear and impunity such that proper national reconciliation is likely to prove very difficult.
As those who watch this film will discover, our aim, in the absence of a sufficiently rigorous official investigation, was to conduct such inquiries as we could and to hear from witness and victims who haven't yet felt able to share their stories with the judicial authorities.
Although at times we had to be discreet and protect the identities of our sources, it didn't take long before we amassed a disturbing volume of testimony that hopefully now will prompt the government into action. If not…well, I came away thinking that the longer these matters are left to fester, the easier it will be for Cote d'Ivoire to tip back into the kind of inter-community conflict that has previously torn this country apart. And that really would be a tragedy.
Source: Al Jazeera News