Ivory Coast struggles with reconciliation

Opposition says reconstruction efforts risk failure without true reconciliation between former warring parties.

    Ivory Coast struggles with reconciliation
    Gbagbo is facing charges at the ICC while his wife Simone remains under house arrest [Reuters]

    Abidjan, Ivory Coast - Three years ago, Ivory Coast was in the grip of a civil war that claimed 3,000 lives and left more than 300,000 homeless, according to the United Nations.

    The world body now says the country is recovering fast from the conflict: Huge infrastructure projects in the transport, communications, water and energy sectors are under way and are hoped to improve living conditions. But fears are growing that the reconstruction efforts could turn futile without true reconciliation between former warring parties.

    "The world is saluting Ivory Coast's post-war reconstruction without pausing for a minute to think that all that is being done is on a sandy foundation, and that the slightest outbreak of a new crisis could tear down recent achievements," says Sebastien Dano Djedje, spokesman for the main opposition party FPI.

    Founded by former president Laurent Gbagbo, who is awaiting trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC), the FPI ruled Ivory Coast between 2000 and 2010 but lost power in 2011 after a fiercely contested presidential run-off against Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara has been in charge for three years but his government is struggling to reconcile with former foes.

    Unconditional demands 

    The FPI has spurned many invitations to join the new government amid calls from the country's foreign partners, including former colonial power France. The party demands the unconditional release of its imprisoned militants, the unfreezing of bank accounts belonging to senior members, and the return of comrades from exile before any meaningful dialogue with the government can be held.

    A July report from the Ivorian justice ministry says 659 pro-opposition civilians and military forces were arrested for their presumed roles in the 2011 post election violence. And while 275 of them, including Gbagbo's eldest son Michel, have been granted provisional freedom since 2012, 384 are still in detention.

    Under pressure from the international community, human rights organisations and local civil societies working to reconcile the socially divided nation, the Ivorian government has increased moves to appease the opposition bloc, made up of the FPI and a half a dozen smaller organisations.

    More than 50 seized houses have been relinquished and 97 bank accounts have been unfrozen out of the 300 declared by FPI. The accounts were blocked in 2011 to prevent the financing of subversive activities, according to the Ivorian ministry of interior. But the FPI has denied its members were involved in recurrent commando attacks on military checkpoints and police stations between 2011 and 2012.

    The world is saluting Ivory Coast's post-war reconstruction without pausing for a minute to think that all that is being done is on a sandy foundation and that the slightest outbreak of a new crisis could tear down recent achievements.

    - Sebastien Dano Djedje, spokesman for main opposition party FPI

    "The new government cannot do without us, the opposition, because we make up an important part of the population. Our supporters are faithful and they always heed our directives," Djedje says, referring to his party's recent call on members to boycott the national population census, which the FPI said the government intends to use to prepare for massive fraud in the upcoming elections.

    The National Institute of Statistics (INS) has refuted such claims, saying the decennial counting exercise was meant to collect important data to plan the country's development projects. The West African state is aiming to achieve an emerging nation status by 2020.

    The census was seriously disrupted, with enumerators being chased or denied entry to many homes across the country, mostly in the western region dominated by Gbagbo's supporters, prompting the government to extend the closing deadline thrice while in talks with the FPI to revoke the boycott.

    "That is just a little sign that Ivory Coast needs total reconciliation to progress faster. Peace and stability will not be strong enough and cannot guarantee prosperity unless the sons and daughters of the land truly bury the hatchet," says Jean Aka Kouame, political science professor at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny University in Abidjan.

    In the 2011 run-off, Ouattara secured 54 percent of the vote while Gbagbo got 46 percent from the nearly six million people who went to the polls, according to the independent electoral commission (CEI). Demography experts say it is about the same partition across the 22 million inhabitants of the country, making Gbagbo's FPI a force to reckon with.

    However, Ouattara's party, RDR, which is in a coalition with the country's oldest and most influential party, PDCI, says his government has made considerable concessions to the opposition which ought to trigger a smooth reconciliation.

    "A commission for dialogue, truth, and reconciliation has been put in place to handle sensitive cases relating to violence from the 2011 crisis. Political prisoners have been freed; bank accounts unblocked, seized homes released along with an invitation to join the government and take their seat in the new election commission. But the FPI remains reluctant to act and now who bears the blame?" RDR spokesman Joel N’guessan asks.

    Human rights groups believe post-war reconciliation is sluggish because only those close to Gbagbo are being brought to justice or are in detention since 2011. Gbagbo's wife and former first lady Simone has been under house arrest in the north of the country since 2011.

    A national independent commission set up to investigate atrocities of the 2011 hostilities, released its final report in August 2012, showing that 15,000 people suffered grave violations and that pro-Gbagbo forces were responsible for the death of 1,400 people while forces fighting for Ouattara killed 700. No one from Ouattara's camp has been arrested in connection with those crimes, but the government insists the justice ministry is working to bring all suspects to court.

    "Ouattara has promised justice for all and that nobody will be protected. His government cannot interfere with the work of judges who're currently carrying out thorough investigations before releasing arrest warrants," N'guessan says.

    Campaigning for peace

    Bringing people to justice may not be the panacea for national reconciliation. A more enlightened campaign for peace and unity is needed to pacify those whose lives were shattered by the post election war, according to Salif Traore, alias Al Salfo, lead vocalist of renowned Ivorian group Magic System and a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

    "The most important thing is to dissociate politicians from ordinary citizens. The politicians might want to prolong their chess game, but the masses have had enough and want to live in peace and that is the message we need to be sending to all," says Al Salfo.

    Al Salfo participated in a nationwide reconciliation musical tour in 2012, and has also facilitated the return of a number of artists who fled to exile during the crisis. He admits that the chasm between Ouattara and Gbagbo's supporters remains deep but believes time could help bridge it.

    "There is no way you can impose reconciliation. It's a gradual process and it comes from the inside. I believe we need time. We'll have to keep talking peace to people and stay patient until the fruits are borne," he says.

    However, such messages of peace and unity are diffused on the country's only two television channels RTI1 and RTI2, owned and controlled by the state. And many FPI supporters do not watch those channels, out of frustration or anger, according to those who spoke to Al Jazeera.

    "I don't know of any Gbagbo supporter who sits down and switches on his telly to RTI1 or RTI2, especially to watch news bulletins. The channels don't cover anything relating to our party. Why should we watch them?" Francis Digbeu, a 36-year-old primary school teacher says.

    "Those insistent TV messages of peace and reconciliation really don't get to us and even if they do by hearsay, many of us don't see any sincerity in them," he says.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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