Ouattara in race to treat Ivory Coast's open wounds

Wed Apr 13, 2011 1:48pm GMT
 

* Ouattara must act fast to heal divisions

* Revenge killings still reported

* Most people yearn for stability

By Mark John

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, April 13 (Reuters) - Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara must act fast to convince his people to put ethnic, regional and political divisions behind them or watch open wounds poison efforts to bring peace.

A Nov. 28 election intended to heal those rifts only made them worse, as the ensuing dispute claimed over 1,500 lives at the hands of security forces, militias, mercenaries or other civilians. Revenge killings were still being reported on Wednesday, two days after the fall of Laurent Gbagbo.

But the vast majority of the population yearns for stability and a return to the relative prosperity Ivory Coast once knew, giving Ouattara an unprecedented opportunity to draw a line under its past troubles.

"We are ready to forgive," said Michel Gogbe, a retired accountant and Ouattara supporter originally from the ethnically mixed west of the country which has seen some of the worst violence.

"The scars are there, but if it is for reconciliation, we are ready," Gogbe told Reuters as he sat on the terrace of his retirement compound just outside Abidjan.

More tinder box than melting pot, the former French colony has shown time and time again its ability to explode at the slightest spark.

The immigrants from Burkina Faso and other northern countries who came to work the rich cocoa, cotton and rubber plantations were never fully assimilated into society nor accorded all the rights enjoyed by so-called native Ivorians.

Their grievances and a debate nurtured by nationalists such as Gbagbo over "Ivorian-ness" degenerated into the 2002-2003 war that left the country split into a pro-Ouattara, largely Muslim north and a pro-Gbagbo, largely Christian south.

The west became a killing ground where longstanding land and other disputes between rival ethnic groups triggered mass violence. It is no coincidence that this time, too, some of the worst reprisals have been recorded there.

In his first speech since the fall of Gbagbo, Ouattara called for a halt to the vengeance attacks, promising justice for all crimes and the creation of a truth and reconciliation process like that in Liberia or South Africa.

But so far the mood has been anything but conciliatory.

GBAGBO PARADED

Even Ouattara supporters have winced at images of Gbagbo, his wife Simone and family paraded on local television on Monday after United Nations- and French-backed forces stormed his plush Abidjan residence.

Eyewitnesses speak of manhandling and deliberate humiliation during the arrest, with Simone clearly distraught as she sits cowed on a sofa surrounded by soldiers.

Fresh corpses continue to litter the streets of Abidjan and shooting is heard through the night. While it is difficult to confirm the circumstances of death, many bodies have bullet wounds to the head or chest -- a possible sign of execution.

Rights group Amnesty International quoted eyewitnesses as saying armed men, some in military uniforms, conducted house searches in pro-Gbagbo districts on Tuesday, with one policeman taken out and shot dead at point blank range.

"Dozens of young people are going into hiding in Abidjan out of fear for their lives," said Veronique Aubert, Amnesty International's deputy director for Africa.

Breaking the circle of tit-for-tat violence will not be easy.

Human Rights Watch's Corinne Dufka said Ouattara now had to go beyond words to show he is serious about ending a climate of impunity which for a decade has allowed soldiers on all sides to believe they can do what they like.

That weak discipline prompted commanders to read the riot act to pro-Ouattara troops at least twice in the week leading to the fall of Gbagbo, Reuters reporters at their base camps saw, appealing for them to avoid abusing civilians.

"Concretely they should start detaining their own people when there is evidence of crimes," said Dufka, adding that those responsible for the worst crimes should be targeted, while minor acts could be forgiven in the name of reconciliation.

A credible push for justice would both help dissuade pro-Ouattara troops from further abuses and reassure Gbagbo supporters that it was not their turn to be the oppressed.

Further down the line, reconciliation will not be complete without real progress in redistributing the wealth that under the Gbagbo system was held tightly by a clique close to the levers of political power.

Initially that would entail investigation and prosecution of corruption during his decade in power, similar to the probing of economic crimes which is part of neighbouring Liberia's reconciliation drive.

Any move to more equally share Ivory Coast's natural resources could imply deep reform of shadowy sectors such as oil and cocoa, for years in the grip of Gbagbo loyalists.

A successful reconciliation drive would, in short, change the face of Ivory Coast, while failure would take the country back to square one.

That will be make or break for Ouattara, Dufka said. "His presidency is going to be defined by how he deals with these issues."

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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