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Ivory Coast troubled by one-sided justice; charges are only pressed against Gbagbo supporters

One day in late March 2011, at the height of Ivory Coast's postelection violence, a 23-year-old cocoa farmer was shot in the back by unknown gunmen and left for dead on the outskirts of Niambly, a village of 400 mud-brick houses three kilometers outside the western town of Duekoue.

In response, the village's roughly 3,000 residents decided it was no longer safe and began to flee. According to village chief Gabriel Tahe, nearly all of them ended up in Duekoue's Carrefour neighborhood, inhabited mainly by fellow members of the Guere ethnic group.

With this move, Niambly's residents unwittingly placed themselves at the center of the deadliest episode of the conflict, which erupted after former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down despite losing the November 2010 runoff vote to current President Alassane Ouattara.

Days later, on March 29, pro-Ouattara fighters including soldiers, militiamen and traditional hunters tore through Carrefour, killing hundreds. Many of the victims were men from the Guere ethnic group, which largely supported Gbagbo in the disputed vote. At least 30 were confirmed Niambly residents, said Chief Tahe.

The trouble for Niambly did not stop there. After the conflict ended and Ouattara took office in May 2011, 800 residents of the village were settled in a United Nations-guarded camp for people displaced by the fighting. In an attack last July that underscored persistent tensions in the region, the camp was overrun by a mob assisted by traditional hunters, known as dozos, and soldiers from Ouattara's army, the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast. Nearly the entire camp was burned to the ground and at least eight people were killed, including two from Niambly, according to Chief Tahe. Rights groups suspect the total was higher.

Today, around two-thirds of Niambly's residents have returned to the village, rebuilding homes that were still salvageable after the fighting ended; some homes remain little more than rubble. But while many residents said they were ready to move on from the conflict, which claimed more than 3,000 lives nationwide, they described lingering fears about the pro-Ouattara forces that took part in the attacks against them.

The violence inflicted on Niambly residents, apparently with impunity, shows the problem of one-sided justice that is troubling Ivory Coast. Two years after the postelection violence, only supporters of former president Gbagbo have been charged for crimes, although it is widely acknowledged that abuses were committed on both sides. The Ivorian judiciary has charged and detained 55 Gbagbo loyalists for violent crimes.

Meanwhile, violence continues to be inflicted on some Gbagbo supporters with impunity, according to human rights groups who say the situation is preventing reconciliation in the country.

Amnesty International issued a report Tuesday criticizing Ouattara's government for not enforcing the rule of law even-handedly.

The International Criminal Court took Laurent Gbagbo into custody in November 2011 and has also unsealed an arrest warrant for his wife, Simone, who remains in Ivorian custody. For the past two weeks the ICC heard arguments over whether or not to confirm charges against Laurent Gbagbo.

Tahe, 83, said the one-sided nature of the justice process so far was stoking resentment in Niambly and other pro-Gbagbo villages in the area that suffered similar traumas.

"If two people get into a fight and damage someone's property, then normally they both should pay," Tahe said. "If just one pays, this can create some problems between them later. It's the same thing for Ivory Coast. If one side does not pay its bill, this will eventually create more trouble for the country."

Ouattara has repeatedly vowed that all perpetrators of crimes committed during the postelection conflict will be punished, regardless of affiliation. But for residents of Niambly, the president's words do not square with the lack of prosecutions.

In addition, soldiers and dozo hunters still operate both official and illegal checkpoints in and around Duekoue, meaning that each day Niambly's residents must present identity papers — and often pay bribes — to pro-Ouattara fighters in order to go to their cocoa farms or venture into town.

Some analysts have speculated that Ouattara believes the security risks are too great to allow charges to be filed against his military backers. In a briefing prepared this month for the U.S. Institute of Peace, researcher Tobias Koepf suggested these concerns were legitimate.

"If Ouattara tries to strip them of their positions and power too quickly, there is a risk that they will turn their back against him, which could worsen the security situation instead of improving it," Koepf said.

Julien Kpahi, a Niambly resident, says the government's response to the July attack on the U.N.-guarded camp suggested that impunity for Ouattara fighters had extended well beyond the postelection conflict. Kpahi managed to flee the camp on the day of the attack, but his younger brother, Amede Bonde, did not, and Kpahi later heard that he had been taken into military custody.

On Oct. 11, officials discovered a mass grave in Duekoue containing six bodies. The bodies were men who had been shot by the military after the raid on the camp, said The International Federation for Human Rights, which had representatives at the scene, citing the preliminary results of autopsies and other evidence.

Kpahi said he believes one of the men in the well was his younger brother, saying clothing worn by Bonde the day of the attack had been found nearby. Although Kpahi submitted statements to local officials, he said he has received no update on the investigation.

The local prosecutor originally in charge of the investigation told The Associated Press that it had been transferred and that he could not provide an update. Justice Ministry officials did not respond to several requests for comment.

Kpahi said he was worried he might never learn what became of his brother. "Our executioners are still with us here," he said. "If their actions are protected by the authorities, it will be difficult for us to know anything about what happened."