ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – More than a year after 3,000 people died in political violence in Ivory Coast, the nation is being rocked by brazen attacks on military forces by shadowy gunmen. In a country awash in weapons and grudges, the list of suspects includes loyalists of a disgraced president and former rebel fighters who supported the new president and haven't received anything in return.
The unidentified gunmen struck twice just last week, storming checkpoints near the Liberian border and then security posts and a prison in a town 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Abidjan, the commercial capital. On Aug. 6, gunmen struck a military base right in Abidjan, killing six soldiers and stealing an untold number of weapons including rocket propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles. In total, six attacks targeting Ivory Coast's military have been reported in less than two weeks. At least 11 soldiers and one civilian have been killed. The attacks threaten to unleash chaos in a country once hailed as a model of stability in West Africa
They are seen as a direct result of a postelection crisis that was triggered by former President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to admit defeat in the November 2010 election. The post-election violence stretched from December 2010 to May 2011, continuing even after Gbagbo was captured in a bunker in the presidential palace in April. Gbagbo was later hauled away for trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the internationally recognized election winner, Alassane Ouattara, was sworn in as president.
Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko blames the new attacks on Gbagbo's supporters working in partnership with rogue soldiers. But observers say that while the attacks are likely being directed by pro-Gbagbo elements who have opposed Ouattara for years — and who would continue to oppose him regardless of how he governed — the violence is being abetted by the proliferation of arms throughout the country, a failure to reintegrate and disarm tens of thousands of ex-combatants, a stalled reconciliation process and one-sided justice that is exacerbating political divisions.
Cabinet ministers approved a plan for reintegrating former fighters into society earlier this month, but a Western diplomat familiar with the document said it remains "quite general," with issues such as who would qualify for the program and how it would be funded still unresolved.
A separate program to disarm civilians has collected a few thousand weapons, but many of those were in such bad condition they couldn't be fired and Laetitia Dia Allou, a spokeswoman for the program, estimates that another 3 million weapons are still in circulation across the nation of 20 million inhabitants.
Toward the end of the postelection violence last year, Ouattara created a new army composed largely of fighters from the former New Forces rebel movement, which controlled the northern half of the country during a conflict that lasted from 2002 to 2010. However, many New Forces fighters have not been integrated into the new army.
These former rebels are disgruntled because in many cases they remain unemployed or are stuck working low-paying jobs more than one year after Ouattara came to power, said Drissa Kone, an Ivorian analyst based in Atlanta. He said that while Gbagbo loyalists, still flush with cash from the former president's years in power, were best positioned to finance the recent attacks, some of the fighters could well be former Ouattara backers.
"After the crisis there were a lot of fighters for the Forces Nouvelles that didn't get the remuneration they were expecting," Kone said, referring to the rebel group by its French name. "The fighters can be from anywhere."
Ivorian officials have been reluctant to acknowledge this possibility. Deputy Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said Friday that the perpetrators of the recent violence could be divided into two categories: pro-Gbagbo militias and the mercenaries from the neighboring country of Liberia whom they have hired.
Several observers said this explanation may be deliberately simplistic.
"State representatives may be so adamant that pro-Gbagbo forces are behind the attacks because they know or suspect that some of their own former supporters are also involved," said Joseph Hellweg, an Ivory Coast expert at Florida State University.
Meanwhile, there has been little progress to show for reconciliation efforts, including a truth and reconciliation commission formed last year. And there are few indications that divisions between the pro-Ouattara and pro-Gbagbo camps will soon be bridged.
"The fact is that national reconciliation has not yet started," said civil society activist Yacouba Doumbia.
Human Rights Watch and other groups say one-sided justice continues to polarize the country, undermining any faith that Gbagbo supporters might have in government institutions. Gbagbo has been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and more than 100 Gbagbo loyalists have been detained in Ivory Coast for their alleged roles during the postelection violence. But no Ouattara supporters have been detained or credibly investigated, despite evidence that they, too, committed atrocities. A new report of a national commission blames pro-Ouattara forces for hundreds of deaths.
"A politicized judiciary has been at the heart of the Ivorian crisis for the last decade, undermining the rule of law and contributing to the country's deep divisions," said Matt Wells, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "By sending the message that certain victim groups are less worthy of justice for post-election crimes, the one-sided prosecutions under the Ouattara government threaten to further this dangerous legacy of division."
A sense of insecurity persists over many parts of Ivory Coast.
Alex Ouraga lives in a one-story pink house near the military base in Abidjan that was raided Aug. 6. Gates and exterior walls of nearby buildings are perforated with bullet holes from the recent fighting. He listened to gunfire for nearly five hours on the night of the attack and said the attackers gained entry to the base all too easily.
"It shouldn't be easy for all kinds of people just to go to a military base, especially if the military base had the country's arms," he said. "This place should be secured every second. But it was easy for people to go inside, take arms and get away."
Arrests in the area began soon after the shooting died down, he said.
"That same day they arrested so many people," the 59-year-old said.
Gbagbo's political party has cried foul over mass arrests carried out since the recent attacks began, saying they have unduly focused on party members. The U.N. said last week that 100 people had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attacks or "attempting to undermine state security." Of those, 32 had been released for lack of evidence.
A U.N. official said some Gbagbo supporters had been detained on dubious grounds and in violation of procedure - for instance, in midnight home raids by unauthorized officials. The U.N. has been denied access to detainees held in Abidjan, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
In the Abidjan neighborhood of Yopougon, where five soldiers were killed in an Aug. 5 attack, residents said the tension is palpable.
"Things are going from bad to worse," said Dimitri Djedje, 37. "We cannot go out because there is always shooting, and we are living in fear."