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Ivory Coast: A ragtag army falls apart

Ivory Coast: A ragtag army falls apart

When Alassane Ouattara finally took over the presidency in the Ivory Coast earlier this month, he did so with the help of a rag tag group of militiamen. There were the formal rebels from the country’s brief civil war, known as the Forces Nouvelles. There were local men who picked up alongside the other regular fighters. And then there were the more pernicious militias, such as the so-called "Invisible Commandos" in Abidjan, who hitched their wagon to Ouattara’s because — for at least a moment — their objectives aligned. What all these groups had in common was their desire to at last unseat an intrasigent outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo who had refused to step down for four months after a lost election. 

Today, Gbagbo is gone. He’s being held in detention in the north of the country while he faces a criminal investigation. That’s good news by most accounts; at last, Ivory Coast has just one president. But it also means that the glue holding together Ouattara-loyal forces has also lost its stick. 

The most alarming split that’s arisen is between the Ouattara army, now calling itself the Republican Forces of the Ivory Coast (FRCI),  and the Invisible Commandos. For Ouattara, the commandos are a massive liability. During the worst of the election stand-off, they were accused of carrying out rather arbitrary night raids in pro-Gbagbo neighborhoods. Their commander, Ibrahim Coulibaly (who goes by the nickname IB), is something of a renegade. He also happens to be the old-time rival of Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, who led the Forces Nouvelles early last decade.

Ouattara ordered the Invisible Commandos back to their barracks after taking office; he also told them to disarm. Apparently the progress wasn’t fast enough, and this morning in the Abidjan suburb of Abobo, gunshots rung out as government troops (mostly the former Forces Nouvelles, as well as defectors from Gbagbo’s former army) tried to root out IB’s militiamen.

All this raises three questions in my mind: First, can Ouattara gain control of the military that brought him to power — and does he really want to? It was always a gamble to use the "nuclear option" and call on the rebel forces to bring Ouattara into office by force. Now that he’s there, those troops are not going to just sit back and let their new civilian leader rule them. They’re owed for their duty, and Ouattara may well be a captive to the whims of his army, lest he himself suffer their wrath.

Second, does this new relationship make Ouattara complicit in "his" military’s crimes, such as a masscare in Duékoué in March? Probably, it does; it’s impossible to argue that Ouattara didn’t know who he was getting in bed with when he called on the former rebels and other militia groups to fall in line. After all, his prime minister, Guillame Soro, used to head the Forces Nouvelles. 

Which brings to perhaps the most important parlor game of post-crisis Ivory Coast: What does Soro want, and how will Ouattara have to placate him? The military operation against the Invisible Commandos may be at least in part Soro’s doing, given that he and IB are old rivals. As the leader who can keep the new Ivorian army in their barracks — or call them out again — Soro might be the man to watch.