Former rebel soldiers took the government hostage because they hadn’t been paid. Could their antics bring down Africa’s highest-flying economy?
- By Sean LyngaasSean Lyngaas is a freelance journalist based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The renegade soldiers struck just after midnight on Jan. 6, storming a military compound in Bouaké, Ivory Coast’s second-largest city, and triggering a widespread mutiny that sent shockwaves through this West African nation. Six years after the end of a devastating civil war, the country with the fastest-growing economy on the continent was facing a nightmarish déjà vu: Rogue military men, rather than political leaders, were once again calling the shots.
“We woke up with fear in our stomachs because we did not know what was happening with the gunfire we heard,” said Moussa Coulibaly, a 30-year-old resident of Bouaké.
The mutiny spread to at least seven cities across the country as soldiers, some of them wearing masks, threw up barricades and demanded pay raises, bonuses, and better living conditions. By the morning of Jan. 7, the revolt had reached the commercial capital of Abidjan, rattling residents of this cosmopolitan city.
After a tense standoff last weekend, the government struck a deal with the mutineers that will “take into account” concerns over pay and working conditions, President Alassane Ouattara announced in a televised address on Jan. 7.
But the agreement, which still has yet to be implemented, may not be enough to soothe investors, who have flocked to Ivory Coast in recent years in part because of the relative political stability. If the government can’t project an image of calm, the country’s stunning GDP growth — averaging 9 percent since 2012 — could be the real casualty of last weekend’s revolt.
It has “tarnished the image of our country after all our economic development efforts,” said Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund official, intimating that instability could dent the country’s hard-won economic gains.
But it’s precisely those economic gains — or rather how they have been distributed — that point to the origins of the current crisis. Abidjan is a contrast in high-rise hotels and tumbledown shacks, chic cafes and trash-lined slums. Donors lined up to pledge more than $15 billion last May for Ivorian development programs, but 46 percent of the population still lived in poverty in 2015, according to the IMF.
And it’s not just the emerging capitalist class that is living high on the hog. As last week’s uprising exposed anew, there is a jarring gap between the lifestyles of the military elite and the impoverished rank-and-file. The man who helped broker the negotiations, Lt. Col. Issiaka Ouattara, a former rebel commander better known as Wattao, typifies this opulence: Wattao has used his status as one of the country’s elite military figures to reportedly earn a fortune in the extractives industry.
This is not the first time that disgruntled soldiers have rebelled. In 2014, roughly 9,000 former rebel fighters staged a similar mutiny to demand back pay and other benefits. At the time, Rinaldo Depagne, the West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, found soldiers living in squalid conditions — some without mosquito nets or a decent roof overhead — when he visited barracks in the western city of Duékoué. He said little has changed since then.
“I think what we are seeing is that Ouattara is now paying the price for delaying real security sector reform,” said Arthur Boutellis, a security analyst focusing on West Africa at the New York-based International Peace Institute.
Government officials point to a military reform law adopted last year that aims to improve conditions for soldiers. But security experts such as Boutellis say the Ivorian military needs to focus on depoliticizing its forces and breaking up old rebel chains of command. Such foundational reforms could irk powerful commanders at a time when their support is crucial for the president.
“Political leadership usually find it easier to simply pay soldiers than to address the underlying dissatisfaction, which would likely upset the military elites,” said Maggie Dwyer, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre of African Studies whose forthcoming book focuses on mutinies in Africa. “Upset rank and file is a bad situation, but angry military elite is likely even worse.”
There is an additional reason Ouattara may have kicked the can down the road when it comes to security sector reform: Many of the mutinying soldiers appear to be former members of the rebel group that helped install him as president in 2011, after his predecessor, President Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept defeat at the polls. Three thousand people died in the ensuing battle between soldiers loyal to the two men.
“It was clear that basically [Ouattara] was going to be walking this tightrope where those who brought him to power by force were always going to be in a position of calling their own shots,” said Mike McGovern, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who wrote a book on Ivory Coast’s political turmoil.
That impunity has only been reinforced by the latest deal with the mutineers, the details of which are still murky (the aggrieved soldiers reportedly demanded $8,000 each and a house). The soldiers initially expected to be paid bonuses on Jan. 9, but that payment has reportedly been delayed at their request. The fact that they don’t expect to be disciplined underscores the extent to which the military’s rank and file have been allowed to essentially hold the government hostage.
If it doesn’t reassert control — and institute meaningful security sector reform — the government risks chasing investors away and stifling West Africa’s highest-flying economy. Even now, Mark Bohlund, an Africa and Middle East economist at Bloomberg, says to “expect more apprehension about Ivory Coast” from some foreign direct investors. He added: “While some might just brush this off as an issue about pay, looking a bit further it becomes clear that the loyalty of the armed forces is by no means guaranteed.”
Ivory Coast’s postwar economic recovery has been “impressive,” said Amadou Sy, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. But if the country’s “social and institutional recovery” doesn’t keep pace, he said, “political instability will compromise the hard-gained economic success.”
Image credit: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images