Peacebuilding’s Poster Child Is Losing Its Shine

Ivory Coast is often held up as a post-conflict success. That could all fall apart.

Demonstrators arrive to protest against a request to release former Ivory Coast's president Laurent Gbagbo in front of the Conseil National des Droits de l'Homme on Jan. 14, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Sia Kambou/ AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators arrive to protest against a request to release former Ivory Coast's president Laurent Gbagbo in front of the Conseil National des Droits de l'Homme on Jan. 14, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Sia Kambou/ AFP/Getty Images)

On the night of Ivory Coast’s local elections last fall, Lancinè Coulibaly was kidnapped. Coulibaly had been a campaign aide to Tehfour Koné, an opposition candidate running for mayor in Abobo, on one of the most closely contested ballots in the country. Hours later, he was found dead, lying in a pool of his own blood.

According to Koné, Coulibaly’s belief that the election results should be accurate had cost him his life. Koné had stood against Hamed Bakayoko, Ivory Coast’s defense minister and a well-established figure in the country’s ruling party, the Rally of the Republicans. After Bakayoko was declared the winner of the poll, Koné openly accused him of rigging the vote. Those responsible for organizing and executing Coulibaly’s death have yet to be held to account.

A slaying in Abobo was not the only sign of trouble in Ivory Coast. Last October’s municipal elections were marred by instances of violence and unrest across the country. In addition to Coulibaly, at least three other Ivorians were killed. In Abidjan, the economic capital, police repeatedly used tear gas to disperse supporters of the opposition. On the outskirts of the western town of Man, a gang overran a polling station, forcing the vote there to be annulled and rescheduled. Supporters of opposing parties clashed in the central town of Lakota, leaving another Ivorian dead. After the election, when candidates who had been unsuccessful refused to accept the official results, violence broke out in the city of Bondoukou, close to the border with Ghana; the seaside town of Grand-Bassam; and Abidjan’s populous suburb of Port-Bouët.

The local elections were a major stress test for the country. Coulibaly’s death and the accompanying unrest served as an unwelcome reminder that ongoing and virulent political hostilities could undermine the narrative that Ivory Coast is a model case for international peacebuilding efforts, raising salient questions about how vulnerable the country is when it comes to the possibility of sustained, widespread electoral violence in 2020—when Ivory Coast is due to hold what is likely to be a far more contentious general election.

The presidential poll in 2020 will be the second since the Ivorian civil war ended in 2011, when French and United Nations forces intervened to help the opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara, take power. Under the Ivorian Constitution, Ouattara cannot run for a third term after being elected to lead the country in 2010, and again in 2015. Laurent Gbagbo, who was president at the time, had refused to accept that he had lost the election, even after Ouattara had been declared the winner. It was a move that triggered massive outbreaks of political violence that killed more than 3,000 Ivorians. Alongside one of his close allies, Charles Blé Goudé, Gbagbo was arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. However, their arrests did not herald the end of animosity in Ivory Coast; instead, they only triggered further anger and a desire for revenge against both sides of the pro-Ouattara and pro-Gbagbo divide. On Jan. 15, the two were acquitted of all charges, and the court’s Appeals Chamber will determine what comes next on Feb. 1.

Despite recent warning signs, it is still undeniable that Ivory Coast has undergone a transformation as a result of significant investments in peacebuilding. The country is no longer divided in two, as it was from 2002 to 2010, when half of Ivory Coast was being ruled by Gbagbo while rebels from the pro-Ouattara Forces Nouvelles ran the other. Unlike the conflict years, when travel around the country took days and involved numerous roadblocks and bribes, people can now move freely. Government ministries beyond Abidjan are more functional now, and some faith has been restored in the government and its institutions as a result. Three years ago, the International Monetary Fund even declared Ivory Coast to be the third-fastest-growing economy in the world and the fastest-growing economy in Africa. And relative peace, combined with enormous infrastructure improvements, has attracted significant amounts of foreign direct investment.

But the perception of miraculous economic, political, and social recovery in Ivory Coast serves as a smokescreen, obscuring old vulnerabilities that could unravel the country again. Ivory Coast may no longer physically be divided in half, but the schism between north and south persists in a figurative sense.

In the years since 2011, there has been little genuine reconciliation and numerous efforts to implement a victor’s justice, leaving those who supported Gbagbo infuriated by the one-sided allocation of victimhood. Against this backdrop, the 2020 election could well be more chaotic than the one held a decade before in 2010. Such violent events during local elections do not bode well for the forthcoming vote and Ivory Coast’s ability to stave off a descent into another conflict.

There are a number of considerations that serve to complicate the narrative that Ivory Coast is the world’s most recent peacebuilding success story.

There are a number of considerations that serve to complicate the narrative that Ivory Coast is the world’s most recent peacebuilding success story. Since the country emerged from nine years of an on-again-off-again crisis and civil conflict in 2011, it has been touted as a shining example for U.N. interventions and peacebuilding missions around the world. In September 2017, as the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast, which had been involved in peacekeeping and peacebuilding since 2004, drew to a close, Ouattara addressed the United Nations. He called for Ivory Coast to be recognized, “as one of the rare successes” of the organization and emphasized that his country served as an example of successful peacebuilding that could “inspire the United Nations further in initiatives in favor of peace.” And the glowing reports were not just stemming from the source. In 2016, the U.S. State Department reported that the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast was wrapping up and its personnel were leaving the country “at peace with few signs of its past conflict.” In Washington, D.C., the International Peace Institute organized a panel titled, “Cote d’Ivoire, a Successful Case of Crisis Management.” Ivorian government officials even claim that the Central African Republic is interested in copying their peacebuilding model because it has been so successful.

The perceived favoritism given to westerners and southerners under Gbagbo’s administration from 2000 to 2011, at the expense of northern Ivorians, who were often accused of not being real Ivorians and terrorized as a result, remains divisive and raw. The arrests of Gbagbo and Blé Goudé alongside the failure to prosecute any pro-Ouattara fighters in the aftermath of the conflict prompted further antagonism—as did the perceived lack of employment opportunities and social status for Gbagbo’s followers.

Repeated coups that occurred throughout Ivory Coast’s nine-year crisis, combined with numerous reintegration efforts that have floundered, have left a disparate, incoherent military. The government’s control over this force has always been weak, and mutinies have occurred frequently in the past 10 years. In 2017, a particularly active year for deserters, the army saw two significant uprisings. This level of volatility in Ivory Coast’s armed forces has been exacerbated in the post-conflict era by the unfulfilled promises of vast wealth made to ex-combatants during the conflict, who were subsequently reintegrated into the military after 2011. The solid connections that persist between ex-combatants and their former commanders, who now hold senior government and military positions, have only accentuated this problem.

The military is deeply divided between career soldiers who belonged to Gbagbo’s army and those who fought for Ouattara in the previous conflict.

Although the country’s demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration program was declared officially completed in 2015, the real reintegration of Ivory Coast’s ex-combatants still faces enormous challenges. The military is deeply divided between career soldiers who belonged to Gbagbo’s army and those who fought for Ouattara in the previous conflict. Many of the former feel downtrodden and overlooked in comparison to the latter, who see themselves as the victors and often refuse to take orders from their former enemies.

The government’s favoritism for pro-Ouattara troops is fueling discontent in the armed forces. The government’s contentious decision, after a mutiny in January 2017, to pay out roughly $20,000 each to 8,400 former Forces Nouvelles troops who demanded bonuses for their assistance during the post-electoral crisis did not help to ease this animosity. With most of Ivory Coast’s population living below the poverty line and unlikely to earn such an amount in an entire lifetime, it is not surprising that what was meant to be a balm for the country’s security sector angered troops who did not participate in the upheaval. They have looked on as former rebels-turned-ill-disciplined, ineffective troops have gotten rich, while they receive nothing for their loyalty to the Ivorian military.

Perhaps most concerning, however, is the persistent connection between these reintegrated troops and the former zone commanders of the rebellion, known as Comzones. Many of these men have since become politicians. The former head of the rebellion himself, Guillaume Soro, is now head of the National Assembly and holds a considerable amount of clout over the reintegrated rebels. A number of others have made the transition from zone commander to prefect, where they represent the national government at a local level.

Ivory Coast’s peacebuilding efforts are not just fraying at the edges but at the country’s very center.

The overlap between Ivory Coast’s political space and its military is concerning. Not least because a significant number of soldiers and security officials in the country believe that the mutineers were encouraged to protest by politicians who spurred them to action. With an array of active politicians boasting a track record of encouraging the destabilization of their own state, and soldiers who rose up in 2017 still threatening further mutinies, there are clear signs that Ivory Coast’s peacebuilding efforts are not just fraying at the edges but at the country’s very center.

Justice and reparations for victims of conflict have also proven to be stumbling blocks in Ivory Coast, despite these being seen as a fundamental requirement for successful peacebuilding. The reintegration of former commanders into the government and the armed forces have stifled numerous opportunities for real dialogue and reconciliation around the country. The prime example of this is the Ivorian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established shortly after conflict ended in 2011 and fashioned in the image of South Africa’s widely praised model. Many Ivorians who participated in the truth and reconciliation process said that although it was undoubtedly cathartic to discuss the crimes they experienced during the conflict, nothing was ever done with the findings of the commission’s report. The majority of the victims who came forward to share their experiences of harm during the conflict have not received a resolution or compensation of any kind. Ultimately, the final version of the document languished for two years before a heavily censored version was released, fueling suspicion that crimes committed by those in power had been extensively covered up.

With many of those who allegedly committed war crimes now occupying senior positions in the armed forces and the government, it is not hard to imagine why this strand of the peacebuilding process has been largely left alone. There is little incentive for those in power to advance truth and reconciliation initiatives that would highlight their own wrongdoing. Instead, these officials have often used their political office to prosecute the pro-Gbagbo activists, politicians, and ex-combatants who lost the conflict.

In August 2018, the government demonstrated at least some political will to move toward reconciliation by announcing an amnesty for around 800 pro-Gbagbo activists and political prisoners. Yet, the civilians who supported Gbagbo during the civil conflict complain that despite this move, the broader policies of the government are not conducive to real reconciliation. They argue that the best jobs in the administration are reserved solely for those of northern origins, with an assumed loyalty to Ouattara, and that they—who hail largely from the west of the country, the source of Gbagbo’s base—are systematically being kept out of power and away from the country’s wealth. Others suggest that this amnesty is too little, too late, especially while there remain many other pro-Gbagbo prisoners still in jail. A civilian in Abidjan lamented, “The problem is that some people died in prison; people are still victims of an injustice.”

Ivorians will be hoping that the progress that has been made since the end of the 2011 conflict will be sufficient to prevent any further considerable unrest taking place in the 2020 elections. But given the absence of real security sector reform, the politicization of the armed forces poses a threat to Ivory Coast’s stability that is unlikely to go away in the next 21 months. Equally, the culture of impunity that has enabled politicians who committed serious crimes during the conflict to take leading roles in the current administration is likely to continue to provoke animosity that could spell disaster for the country.

For the most part, Ivory Coast’s promising but incomplete peacebuilding efforts have allowed divisions and hostilities to bubble under the surface, with the gloss of economic growth permitting outsiders to turn a blind eye to huge deficiencies within the country’s peacebuilding process. Yet it is essential to take the turbulence of the country’s local elections—which saw the emergence of kidnapping, killing, and political violence of all stripes—as a warning. Even after significant gains, it is far from certain that Ivory Coast is on a path to durable peace. Unless the government does more to resolve inter-community tensions in the buildup to an extremely contentious presidential election in 2020, the realities faced by Ivorians threaten undercut Ivory Coast’s international image as the quintessential peacebuilding success story.


Jessica Moody is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Twitter: @JessMoody89

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