All is not well in Ivory Coast


A pro-Alassane Ouattara fighter manipulates an ammunition belt during a patrol in Abidjan on April 14, 2011.


Issouf Sanogo

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Throughout Abidjan work crews fill in pot holes, fix lamp posts and repaint highway dividers, giving a tangible facelift to the metropolis largely left to crumble during former president Laurent Gbagbo's 10 years in power.

The fresh coats of paint send a strong signal that Ivory Coast's new president, Alassane Ouattara, will put the country back to work.

But the cosmetic improvements have not managed to hide continuing abuses by the replacement army, the tens of thousands of displaced people too afraid to return home and the lingering feeling that the country is being ruled by victor's justice.

Nearly two months after the last pro-Gbagbo fighters fled to neighboring Liberia and Ghana, life in Ivory Coast appears, on the surface, to be back to normal.

Traffic jams have resumed and taxi horns, not explosions, keep people up at night. This is a far cry from the deserted streets, the firefights and helicopter bombardments of March and April, when Ivory Coast teetered on the brink of civil war.

The banks have reopened, international pledges of aid and development money have resumed, and ships line up to enter Abidjan's once abandoned port, the biggest in West Africa.

Ouattara, a former vice-president at the International Monetary Fund, is celebrated at international summits like the G20 in France last month and the African Union conference in Equatorial Guinea this week. Riding the wave of international applause, Ouattara has tried to use his international connections to jumpstart the region's largest economy.

As such, a lot of effort has gone into making it look like a page has been turned. The national television and radio stations have been renamed and given new looks. Highway median strips were mowed for the first time in years and palm trees and colorful flowers have been planted along them.

Yet all is not well in Abidjan.

Of the estimated 1 million people who fled Ivory Coast's largest city in February and March, the United Nations refugee agency says 300,000 have yet to return home. Certain neighborhoods, noteworthy for their stalwart Gbagbo support, are virtually abandoned.

In parts of Yopougon, pickup trucks laden with heavily armed fighters from Outtara's Republican Forces are the only signs of life.

While more than 90 percent of the pro-Gbagbo police force has returned to work for Ouattara, it largely steers clear of the Republican Forces, and the mistrust is mutual. Last week a firefight broke out between a group of Republican Forces and the police gendarmes. A stray bullet killed a teenage girl unlucky enough to be in the area.

Yet only blocks away, Abidjan's streets are crowded with shoppers and market stalls are piled high with produce.

The contrast between peace and lingering violence can also be seen in the far west of the country, the only other region where fighting between Gbagbo and Ouattara was fierce. Villages straddle the highway looking normal on one side, where Ouattara supporters live, but burned and abandoned on the other, where Gbagbo partisans once stayed.

Wells once fouled when dead bodies were stuffed down them have been renovated and sanitized, but hospitals pillaged during the fighting remain closed, leaving tens of thousands without access to basic health care.

In a refugee camp on the grounds of a Catholic Mission, a destitute young man applauds a rice delivery. He wants neither his name, nor the name of the church used, explaining that if anyone in his family returns home, they'll be killed by their neighbors. He later confides that many in his family took up arms for Gbagbo, and chased those same neighbors out of their homes.

Revenge killings and lynchings remain a fact of life not only in the isolated villages of the west, but also in parts of densely populated Abidjan. More disturbing however, are reports that Republican Forces are carrying out summary executions and other crimes, and that they might not be accountable to Ouattara's central government.

Human Rights groups allege that hundreds of people accused of having fought for Gbagbo were summarily executed by Ouattara's former rebels in the days and weeks following the end of combat. Republican Forces remain far more loyal to their local commanders than they do to Ouattara's central hierarchy, making any attempt to call them to account difficult, if not impossible.

The United Nations said such soldiers executed at least eight people last week alone.

With an International Criminal Court investigation team in the country this week, Ouattara renewed his pledge to bring all those responsible for crimes to justice, regardless of which side they fought for. But so far only 15 members of Gbagbo's government have been formally charged and not a single Ouattara ally has been arrested.

Reconciliation is the word on everyone's lips around Abidjan, but Gbagbo supporters' refusal to return home is a clear indication that they don't believe it's true.

As one young man who admits to having taken up arms for Ouattara said ominously: "They can return home, there'll be no problem so long as they don't try to start anything. But if they do, we'll kill them."