/ 15 April 2011

Battle of Abidjan may have just begun

Talk of “Ouattara’s forces” having overthrown Gbagbo is misleading and hides a far more complex situation, one that Ouattara will have his work cut out in dealing with.

As the dust starts to settle on a devastated and traumatised Abidjan, attention has focused on Alassane Ouattara, now the effective, as well as elective, leader of the country. The common view in the international media is that he has to play the reconciliation card and probably form a government of national unity to appease those who fear exclusion.

Few will deny the need to reconcile the country, split by months of fighting and years of hate speech. But the idea that Ouattara’s first task is to form a national unity government assumes that he has effective control of the country. The assumption is based on the highly misleading idea doing the rounds in the international media that “his” forces ousted Gbagbo (or, in a toned down but still misleading formula, that they were forces “loyal to Ouattara”).

The reality is quite different. Ouattara does not have command and control over the troops who entered Abidjan about a month ago, still less those who pushed Gbagbo’s forces out of the west of the country in February and March. This could have serious repercussions for what is to come.

The former rebels, who have ruled the north of the country since 2002, have never owed allegiance to Ouattara and their relations on the ground with his political party (the RDR) have always been tense. They of course recognised Ouattara as the winner of last year’s elections, and Gbagbo’s refusal to do likewise has been the ostensible reason for their recent push on Abidjan. But this should not be mistaken for concrete loyalty. The real godfather of the rebels, President Compaore of Burkina Faso, has equally never been a close ally of the man who is now president of Côte d’Ivoire.

The rebel forces are in fact made up of two quite distinct blocks, supplemented by deserters from Gbagbo’s loyalist forces and held together for the moment more by fighting a common enemy than by any proven desire to work together. One block is led by the notorious junior officer, IB Coulibaly, who was instrumental in the 2002 rebellion but who subsequently fell out with his fellow plotters. He was the commander of the clandestine force which has been operating in the Abobo district of the capital since February this year.

The other is the main block of rebels responsible for most of the recent fighting in Abidjan, nominally loyal to a military hierarchy and to the political leadership of Guillaume Soro, now Ouattara’s prime minister. The military wing of this block is composed of ten zone commanders, each of whom has held sway over a part of the north of the country for over eight years. Many, such as Fofie Kouakou and Cherif Ousmane, have become rich in the process. Their eight years of rule have been marked by frequent tension and occasional in-fighting, for which one, Kouakou, has been under United Nations sanction since 2005.

Of the ten, no more than half a dozen were in Abidjan for the final push, the others remaining either in the north or fighting in the west. In the face of the common enemy, and to a certain extent through sharing a common cause in fighting for the citizenship of the country’s northern populations, they have held together. But only just. Soro, who came on board as their political spokesperson just after the 2002 rebellion, has limited authority over them. While Ouattara Issiaka, who was present in Abidjan when Gbagbo was arrested, is fiercely loyal to him, others are less so. When push comes to shove it has always been unlikely that he could make them do something they wouldn’t otherwise want to do.

These former rebels (as they have been known since they signed the Ouagadougou peace deal of 2007) have been backed by Burkina Faso, although its exact role in the recent fighting is unclear. President Compaore, the rebellion’s original sponsor, has had a fluctuating relationship with the zone commanders. Although he has considerable leverage over them, not least as most of them own property in his country, he has not been able to hold sway at all times.

All this adds weight to Ouattara’s unenviable in-tray. The international forces who have been protecting him since last December are simply not sufficient to gain control of the country as a whole. He will therefore not only have to do deals with those whose loyalties were, or remain, with Gbagbo, military and militias alike, but also do similar deals with the rebels who nominally fought to get him into power. Getting them on his side and, in particular, getting the majority to lay down their weapons pending a full reform of the army, may just prove his hardest task.

It may also be his most urgent as before any talk of national unity government can gain traction he has to secure his position and achieve at least a working monopoly on the use of force.

Richard Moncrieff is Bradlow Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs and an expert on West African politics.