/ 18 April 2011

Côte d’Ivoire warlord cites heavy toll

A renegade warlord who began the battle to wrest Côte d’Ivoire’s commercial capital from soldiers who fired rockets and mortars on a poor neighbourhood said on Sunday that a lack of military coordination cost too many lives, infrastructure damage and unnecessary looting.

Ibrahim Coulibaly, whose so-called “Invisible Commando” suddenly emerged two months ago to fight soldiers loyal to strongman Laurent Gbagbo, denied rumours his fighters might challenge the authority of the government installed at the cost of thousands of deaths and injuries.

In an exclusive interview on Sunday with the Associated Press, he called himself a general, used his nickname IB, and pledged his allegiance to democratically elected President Alassane Ouattara.

“IB came to solve the problems, not create problems. IB is part of the solution,” he said, adopting the campaign slogan that calls Ouattara “The Solution”.

“IB wants this country to be unified,” he said. “I don’t understand why people say IB wants to take power from Ouattara. What lies!”

Coulibaly denied there had been infighting between the pro-Ouattara forces when his former comrades from central and northern Côte d’Ivoire descended on the capital after a lightning assault across the south of the country, but he admitted there were problems.

“If we had united, we would have been able to avoid much bloodshed there would have been fewer lives lost, less damages and looting,” Coulibaly said. “Now we have many armed individuals who are out of control.”

‘Tales, lies and rumours’
He also denied there had been a bloody shootout between his fighters and other pro-Ouattara forces around the state television station, creating a huge setback that delayed the liberation of the besieged commercial capital of Abidjan while Gbagbo’s soldiers, militia and hired foreign mercenaries were beating Ouattara supporters to death with bricks, dousing some with fuel and burning them alive and slitting throats of others.

“There are so many stories, tales, lies and rumours,” he complained.

But the Associated Press has interviewed witnesses who say the contrary, including two residents and two fighters involved in the incident. “It was a mini-battle that went on overnight from March 31 to April 1. There were a lot of bodies but I don’t know how many of us died,” one of the commanders said.

Pro-Ouattara forces had seized the state tv station, a symbol of Gbagbo’s power that had been broadcasting hate speech, when Coulibaly arrived with his men, one commander said. He said Coulibaly wanted to broadcast a message announcing he was taking power at the head of a transitional military government, and that caused the shooting.

The infighting among pro-Ouattara forces allowed Gbagbo’s soldiers to retake the station on April 1 and it was back on the air April 2.

On March 31, everyone was saying that Gbagbo could last only a few more hours after tens of thousands of soldiers deserted him. Gbagbo was not arrested until April 11.

His comments come as many still are celebrating Gbagbo’s capture, by pro-Ouattara forces not including Coulibaly’s, and now must start the difficult task of rebuilding, starting with that of a national army including former Gbagbo and Ouattara forces. There are fears that old rivalries put aside while different groups had a common cause in toppling Gbagbo may now come to a head.

‘Hatred and vengeance are our weaknesses’
Coulibaly dismissed that thought: “It’s true there have been problems but I think the time has come to get together to rebuild this new army to allow President Ouattara to better govern the country.”

He said Côte d’Ivoire needs reconciliation and healing and pointed to South Africa as an example to learn from.

“We beg forgiveness for the bad things that have happened. But nothing can be gained by seeking vengeance. Hatred and vengeance are our weaknesses.

“We need to forgive and to stretch out our hands to each other and not exclude anyone, whether they be Baole, Djoula or Bete [Gbagbo’s tribe].” Ethnic and religious rivalries between Christians and Muslims must be a thing of the past, he said.

“Everyone said nobody from the [largely Muslim] north can rule the country, but we will show that this is not so.” Less than half of the West African nation’s 15-million people are Muslim, with the rest Christians and animists.

Gbagbo had resorted to inciting old tribal and religious rivalries to create dissension and prolong his stay in power.

Coulibaly in the past led bloody battles in central and north Côte d’Ivoire to challenge Prime Minister and Defence Minister Guillaume Soro for leadership of the former rebels who brought Ouattara to power. Soro had served under Gbagbo in a government of national unity but quit in protest after Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat at Nov. 28 elections. Ouattara then appointed him prime minister.

‘May God protect you’
Coulibaly said he saw Ouattara as a father figure and denied any presidential aspirations of his own. Coulibaly led Ouattara’s bodyguard corps when Ouattara was prime minister from 1990 to 1993.

But indicating that bad blood still exists, he refused to discuss Soro, saying “I have nothing to say about that individual.”

Soro would play a leading role in any security force reforms. Still, Coulibaly said his men are ready to be integrated in a new national army. One of his aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested they could form a new presidential guard led by Coulibaly.

On Sunday, he cut a dashing figure, a 1,72m bearded hulk of a man in camouflage uniform and red beret who spoke in measured tones as he reassured community leaders who came flanked by praise singers to show their gratitude.

They said residents pray for blessings for Coulibaly and his men every night and prayed “May God protect you against all your detractors and all those who want to sully your name and undermine your good work.”

Coulibaly (47) is a former army sergeant who had been living in exile in Benin and in 2008 was convicted in his absence by a French court for recruiting mercenaries in France and plotting a 2003 coup to oust Gbagbo. At the time, Coulibaly said the case was a plot to prevent him from running in presidential elections Gbagbo called for 2008, then delayed.

France and Côte d’Ivoire have issued international arrest warrants against Coulibaly, who was one of the leaders of the December 1999 coup that brought Gen. Robert Guei to power, and was also behind the rebellion launched in September 2002 against Gbagbo that divided the country between rebel-held north and government-run south. — Sapa-AP