War-torn Côte d'Ivoire needs a big fix

The announcement that world-famous Ivorian soccer star Didier Drogba will serve on Côte d’Ivoire’s truth and reconciliation commission is a strong signal that the process is getting ready for the serious, difficult but very necessary task ahead.

During the long stand-off after the 2010 election, in which incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede victory to winner Alassane Ouattara, atrocities were committed by both sides in a short civil war. In the last days of what was called “the Battle for Abidjan”, after military intervention by French troops stationed in the country as part of the United Nations mission, Gbagbo and members of his family and retinue were captured and detained.

Now the hard work of recovery has begun.
On the economic front, France and the United States have released hundreds of millions in funds for Côte d’Ivoire. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, among others, have offered substantial financial aid. This is more than welcome, even though it is not enough for some economists. The great shock to the economy means that much needs to be rebuilt - administrative offices, hospitals, schools, roads and businesses.

Nevertheless, a sense of normality is creeping back. Traffic jams have returned in the streets of Abidjan. Banks appear to be doing business as usual and civil servants are receiving their regular monthly pay. But some employees are still unaccounted for - it is estimated that 3 000 people died in the post-election conflict and that several hundred thousand were displaced internally and externally. More and more are coming back, including formerly high-level Gbagbo supporters.

Meanwhile, Ouattara’s government is seeking ways to attract foreign investment to sectors such as offshore oil exploration, industry, agriculture and private business. Some large reconstruction projects are being planned and economic ties with France have never been stronger.

Still, it is too early to say where the country is heading in terms of economic recovery—it will take months, even years, before deep structural changes can take place. In July, Côte d’Ivoire decided not to repay its external debt until next year to keep precious funds for reconstruction.

Security in Abidjan and in the rest of the country has improved. Affluent areas are increasingly safer, although in some poorer neighbourhoods the proliferation of weapons imported during the war has caused a sharp increase in crime. The president has asked France to retain a military contingent in the country to help stave off any recurrence of the war and the UN mission to Côte d’Ivoire has been extended.

Legislative elections are due at the end of the year but, considering the fragile state of the country, they are likely be postponed. Integrating former enemies into a cohesive national army is another mammoth task the country faces. Mercenaries and rogue fighters from both sides committed atrocities and destroyed whole communities.

If Ouattara wants Ivoirians to see him as the leader to bring democracy and stability back to Côte d’Ivoire, he and his government will have to retain the moral high ground they occupied throughout the post-electoral crisis. A truth and reconciliation commission has been set up and Ouattara has promised that it will dispense justice to all sides.

But he may be forced to act against some who fought on his side and committed human-rights abuses. Reports by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently expressed concern over retaliatory killings allegedly carried out by Ouattara supporters.

A few weeks ago, the public prosecutor in Abidjan formally charged Gbagbo with economic crimes—theft, embezzlement of public funds and looting of national resources. His wife faces the same charges. They could also find themselves at the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity. Many officials of the Gbagbo government are in detention and others have taken refuge abroad.

How can justice be carried out publicly without assuming the look of a witch-hunt? How can trust in the ability of Ivoirians to live peacefully together again be rebuilt?

What is needed most, perhaps, is not so much a truth commission as the collective realisation that everybody, to a larger or lesser extent, bears responsibility for the Ivoirian disaster. It is an internal process of self-questioning that is most needed.

Many Ivorians are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, they want reconstruction to take its course as quickly as possible so that they can go on with their lives. On the other, they are afraid of giving carte blanche to the new government. If trust in politicians is to be regained, Ouattara’s government needs to show genuine transparency and accountability. With so much money coming into the country, keeping corruption in check will be an ongoing process.

Finding constitutional ways of decentralising power so that it is not concentrated in the hands of the presidential executive should be on the table. Existing civil society is weak—there is an absence of real opposition and Parliament is not functioning properly.

All these factors make for potentially dangerous circumstances that a new Ivorian polity will have to deal with as soon as possible. Then real reconstruction can begin.

Véronique Tadjo grew up in Côte d’Ivoire and is head of French studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. This article draws on earlier pieces posted on the Fairobserver and Royal African Society websites

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