As Ivory Coast vote nears, powder keg west braces for trouble

Patrick FORT
·3-min read
A protest against Ouattara's third-term bid turned violent in Bangolo, where mining company trucks were torched

As Ivory Coast vote nears, powder keg west braces for trouble

A protest against Ouattara's third-term bid turned violent in Bangolo, where mining company trucks were torched

His brother had his throat slit and his handicapped niece was shot dead in her home, but Zeabahi Maurice has put aside all thoughts of revenge against the militiamen who ravaged his village in the west of the Ivory Coast a decade ago.

The chief of Guitrozon, a village of around 1,400 people, Maurice remembers the scenes vividly. "One evening we were invaded by rebels from the north. They started eliminating and killing us," he says.

But as elections loom on October 31, the 75-year-old former gendarme said he is working nonstop to help prevent a repeat of the bloodshed the West African state endured in 2010-11.

"What is important is fairness. Everywhere where things are unfair, there is disorder. The problem for Ivory Coast in general is a lack of trust," Maurice said. "It must be restored."

Hundreds of the some 3,000 people who lost their lives in the conflict died in this region, which is the heartland of Ivory Coast's cocoa production and an ethnic powder keg.

The crisis erupted after then-president Laurent Gbagbo, who hails from the west, refused to concede defeat in elections to Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim from the north.

Now, with two mandates under his belt, Ouattara is seeking a third term, in defiance of a constitutional limit, saying that a 2016 reform has reset the counter.

The decision set off protests, notably one in the nearby town of Bangolo that turned violent, with youths torching mining company trucks -- a symbol of resources that do not benefit local people.

"There's no economic activity here," fumed Bangolo youth leader Gervais Gaha. "Ouattara has done nothing. Since he has been president only the people in the north have benefitted."

- Loyalties changed -

The 2010-11 crisis saw vicious fighting pitting the Guere ethnic group indigenous to the region, and mainly pro-Gbagbo, against the Dioula people, originally from the north and mainly pro-Ouattara.

Added to the mix are immigrants from Burkina Faso, the country's neighbour to the north and mainly Muslim, like Ouattara.

Today the cast of characters is familiar, though loyalties have changed.

Ouattara, 78, and 86-year-old former president Henri Konan Bedie, now opposition leader, are standing in the October 31 election.

Gbagbo however has been barred from running as well as Guillaume Soro, 48, a former prime minister and Ouattara ally who went into opposition. During the conflict, in which both sides were accused of atrocities, Soro headed a militia that fought forces backing Gbagbo, now 75.

Land rights are at the root of much of the inter-ethnic animosity in the west.

Mamadou Doumbia, an influential imam in the city of Duekoue by Guitrozon, said a "sensitivity campaign" in which he took part had helped calm passions, but he warned that squabbles over land remain "recurrent" in the region "where everything took off from" in 2010.

- 'A martyr people' -

The "indigenous" Gueres accuse the "foreigners" of extending their plantations into the lands they have bought or are leasing.

For their part the relative newcomers -- the Dioulas and the Burkinabe immigrants, as well as people from central Baoule -- accuse the Gueres of wanting to steal land they have legally bought or leased, once it has been improved "with our sweat" as one Burkinabe put it.

The looming election is deepening the divide for some. 

Marcellin Die, who lives in Duekoue and was a local official of Gbagbo's party, said: "The Gueres are a martyr people. Duekoue is the martyr city. We are tired of killings by (Ouattara's) RHDP" party.

"We Ivorians want our country!" he exclaimed. "Business is in the hands of Ouattara's supporters all over the region."

Back in Maurice's village of around 1,400 mainly Gueres, there are around 50 "camps" of Dioulas and Burkinabes who work on the cocoa plantations.

Maurice still fears the slightest dispute could spiral out of control.

"People say, 'We've had enough of these people, we have to run them out!'" Maurice said.

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