Ivory Coast's former rebels cling to their weapons

2015-04-30 06:40

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Abidjan -"This, I won't hand over," growls Etienne, a former fighter in Ivory Coast who helped President Alassane Ouattara to power in 2011, clutching his rusty Kalashnikov tightly.

Etienne and around 1 000 comrades are squatters at the barracks of the Anti-Riot Brigade in Yopougon, a district of the commercial capital Abidjan that was badly hit during a bloody post-electoral power struggle in 2010-2011.

For four years, the ex-rebels have occupied the premises in hope of persuading the west African state to reward their part in the fight by providing housing, money or jobs in the security forces.

Ouattara dashed their expectations in mid-April. "All ex-fighters who are still in military bases ... must free these places before June 30, 2015," he announced, adding that there would be "no more recruitment into the army."

The problem of the former fighters threatens to dominate the next presidential elections in October that Ouattara is expected to again win.

Rebels from the north of the country helped him become head of state in April 2011, after four months of crisis triggered by ousted former president Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to concede defeat in elections.

Some 13 000 ex-rebels have already been enlisted into the army, according to security experts. But parts of the country are still stalked by armed men.

‘Political quarrels’

In December, Human Rights Watch detailed a disturbing pattern of sometimes deadly attacks on vehicles and villages in the north. Residents blamed the attacks on former fighters.

Local people told the New York-based organisation that banditry had escalated in 2014 after a lull and said that the security forces were absent or mostly took no action when told of ambushes and raids.

"I don't want to quarrel over politics anymore," Etienne says. One assault rifle lies across his knees and he claims to have two others elsewhere.

"But if I hear that one of my ex-fighter friends has a problem, I won't hesitate to come back and help him," he adds proudly before riding off on a motorbike, his gun barely concealed in his bag.

Etienne estimates that more than 400 squatters in the barracks will keep all or some of their weapons. Other ex-rebels told AFP that they would not disarm.

'Post-crisis process'

Some men openly count their cartridges just a few metres (yards) away from officers of the Authority for Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reinsertion (ADDR), an agency set up by the government.

To encourage them to surrender all their arms and ammunition, the ADDR has set a quota. Each former fighter should hand over at least 210 bullets to be able to benefit from professional and financial help.

But this approach also has flaws.

Another former fighter, Zamble, walks up to the ADDR team wearing an impressive necklace of about 100 bullets. Since the quantity of ammunition does not qualify him for aid he is rejected and returns to the barracks, still sporting his deadly ornament.

When he returns to civilian life he will take his ammunition with him.

About 53 000 former fighters out of a total 74 000 have already been demobilised, ADDR chief Fidele Sarassoro tells AFP. But several experts say that the figures were exaggerated for political purposes.

Beneficiaries of the disarmament programme spend a month at a centre for "re-socialisation" and are then given two months of professional training, during which they are paid 40 000 CFA francs ($68).

If they are unable to find paid employment, they are given a lump sum of 800 000 CFA francs.

"This is a post-crisis process and Ivory Coast is no longer in a post-crisis situation," Sarassoro says. "So it's legitimate that the government wants to put an end to the disarmament process."

‘Betrayed’

The ADDR director says that 31 580 weapons have been collected since the programme started in 2012.

About 50 former rebels in Yopougon, carrying hand grenades and guns, were ready to comply with directives and queue at the ADDR stand while AFP was at the scene.

But many consider themselves "betrayed" and complain that they were driven away too soon and without immediate compensation, though they had "given [their] lives" for the president.

"I helped Alassane Ouattara," Mohamed Coulibaly says, sunglasses pushed up on his brow. "In return today, I have neither a home nor work."

Read more on:    alassane ouatara  |  ivory coast

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