Background Briefing

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Côte d’Ivoire’s status as francophone West Africa's economic powerhouse was shattered with the 1999 coup d état by General Robert Guei, who presided over a government characterized by violence and impunity by the security forces.  As the October 2000 elections neared, Guei’s government allowed a growing sense of nationalism or ‘Ivorité’ to flourish. Like the government of Henri Konon Bedie before him, Guei openly exploited ethnicity in an effort to eliminate his biggest political rival, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim from the north who headed the Rally of Republicans party (Rassemblement des Republicains, RDR).

A controversial Supreme Court decision in October 2000 disqualified fourteen of the nineteen presidential candidates, including Ouattara, on citizenship grounds, and former president Bédié, for not submitting a proper medical certificate. On October 22, 2000, presidential elections were held. After early results showed Laurent Gbagbo, candidate from the Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivoirien, FPI), leading in the polls, General Guei dissolved the National Electoral Commission and proclaimed himself the winner. On October 24, 2000, tens of thousands of protesters from several political parties took to the streets and descended on the city center. President Guei's elite Presidential Guard opened fire on demonstrators, killing scores. On October 25, 2000, after the military and police abandoned him, General Guei fled the country and Gbagbo declared himself president.

On October 26, 2000, as supporters of Gbagbo's FPI party celebrated the swearing in of their new president, Ouattara's RDR once again took to the streets, this time demanding fresh elections on the grounds that Ouattara and other candidates had been arbitrarily barred from running. The bloody clashes which ensued were characterized by religious and ethnic tensions as security forces and civilians supporting President Gbagbo clashed with the mostly Muslim northerners who form the core of support for the RDR.

During the October elections, there were scores of extrajudicial executions as well as "disappearances," sexual violence, hundreds of cases of torture, and the wanton destruction of property. The victims of these attacks were members of the RDR and to a less extent the FPI.

The October 27, 2000 discovery of the bullet-ridden bodies of fifty-seven young men, mostly RDR supporters, massacred in a forest on the outskirts of Abidjan by members of the gendarmerie, became the icon of the election violence. The incident, known as the Charnier de Yopougon (the mass grave of Yopougon), presented a test of President Gbagbo's will to exert control over the security forces, stand up for the rights of all Ivorians regardless of ethnicity, and take a stand on the importance of the rule of law. After assuming the presidency in October 2000, President Gbagbo should have conducted meaningful investigations into the violence with a view to holding accountable those responsible for the unprecedented violence.

He failed to do so. Instead, the December 2000 parliamentary elections were characterized by a further breakdown in the rule of law as state agents and FPI political supporters, encouraged by the impunity they enjoyed, perpetrated numerous acts of violence. While there were fewer killings than in October 2002, there were more cases of arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and religious persecution. Also, by December 2000, a relationship between the security forces and the youth wing of Gbagbo's party had consolidated, with the latter enjoying complete immunity, even when they committed atrocities in the presence of gendarmes and police.3

On the morning of September 19,2002, heavy shooting broke out in Abidjan while simultaneous attacks took place in the northern towns of Korhogo and Bouaké. The attacks were led by a number of junior military officers who had fled to Burkina Faso in 2000 after having been detained and tortured under then President Guei’s government. The attackers formed part of an organized rebel movement, the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire, MPCI). Many were soldiers, including officers who had been sidelined under Gbagbo’s government, while others were from northern ethnic groups, or were strong supporters of the opposition RDR. While unable to take the commercial capital Abidjan, the MPCI had within weeks consolidated its control over much of the north of the country.

By the end of November 2002, the capture of Man and Danané and an attack on Toulepleu, all sizeable towns in the west near the Liberian border, marked the appearance of two new rebel groups working in coordination with the MPCI, and a new military front. The new groups, the Movement for Justice and Peace (Mouvement pour la justice et la paix, MJP) and the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Great West (Mouvement Populaire Ivoirien du Grand Ouest, MPIGO) claimed to be Ivorian.  However MPIGO was mainly composed of Liberian and Sierra Leonean fighters, including some former members of the Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Liberian forces linked to then Liberian President Charles Taylor.

The internal armed conflict officially ended in January 2003, after the signing of the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. The agreement provided for the formation of a Government of National Reconciliation, which was to oversee disarmament, transparent elections, and the implementation of political reforms such as changes to citizenship and land tenure laws. During 2003 the country made only limited progress towards implementing the provisions of the agreement. Despite the inclusion of both sides in the new government of reconciliation, representatives of the Forces Nouvelles (a single politico-military movement made up of forces from the MPCI, MJP and MPIGO who merged in 2003) withdrew in September 2003 citing, among other reasons, President Gbagbo’s lack of good faith in implementing the agreement.

Fears that the impasse would lead to a fresh outbreak of violence led the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to organize a summit to jump-start the peace-process, which was held in July 2004 in Accra, Ghana. The summit resulted in the signing of the Accra III agreement which committed the government to adopt several key legal reforms by the end of August 2004, including one on citizenship for West African immigrants, one which would define eligibility to contest presidential elections, and another which would change rights to land tenure. The agreement also set October 15, 2004 as the starting date for disarmament, and agreed that the process should include all paramilitary and militia groups. However, at this writing, none of the key reforms had been passed by the Ivorian government, rebels have pledged to hold up disarmament, and the diplomatic community is once again expressing concern about the peace process.

[3] See “The New Racism: The Political Exploitation of Ethnicity in Côte d’Ivoire,” Human Rights Watch Report, Volume 13, No 6(A) August 2001.

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