Background Briefing

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On September 19, 2002, rebels from the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire or MPCI) attacked police, gendarme and other strategic targets in Abidjan, the country’s commercial and de facto capital, and the northern towns of Bouaké and Korhogo.  The MPCI rebels were composed mainly of “Dioula” or northerners of Malinké, Senaphou, and other ethnicities, some Burkinabe and Malian recruits, and “dozos” or traditional hunters.1  The rebel leaders’ stated aims were the end of ethnic discrimination against northerners and the removal of President Gbagbo, whose presidency was viewed as illegitimate given the flawed elections in 2000.2 The rebellion also marked the manifestation of a widespread feeling among northerners that since at least 1990, they have been consistently excluded from political power. 

While unable to take Abidjan, within two months the MPCI rebels had consolidated control of much of the north (including the key western towns of Man and Danané)—about 50 percent of the country. The western towns were taken with the help of two new rebel groups composed mainly of Liberian and Sierra Leonean fighters: the Movement for Justice and Peace (Mouvement Pour la Justice et la Paix or MJP) and the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West (Mouvement Populaire Ivoirien du Grand Ouest or MPIGO).

During the active hostilities lasting from September 2002 to January 2003 all parties committed serious violations of international humanitarian law. The state security forces frequently attacked, arbitrarily detained, and summarily executed persons whom they perceived to be supporters of the rebel forces on the basis of ethnic, national, religious, and political affiliation. The MPCI rebels also attacked and killed civilians suspected of supporting the government. Liberian and Sierra Leonean fighters with the MPIGO and MJP committed numerous abuses against civilians in the west, including summary killings, rape, and systematic looting of civilian property. Militias and rebel forces alike recruited and used child combatants.3

A Troika of Unfulfilled Peace Agreements

Efforts to resolve the conflict between the government and the rebels, which in 2003 formed a military-political alliance called the New Forces (Forces Nouvelles or FN),  have rested on a string of unfulfilled peace agreements, beginning with Linas-Marcoussis brokered by the French government in January 2003, Accra III brokered by West African countries and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in July 2004, and most recently the Pretoria Agreement, brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African Union and signed in South Africa on April 6, 2005. Although these agreements have brought about and thus far maintained a cessation of civil war, they have not brought peace or unity to the country, which remains effectively split in two with the New Forces controlling the north and Gbagbo’s government holding the south, where most of the country’s 16 million inhabitants live.

The Linas-Marcoussis accord officially ended the armed conflict between the government and New Forces.  The accord called for an interim Government of National Reconciliation, comprised of members of President Gbagbo’s ruling Ivorian Popular Front (Front Populaire Ivorien or FPI), the New Forces, and opposition parties, and headed by a Prime Minister chosen by consensus. The interim government was charged with overseeing the disarmament of “all forces”; preparing the country for credible elections; and revising laws and procedures relating to citizenship, the issuing of identity documents, eligibility to contest elections, and the makeup and role of the Independent Electoral Commission.

In September 2003 the New Forces withdrew from this government of national reconciliation, complaining of President Gbagbo’s “lack of good faith” in implementing the accord. In an effort to boost the peace process, on February 27, 2004, the United Nations Security Council established a peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire, known as the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI).4 The force, deployed on April 4, 2004, is comprised of some 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers (“blue helmets”) and about 250 civilian police officers. The U.N. force, backed by 4,000 more heavily armed French troops belonging to Operation Unicorn (La Licorne), monitors a buffer zone running the width of the country east to west and separating the opposing Ivorian forces, which is known as the Zone of Confidence. ONUCI is also charged with assisting the government with implementing a national disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) plan, and with protecting “civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and its areas of deployment.”5

In March 2004 a demonstration by a coalition of opposition groups marching to bolster their demands for the full implementation of the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement was attacked by security forces, resulting in at least 105 dead and 290 wounded. In July 2004 the U.N., A.U., and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), fearing a renewal of hostilities, organized a summit in Accra, Ghana. This resulted in the Accra III agreement, which committed the government to adopt the legal reforms on citizenship and eligibility to contest elections already stipulated in the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. Accra III also stipulated that the disarmament process would include paramilitary and militia groups.

On November 4, 2004, President Gbagbo’s government launched bombing raids on rebels in the north, shattering the eighteen-month ceasefire. When nine French soldiers were killed in an airborne attack on Bouaké on November 6, 2004, the French retaliated by destroying the bulk of the country’s tiny air force. The French attack against the Ivorian Air Force triggered a stream of invective from Ivorian state broadcasters and pro-government newspapers against France and foreigners, leading to the widespread burning and looting of French and other foreigners’ homes and businesses. The attacks prompted the largest evacuation of expatriates in the country’s post-colonial history: some 8,000 people from 63 countries left Côte d’Ivoire in November 2004. These attacks spurred various actors within the international community to intensify their efforts to resolve the crisis. The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Côte d’Ivoire in November 2004, and in February 2005 named a panel of experts to monitor it.6

An attack by militia forces on the rebel-held town of Logoualé in the volatile west on February 28, 2005, and rumors of a renewed government military offensive, prompted South African President Mbeki (appointed the A.U. mediator in November 2004) to step up his mediation efforts. A series of meetings resulted in the signing of the Pretoria Agreement on April 6, 2005. The agreement included a declaration of the “immediate and final cessation of all hostilities”; called for the disarmament of the rebels and pro-government militias; committed the actors to accept the determination of the mediator regarding revisions to laws and procedures called for under Linas-Marcoussis; and committed all actors to take steps toward a presidential election in October 2005.

Within six months it was clear that the Pretoria Agreement was delivering no more progress towards peace than its predecessors. Diplomats, U.N. officials, journalists, and politicians from the main political parties, including the FPI, the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire (Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire or PDCI), and the Rally of Republicans (Rassemblement des Républicains or RDR), told Human Rights Watch that although some laws had been passed and agreements drafted to address the key issues of the conflict—the identification of Ivorians and registration of voters, eligibility to contest elections, and the disarmament of rebel and militia forces in the west— pervasive distrust has prevented each side from taking the necessary steps to build confidence and begin the process of implementation.7

The failure of the parties to fully implement the Pretoria Agreement led the government in September 2005 to cancel the October election.  To avert a constitutional crisis arising from the expiration of President Gbagbo’s mandate on October 30, 2005, the African Union issued a communiqué on October 6 reaffirming that the Linas Marcoussis, Accra III, and Pretoria agreements were the “appropriate framework” for resolving the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, and called for a one-year extension of Gbagbo’s term as head of state, the creation of a new power-sharing government and appointment of a new prime minister who would have “full authority” over the cabinet, and the continuation of efforts to implement the provisions called for under the previous agreements.8 The plan also called for the creation of an International Working Group (chaired by the Nigerian Foreign Minister) to monitor implementation of the plan through monthly meetings, and the creation of a mediation group (chaired by the Special Envoy of South Africa) to undertake mediation on a day-to-day basis. The U.N. Security Council formally endorsed the plan on October 21, 2005, and called for a credible election to be held no later than October 31, 2006.9 However, the New Forces have rejected the legitimacy of the one-year extension of President Gbago’s rule.

The end result is a stalemate where the rebels continue to refuse to disarm because they do not trust the government to manage credible elections in which Ivorians from the north will be allowed to vote in free and fair conditions.  Diplomats, U.N. officials, and representatives from the main political parties told Human Rights Watch that much more intense international pressure must be put on the warring parties to overcome the lack of political will and to resolve the political crisis.10

[1] See Human Rights Watch, “Trapped Between Two Wars: Violence Against Civilians in Western Côte d’Ivoire,” Vol. 15, No. 14(A), August 2003, pp. 9-10.

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

[3] See Human Rights Watch, “Trapped Between Two Wars.”

[4] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1528, February 27, 2004, S/RES/1528(2004).

[5] Ibid.

[6] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1572, November 15, 2004, S/RES/1572 (2004).

[7] Human Rights Watch interviews, Abidjan, September-October 2005.

[8] See African Union Peace and Security Council, “Communiqué of the 40th Meeting of the Peace and Security Council,” PSC/AHG/Comm(XL), October 6, 2005.

[9] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1633, October 21, 2005, S/RES/1633 (2005).

[10] Human Rights Watch interviews, Abidjan, September-October 2005.

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