(Abidjan) – The government of Côte d’Ivoire should be commended for taking action against security forces who extort money at roadblocks, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the government to extend its efforts to secondary roads in rural areas, where members of the Republican Forces continue to regularly extort money.
“The Ouattara government deserves considerable praise for its recent efforts to take on the racketeering that long predates the country’s recent post-election conflict,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It needs to now go beyond the main roads into the rural areas where certain soldiers think they can hide from the government’s crackdown and prey on some of the country’s most vulnerable populations.”
On September 5, 2011, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro said the government would no longer tolerate roadblock extortion and demanded sanctions against perpetrators. The following day, the spokesperson for the Defense Ministry warned members of the Republican Forces that they would be dismissed if caught racketeering.
Extortion by security forces wracked the country long before recent violence was sparked by former President Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down after his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, was named the winner of the November 28, 2010 run-off by the country’s electoral commission and international observers. Serious human rights abuses by armed forces on both sides marked a conflict in which at least 3,000 civilians were killed and 150 women were raped, often along political, ethnic, and religious lines.
In the October 2010 report “Afraid and Forgotten,” Human Rights Watch documented the widespread extortion and racketeering that plagued the country’s western regions before the conflict. Security forces in the country’s south, then controlled by the Gbagbo government, routinely targeted northern Ivorians and West African nationals for extortion – at times arbitrarily detaining and beating those that would not immediately pay. In the northern part of the country – then controlled by the Forces Nouvelles rebel army – soldiers reaped enormous profits off extorting businesses and at roadblocks.
The Forces Nouvelles later became the Republican Forces, which fought for Ouattara during the post-election conflict and arrested Gbagbo on April 11. In the first months after the Republican Forces took control of the country, it appeared that many of the practices that affected northern Côte d’Ivoire since 2002 would become standard, with reports of soldiers setting up roadblocks and demanding payments across the country. However, in July, Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko, Prime Minister Soro, and military chief of staff General Soumaïlia Bakayoko went around Abidjan in person, announcing they were reducing the number of checkpoints and demanding that soldiers end extortion. Further complaints from the population, particularly outside of Abidjan, led to the recent government statements that extortion would not be tolerated. Similar pleas fell on deaf ears during the previous government, so the current government’s response to this issue is an encouraging sign, Human Rights Watch said.
Residents of the country’s southwestern and western regions told a Human Rights Watch researcher on the ground that while many roadblocks had come down along the main roads between the country’s larger cities, secondary, dirt roads in rural areas remain full of roadblocks where extortion is the norm. Human Rights Watch confirmed residents’ statements regarding at least seven roadblocks on secondary, dirt roads around Sassandra and Fresco, at least four roadblocks between Tabou and Grabo, and at least five between Guiglo and Taï. After truck drivers went on strike on September 8 in protest over extortion along the Guiglo-Taï axis, local government officials met with military commanders in the area to address the problem.
Residents described soldiers demanding their identity cards as they passed through roadblocks. Soldiers demanded that passengers pay 500 CFA francs (US$1) to have the cards returned. If the person did not have an identity card, soldiers demanded 1000 CFA francs.
One person interviewed said that UN peacekeepers had circulated and told residents not to pay when security demanded money at roadblocks. The person stressed to Human Rights Watch, however, “When they’re holding a gun and your identity card and say you can’t have it back until you pay 500 CFA (US$1), how are we supposed to say no?”
Medical professionals operating in the department of Taï, near the Liberian border said that extortion was an impediment to people accessing health care. In order to travel to the regional hospital in Guiglo, for example, passengers on public transportation had to pay extortion fees that doubled the cost of their trip.
The southwestern and western regions of Côte d’Ivoire were some of the worst hit by the recent conflict, and residents are in a particularly vulnerable position that aggravates the impact of being forced to give money to soldiers. A 62-year-old resident of a village outside Fresco told Human Rights Watch, “My house was pillaged of everything and burned during the war. I have nothing. Now they’re demanding 500 CFA, 500 CFA from me. It’s tiring. I have nothing to give, just my bread for that day.”
“Rather than help rebuild lives after the devastating conflict, certain soldiers are adding to residents’ misery through relentless extortion,” Bekele said. “The Ouattara government should follow through on its commitment to sanction these soldiers, including through removing persons found to have committed or authorized such acts from the country’s new, unified army.”