The much anticipated reconciliation talks between President Alassane Ouattara’s ruling party coalition and opposition parties ended much like they began: with the party of former President Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), conditioning future engagement on the release of Laurent Gbagbo and the other former party leaders in detention. These preconditions not only expose the FPI political elite’s contempt for the thousands of victims of often heinous forms of political violence, but also reinforce the perception that the party remains more interested in hard-line politics than in helping end the root causes of the country’s grave human rights abuses.
The exit from Côte d’Ivoire’s decade-long crisis won’t be found in the FPI leadership’s demand to release those in prison – that merely recreates the notion of impunity that fueled the violence in the first place. In solidarity with the victims who supported the FPI, the party should instead be pressing for swift and meaningful investigations, both in Côte d’Ivoire and at the ICC, into crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces. Rather than calling for outright release, the party would be right to insist that the pro-Gbagbo leaders get fair and speedy trials.
The Ouattara government’s attempts to approach the opposition political parties culminated in a formal meeting, on April 27 and 28, between the ruling political party coalition and the opposition. The FPI leadership agreed to participate at the last minute, though ultimately neither attended the second day of dialogue nor signed the final communiqué agreed to by other ruling and opposition parties. In interviews with the press on April 27, the FPI representative, Sébastien Dano Djédjé, dismissed concerns that the party was an impediment to reconciliation. He continued, “We are the ones who suffered the worst difficulties.”
The FPI would be better received if it remembered the real victims. Pro-Gbagbo security forces and militia committed widespread killings, enforced disappearances, and rapes throughout the country’s crisis. They lobbed fragmentation grenades into crowds of demonstrators, launched mortars into heavily populated neighborhoods, and reached new levels of depravity through Article 125 – a term coined to indicate the cost of gasoline and matches used by militiamen to burn Ouattara supporters alive.
A father I interviewed in Yopougon listened in horror from inside his house, safe behind a locked metal door, as five of his boys were brutally executed outside by pro-Gbagbo militiamen on April 12 a year ago. “Around 2 p.m., we stopped hearing gunfire and went out,” he said. “When I saw the bodies, I was in shock, I couldn’t even cry. We marched through blood to get out of the compound, the five bodies just lying there.”
The FPI’s supporters likewise suffered egregious crimes after the Republican Forces began their military offensive in March 2011. Human Rights Watch documented summary executions, rape, and torture in western Côte d’Ivoire and in Abidjan. A woman from just outside Doké tearfully described watching pro-Ouattara forces execute her father, husband, and 10-year-old son after they were discovered hiding near their campement. She told me, “I lay there, watching as my boy fell down dead, but I couldn’t cry. If I cried they would know I was still alive, and they would have killed me. But why am I still alive? They have taken my son, my husband, and my father. I have nothing.”
There are thousands more stories of horrific abuses suffered and witnessed by civilians from both sides of the crisis. President Ouattara has notably recognized the devastation wrought by the post-election violence, in particular during his recent visit to western Côte d’Ivoire. Yet the FPI leadership often appears to speak as if these victims do not exist, as if the story of the Ivorian crisis is only about the political and military elites – and how the FPI is no longer in power.
It is well past time for the FPI leadership to acknowledge the immense suffering experienced by victims on both sides and to take responsibility for its actions that led to abuses against thousands of real and perceived Ouattara supporters. FPI leaders oversaw a decade of Ivoirité – the manipulation of ethnicity to the detriment of northern Ivorians and West African immigrants. Some of its party leaders routinely used the national television station to incite hatred against these groups throughout the crisis. Military and militia allied to the FPI committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity. The party could demonstrate that its politics of division are over by recognizing that those responsible for these crimes should be held to account.
The FPI leadership’s demands for Laurent Gbagbo’s release are particularly perplexing. He has been surrendered to the International Criminal Court, on the basis of an arrest warrant confirmed by that court’s judges. The Ouattara government has no say in the Gbagbo trial, justice will run its course and the truth of Gbagbo’s involvement in alleged crimes should emerge. Indeed, the FPI might do well to remember that the Gbagbo government first invited the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes committed in Côte d’Ivoire.
FPI leaders have largely ignored their strongest argument on justice issues, because of the blind focus on the party elite over the conflict’s victims. President Ouattara should be commended for refusing to bow to the FPI’s “preconditions” for reconciliation and for repeatedly affirming that justice for post-election crimes is essential for the return of rule of law. But the reality remains that only the Gbagbo side is being prosecuted. Over a year after the end of the conflict, no member of the pro-Ouattara forces has been charged with post-election crimes.
As the dialogue moves forward, issues that undermine the rights of all Ivorians, irrespective of political persuasion and ethnicity, should be front and center on the agenda. To effectively end the abuses that have marked the last decade, the responsibility should be to the victims of serious crimes, not to protecting the elite on both sides who oversaw atrocities.
The coming months present a crucial test for President Ouattara, who renewed promises for impartial justice during his visit to Duékoué. He needs to follow through if the country is to emerge from its recent horror. But the coming months also present a crucial test for the FPI leadership. The party leaders should finally acknowledge the victims on both sides of the crisis, as well as individual and collective responsibility for the serious crimes committed. To act as if no justice is the same as impartial justice will only further show the party has lost sight of the country’s true victims.
Matt Wells is a West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.