An Ivory Coast flag hangs from the dashboard of a commercial truck on the road to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

©2012 Joe Penney/Reuters

(Nairobi) – Heavily-armed criminals are subjecting residents of northern Côte d’Ivoire to a relentless pace of often-violent attacks on buses and private vehicles and in villages, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces have largely failed to protect the population or investigate the crimes.

To address the increasingly violent crimes, the Ivorian government should urgently increase patrols in hard-hit areas and adequately equip the police and gendarmes to protect the population. The government should also disarm the former combatants widely believed to be implicated in the attacks and ensure that the criminal justice system can fully investigate and prosecute the crimes.

“People living, working, and traveling in northern Côte d’Ivoire are being terrorized by armed men who appear to operate with little fear of being stopped, much less prosecuted,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Ivorian government needs to protect people against these relentless and often violent attacks.”

In October 2014, Human Rights Watch conducted over 40 interviews with traders, bus owners, drivers and passengers; members of the security forces; government officials in Abidjan and in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second-largest city; local and international aid workers; representatives of immigrant populations; and representatives of the United Nations Mission in Côte d’Ivoire and the European Union.

Human Rights Watch documented 15 violent attacks by armed gangs, in which at least 4 drivers and passengers were killed and at least 22 people were wounded. Credible reports from Bouaké residents provided details of eight more attacks around Bouaké. All but two of these attacks took place in 2014.

A 34-year-old bus driver described an attack on his bus in July in which he was shot three times, and two passengers – a retired court clerk and a teacher – died from bullet wounds. “They shot the tires and sprayed the front of the bus,” he said. “I lost control of the bus and we went off the road into the bushes... The blood was running so much, I fell over.”

Witnesses and local authorities said that banditry has long been a problem in the north, with a concentrated period of attacks in 2011 and 2012. But residents universally noted that, after improving somewhat in 2013, the situation has progressively and dramatically worsened in 2014.

Victims, witnesses, and northern residents described almost daily attacks by as few as 2 men or groups of as many as 15, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, pistols, and in some instances, rocket propelled grenades. They described a pattern in which men emerged from vegetation alongside the highway and shot into the air to force drivers to stop. If the driver did not stop, they aimed directly at the vehicle, often targeting the driver himself or indiscriminately spraying the vehicle with bullets.

Victims said security forces generally failed to provide regular and adequate patrols to prevent attacks, or to investigate and bring the attackers to account. Drivers said that long stretches of road without a visible presence of the security forces has left them and travelers vulnerable to attack.

Victims who reported attacks to the security forces said in many cases that the security forces did not investigate or carried out a superficial investigation after victims filed a police report. Many said they have given up reporting attacks because of the lack of response. Justice officials in Bouaké said that the courts in their jurisdiction had adjudicated only a handful of violent robbery cases so far in 2014.

There were attacks at any time of day or night, and criminals often stayed in one spot for hours, robbing every traveler passing by, while holding others at gunpoint. Victims, witnesses, and local authorities described a spike in attacks around the major holidays including Christmas, New Year, Easter, and Eid al-Adha, and on market days, when travelers were more likely to have gifts, money for their family, or the profits from their labor.

Local authorities and members of the security forces said that in general they lack the resources to conduct adequate patrols, respond quickly to attacks, and investigate crimes. One gendarme said they often do not follow up on reports because they spend the majority of their time in the field patrolling.

Most victims and witnesses believed the attackers are former fighters from the years of armed conflict in the country because their weapons are similar to those used by the armed factions, because of the military-style formation of the attacks and because many former fighters live near and in Bouaké.

The security situation in northern Côte d’Ivoire has been unstable since a military rebellion split the country in half in 2002. In 2009, the rebel New Forces marginally handed over control of the north to civilian authorities. But rebel commanders continued to exercise considerable control over security and judicial affairs in the north until the end of the 2011 post-election crisis and were loath to take action against the tens of thousands of former combatants who had fought with them. The presence of large numbers of former combatants in the north, who have yet to be disarmed, reintegrated into society or absorbed into the armed forces undermines security in the north.

Residents and drivers described feeling traumatized by the violence. Many said they were afraid to travel. One woman described the terror she felt during an attack on the Bouaké-Korhogo highway in March: “There was a long gunfight, everyone was panicked and screaming. In the moment I really thought of my child – I had left her at the house that morning and believed I would never see her again. But it was when I saw the male passengers trembling like children that I got really scared.”

Rampant Criminality
Criminality – and armed robbery in particular – has been an acute problem in Côte d’Ivoire for years, particularly in the northern and western regions. Officials from the European Union, the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire, and Ivorian human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concern about the problem.

The armed men attack all forms of public transport, including large passenger buses, minibuses, rural taxis known as “bush taxis,” and motorbike taxis, as well as private vehicles and pedestrians and people working in nearby fields. One witness saw bandits rob a car with government license plates. On secondary roads, smaller groups of armed men stop and rob vehicles, and villagers on foot, on their way or returning from market or their fields.

Witnesses said attackers, some of whom appear to be organized into criminal gangs, worked in groups of as many as 15 men. They were typically armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles or sawed off shotguns, but some carried rocket propelled grenades, and also lighter arms including pistols, machetes and knives.

Large attacks in which bandits essentially set up checkpoints, robbing several vehicles at a time, were carried out mostly on the major highways, particularly on lonely stretches of road where phone reception is poor or the road is cratered with potholes, forcing drivers to slow down and making them more vulnerable. Smaller-scale attacks occurred on secondary roads and in villages and towns across the north.

Witnesses, victims, government officials, and security forces said the majority of attacks took place on the highways around Bouaké, along the Yamassoukro-Bouaké road, the Bouaké-Korhogo road, and the road leading to Burkina Faso, while many other attacks took place on secondary roads in and around smaller towns and villages across the northern administrative districts of Vallé du Bandama and Savanes. From June to September there was a series of attacks near Djékanou, 30 kilometers south of Yamassoukro.

Most witnesses said attackers wear black clothing with balaclava-like face masks or fabric wrapped around their head and face in the style of Touareg nomad groups. A driver whose 40-seat bus was attacked in June along the Yamassoukro-Abidjan highway described the attackers: “They were all masked, all wearing black with long sleeves and gloves. They were hiding their identity well – even if your own brother is a bandit, you couldn’t ever know it.”

In several incidents, witnesses described attackers shooting at the tires and in some instances spraying the bus with bullets to get it to stop, often injuring and sometimes killing people on board. Attackers either forced people from the vehicle and made them lie face down on the ground or boarded the vehicle, one training a gun on passengers, the other(s) systematically robbing passengers of money, mobile phones, and valuable goods. Numerous witnesses said the attackers beat drivers and passengers who had no money to give them and sometimes stripped people to ensure they are not hiding any valuables.

Of the four killings Human Rights Watch documented, two people were killed as bandits shot at moving buses and two were shot at point-blank range during robberies. One witness said a young motorbike taxi driver, Thomas N’Guessan N’Guessan, died on October 6 after being shot twice and thrown into the nearby vegetation by two armed men who also stole his motorbike and beat the witness.

A bus driver described a January attack on the highway south of Bouaké:

They sprayed the bus with gunfire. Pah! Pah! Pah! The bandits shouted, “Park! Park!” but I kept going. When they started to fire at the bus everyone lay down between the seats. The passengers were shouting, “Please don’t stop! You must not stop!” I managed to drive about a kilometer before the air totally went out of the tires... I told the passengers that the bus could go no further and they should get out and run to the village, try to save themselves.

A cocoa farmer who has been attacked twice this year described witnessing a murder during an attack on several vehicles in September just outside of Djékanou:

There were two MASSA buses and two bush taxis already stopped. Three bandits came on our bus – one had a kalash trained on people and the other two were going through our clothes and things. A young man, just over 20 years old, a conductor of one of the MASSA buses stood outside the bus. A bandit standing near the bushes with a kalash shouted: “Lay down! Lay down!” But the boy did not lay down. “You want to play the idiot?” the bandit said and shot him dead right in front of me.

One taxi driver had been attacked three times this year. He described one of the attacks, in March:

It happened during the day on the dirt road between two villages, not far from Atohou. Six people were hidden in the long grass. They came out with their guns pointed directly at me and told me to park. “If you do not pull over now, we will finish you,” one shouted to me. I stopped the car. Three of them had kalashes and two had sawed-off shot guns. I had six passengers. They went through our pockets and our bags and took all the money and our mobile phones. And then they told us to lie on the ground. I looked up once and one shouted: “What are you looking at?” and beat me on the back with a large piece of wood. They all had hats over their faces with holes for their eyes and mouth. Three of them wore plain dark blue uniforms (used by firefighters), but I didn’t see “matriculation” numbers. The others were in everyday clothes. We were lying there on the ground for a long time ... maybe an hour, afraid to move. When we finally got up, they were gone. It is really dangerous now.

Many victims described falling ill from what they described as stress or being unable to go outside or work normally after an attack. Others said they are afraid to walk from their village to their farms after being attacked on nearby pathways. Numerous drivers said they are afraid but continue to drive because it is their livelihood. A rural taxi driver described the psychological impact on drivers:

There are so many bandits and we expect them every time. If a driver is not killed, he is just grateful. It’s part of our work; we are in a milieu where the enemies are chasing us. Our work is very risky and drivers are scared.

One young man visibly traumatized by a recent attack in which he witnessed the murder of his friend told Human Rights Watch: “He was my friend, we worked together. If it had been just anyone, it would have been difficult. But to see your good friend killed in front of you, it is so difficult. And he had three children and a wife.”

A farmer whose motorbike was stolen during an attack in 2013 highlighted the wider consequences of regular, indiscriminate roadside robberies: “This affects us outside of the immediate danger during an attack. We are not able to travel to the bank, we are even failing to send our children to school, because we are robbed on our way to pay school fees!”

Numerous bus and truck drivers said they believed attackers work with informants in markets and bus stations, who identify passengers traveling with large sums or valuable goods and communicate with attackers further up the road. Drivers and travelers also said vehicles are often delayed by hours because when drivers suspect an attack happening further up the road they will wait until the attackers leave before continuing the journey.

Tens of thousands of armed men who fought with the rebel New Forces during the 2002-2004 armed conflict, and subsequently backed pro-Ouattara forces during the 2010-2011 political crisis have yet to be disarmed or reintegrated into civilian or military structures.

Residents, local authorities, and international security experts Human Rights Watch interviewed said they believe the attackers are former combatants. They cited the types of weapons used, the organization of attacks, and the elevated incidence of attacks near high concentrations of former combatants, notably around Lake Kossou and Béoumi town, 65 kilometers west of Bouaké, where many former fighters have settled and which was a stronghold of the rebel forces during the crisis.

Witnesses and victims universally pointed to the slow pace of the disarmament and reintegration as a key factor contributing to the problem. Tens of thousands of youth supported the rebel New Forces during the country’s 2002-2003 civil war and ensuing political stalemate, or took up arms in 2010 to remove former president Laurent Gbagbo, greatly contributing to a proliferation of small arms, particularly Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The government has made some progress in disarming former combatants. As of October 2014, the government had disarmed and demobilized over 21,000 former combatants, provided 30,000 with support to return to civilian lives and collected 7,429 weapons. But large numbers of former fighters – 43,000 people, according to the UN – remain armed and unemployed. The process has been largely controlled by former rebel zone commanders, now integrated into the army, who maintain close ties to armed combatants not officially registered in the armed forces but loyal to their former commanders.

Failure to Protect the Population
Three years after the 2011 post-election violence, the Ivorian government, now partly consisting of former New Forces fighters, has made some progress in redeploying and equipping police, gendarmes, and judicial officers across the north.

However, analysts, victims, and local government officials told Human Rights Watch that the security forces routinely fail to protect the population from criminals, because the security forces are inadequately equipped to handle the scale of the problem, and to a lesser extent because of what those interviewed believed to be indifference.

Several gendarmes and policemen said that they lack enough vehicles and fuel to respond to the widespread banditry, and that their operational budgets are far below what is needed to fulfill their mandate. They said several gendarme brigades have only one vehicle, while others lack vehicles altogether.

One gendarme said: “We do patrols every day by vehicle and on market days we make sure to go up and down the roads. But we do not have enough means. One car to cover a wide terrain, you cannot cover it all and the bandits move quickly.”

Others said they didn’t have sufficient arms to respond to the armed bandits. One said: “We do not have enough arms and these bandits are heavily armed with war weapons. So you see the risks we are taking.”

For several years, security forces blamed the lack of equipment on an arms embargo, imposed by the UN in 2004. However, in April 2014 the UN Security Council modified the sanctions to allow for the sale of non-lethal equipment, technical aid, training, or financial assistance to enable Ivorian security forces to maintain public order. But lifting the embargo appeared to have had little impact on the ability of the gendarmes and police to respond to armed attacks.

Bouaké’s administrative head, or Préfet, Aka Konin, expressed concern at the rising violence and the limited ability of security forces to respond effectively: “There was a peak of violence earlier in the year (around the big holidays) and we responded. But the bandits have their strategy and they resurface. The police and the gendarmes do not have enough equipment to respond to the bandits.”

That said, numerous drivers and passengers said security force patrols along major highways, including efforts to reinforce security by increasing patrols and escorting vehicles around holiday periods, appeared to reduce attacks; some witnesses described how patrols interrupted attacks in progress. A Bouaké resident who manages the AVS bus company, which has been attacked several times in 2014, said:

The gendarmes did beef up security around Tabaski [Eid-al-Adha] this year. They had motorbikes doing shuttles between Bouaké and Yamassoukro and Tiébissou. So the government did put in place measures after the attacks [referring to attacks on AVS buses in 2014] but these measures are one-off. They don’t eliminate the problem, they just shift it down the road a bit.

Numerous other victims described an apparent unwillingness to respond or investigate attacks, including attacks in progress or that had just occurred. They said that local police and gendarmes either did not respond at all or called for reinforcements from larger brigades that arrived too late to protect the people or pursue the criminals.

One young woman with a thriving hair products business in Djékanou who travels regularly to Abidjan to stock up described her experience in August on a bus that was attacked a kilometer from a gendarme post:

There was so much shooting, it was like the Western movies on TV. But the gendarmes didn’t come. They knew what was happening; they were there at the junction nearby. When we asked them what happened they said, “We don’t have enough arms.” They called Yamassoukro and Dimbokro. I heard the [security forces] came, but the bandits had long gone by then. In any case, we are not protected.

A young man saw criminals shoot his friend during an attack 10 kilometers east of Bouaké. He said he ran six kilometers and hitched a ride on a motorbike to the Bouaké city security checkpoint to get help for his dying friend:

There were about 10 gendarmes, two with kalash. They told me, “There is no vehicle to go and find them.” So they stayed at the checkpoint. One gendarme was shocked and angry that they couldn’t respond... I saw no vehicles. There were military there but no one from the armed forces went to help.

Residents said gendarmes, sometimes reinforced by armed soldiers, are posted overnight to areas where attacks have spiked, but noted that criminals operating between villages can easily evade members of the security forces who do not have the means or the will to respond.

Some bus owners said that they hire armed, uniformed soldiers to accompany their buses but that the arrangement is not an official army program and is negotiated with individual soldiers. One conveyor (convoyeur), a civilian escort hired by the larger buses to manage all the problems on the road who works on a 70-seat bus traveling from Tai in the southwest to Burkina Faso, said he pays 50,000 CFA (US$95) for two soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs to ride on the bus.

The right to security is protected under article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both ratified by Côte d’Ivoire. These provisions require authorities to take reasonable steps to protect everyone in Côte d’Ivoire from violence by anyone else, with an increased duty on the authorities to act when they are aware that certain individuals are at specific risk.

Failure to Investigate Criminality
Human Rights Watch spoke with numerous victims who had reported attacks to the gendarmes. Most said the authorities had not carried out credible investigations, much less brought the attackers to justice. Numerous victims said they had given up reporting incidents because security forces did not follow up.

One gendarme told Human Rights Watch that they are overworked in responding to calls in the field and so often do not finish filing reports: “We are forced to choose between justice and protecting the people.”

Bernard N’Guessan, a farmer, said armed robbers attacked him as he was on the way to his farm in mid-2013 with his wife and children and stole his motorbike. He said he filed complaints at the gendarme brigades in Bouaké and in Djébunoua, where the incident occurred: “They told me to be patient, we are going to do an investigation. I did not see or hear of anyone coming here to the place where it happened to do an investigation. The lack of results discouraged me, so I didn’t go back again. If you go back too many times, they say you are annoying them.”

A woman who was attacked on September 28 as she walked with her sister and son to her village near Bouaké described her experience: “You go to report [an incident] and you pay your transport there and back, but there is no follow up, no follow up, no follow up. So we don’t go anymore.”

The Coordination and Operational Decisions Center (Centre de Coordination des Décisions Opérationnelles, CCDO), an Abidjan-based special security unit comprised of highly-trained and well-equipped police, gendarmes, and soldiers, has appeared to have more success in investigating and detaining suspects. Its intervention led to the arrest and conviction of 7 men for several attacks on the Bouaké-Tiébissou road in July and the arrest of 12 suspects during a July 2013 operation with the support of the UN in Abidjan, Daloa, Bouaké, and Korhogo. Numerous victims and officials suggested deploying a CCDO unit to Bouaké to assist the authorities there in responding to the attacks.

So far, armed criminals operate in the north in virtual impunity, seemingly unafraid of security force intervention, arrest, or prosecution. As noted by a cocoa farmer who was robbed in an attack on several vehicles near Djékanou: “They spent an hour doing the robbery – they took their time. I heard one say, “Today we are ready! Your [security] forces should just come now!’”

Recommendations

To the Interior Ministry, the Major General of the Gendarmerie, and the Director General of the National Police:

  • Establish a CCDO unit in Bouaké tasked with responding to criminality in the north. In the interim, the security forces legally mandated to maintain domestic security – the police and gendarmes – as well as the judiciary, should develop adequate capacity to protect residents and respond to attacks;
  • Ensure there is an operational 24-hour hotline in Bouaké for reporting attacks and other criminal activity in the north; ensure that residents know about the hotline, especially those in the more remote, northern districts; ensure effective and rapid communication between hotline staff and security force commanders in regional centers;
  • Investigate gaps in security for the local population in northern Côte d’Ivoire, and provide better protection to communities from bandit attacks;
    • Strengthen the response to complaints made at checkpoints about nearby bandit attacks, including by actively pursuing the attackers;
    • Ensure effective allocation of resources to checkpoints and for patrols, including staffing and equipment, and discipline officers who refuse to respond to complaints;
    • Step up patrols on market days, Christmas, New Year, Easter, Eid-al-Adha, and during the harvest season, particularly on secondary roads around Bouaké; and
    • Develop plans to more systematically root out criminal elements, including by conducting operations in communities and neighborhoods where bandits and criminal gangs are known to be based.
  • Significantly increase staffing and logistics of police and gendarmes, and mixed brigade forces deployed to northern Côte d’Ivoire, so that they can respond more effectively to the high incidence of criminal acts against residents; and
  • Establish an independent oversight committee in regions throughout the country to monitor and evaluate the police and gendarme response to crimes.

To the Minister of Justice and Human Rights

  • Ensure that the judiciary in Bouaké and Korhogo have the capacity and resources to investigate and try attackers and ensure that justice officials and witnesses receive adequate protection.