(New York) – Côte d’Ivoire’s authorities should urgently investigate the killing of more than 50 people in the political and intercommunal violence that accompanied the October 31, 2020 presidential elections and ensure that anyone responsible for unlawful killings is prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces failed to adequately protect civilians and in at least one case used excessive force to disperse opposition-led protests, shooting dead at least two demonstrators and beating a man unconscious.
President Alassane Ouattara was re-elected for a third term with a reported 94 percent of the vote in the controversial election, which the main opposition parties boycotted. The poll triggered confrontations between opposition and government supporters in the capital, Abidjan, and at least eight other towns, resulting in brutal street clashes fought with machetes, clubs, and hunting rifles.
“The killings of the past month pushed Côte d’Ivoire toward a deadly spiral of violence, a decade after the 2010-11 post-election conflict left over 3,000 dead,” said Jim Wormington, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Respecting the right to freedom of expression and assembly, including for opposition leaders and their supporters, will be a key ingredient to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis.”
Since the election, Ivorian authorities have arrested a dozen opposition party members, who rejected the results and said they had formed a National Transitional Council to organize new elections. The opposition members, including Pascal Affi N’Guessan, a former prime minister, were held incommunicado and questioned without access to lawyers for several days after their arrest. Three opposition members, including N’Guessan, remain in detention, while nine others have been released on conditional bail.
Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone more than 36 people about the post-election violence, including 24 victims and witnesses from Abidjan, Oumé, Toumodi, Elibou, and M’Batto, as well as journalists, lawyers, opposition party members, and civil society representatives. Human Rights Watch also analyzed photographs and video footage to corroborate victim and witness accounts.
On November 20, Human Rights Watch sent a summary of findings and questions to Aimée Zebeyoux, Côte d’Ivoire’s secretary of state for human rights. Zebeyoux sent a letter in response on November 25.
Côte d’Ivoire’s National Human Rights Council said on November 10 that 55 people were killed and 282 injured between October 31 and November 10. The Ivorian government said on November 11 that 20 people were killed on election day and an additional 31 in the days that followed. Human Rights Watch documented 13 of these deaths, including 2 people killed during violence between government and opposition supporters on election day, 9 during clashes in the following days, and at least 2 who were killed by security forces.
On election day, victims and witnesses in Abidjan, Oumé, and Toumodi told Human Rights Watch, groups of opposition supporters seeking to prevent the election clashed with pro-government groups who wanted the vote to take place.
“There were dozens of them [opposition supporters] telling us, ‘There won’t be an election here, we don’t need foreigners,’” said a government supporter in Oumé, repeating an often-used characterization of government supporters as migrants from other parts of Côte d’Ivoire or elsewhere in West Africa. “We went to arm ourselves with clubs and machetes. Someone from their side slipped on a stone, and people just crowded round him and beat him to death. At least 10 people were injured on our side, including one person who fractured his skull.”
In Abidjan’s Yopougon Kouté neighborhood, an opposition stronghold, witnesses said pro-government youth arrived from elsewhere in the city to prevent opposition supporters from disrupting the vote. “I saw a group coming into the neighborhood in two Gbakas (minivans), blue taxis, and scooters,” said one witness. “They were armed with machetes, knives, and guns. I went out with what I could to defend my village. The neighborhood youth started throwing stones, and there were so many of us that they fled. One of the government supporters couldn’t escape in time, and he was beaten to death by our young people.”
Witnesses to the election violence, including both government and opposition supporters, said that the security forces did not do enough to prevent violence and protect civilians. “The attack lasted for hours and yet no police officer came,” said a man from Toumodi, who hid in his house and prayed while attackers burned down shops and homes in his neighborhood on November 1. A family of four burned to death in their home.
Zebeyoux, the human rights secretary of state, in a letter to Human Rights Watch said that the government’s efforts to secure the election and prevent communal and political violence had “allowed the vote to run smoothly and contained the vast majority of the unrest.” She said that no one had been killed or injured by shots fired by the security forces, and that investigations were underway to “identify and apprehend anyone (supporters of the government as well as the opposition)” who committed crimes.
On November 9, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed “serious concerns about the arrests of several opposition leaders” and urged “political leaders from all sides to work together to calm the tensions through dialogue – not heavy-handed security responses and arrests.” The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc, criticized the opposition parties for establishing the National Transitional Council but have also called for dialogue to resolve the crisis.
“Targeting opposition members through a flawed legal process will not ease the dangerous political and ethnic tensions running through Côte d’Ivoire,” Wormington said. “The Ivorian authorities should focus on investigating and prosecuting all those responsible for the killings in recent weeks, no matter their political affiliation, including members of the security forces who used excessive force against protesters.”
For more details and accounts from victims and witnesses, please see below.
Côte d’Ivoire has a history of election-related violence. In 2010, when Ouattara first came to power, incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo’s failure to step down led to an armed conflict in which at least 3,000 people were killed and more than 150 women and girls were raped. Virtually none of the people implicated in the violence have been held to account.
Having won re-election in 2015, Ouattara said earlier in 2020 that he was not planning to run for a third term and would “transfer power to a new generation.” Following the July 8 death of his party’s candidate, however, Ouattara on August 6 reversed course, contending that, although presidents are limited to two terms in office, the passage of a new constitution in 2016 “reset the clock” and allowed him to run again.
Despite the government’s efforts to place restrictions on the opposition, including an August 19 ban on public demonstrations, opposition parties organized protests against Ouattara’s third term. According to government figures, clashes between opposition demonstrators and government supporters, and between opposition members and the security forces, resulted in 34 deaths before election day.
The country’s main opposition parties on October 15 called for an “active boycott” of the election, decrying Ouattara’s decision to run despite the constitution’s two-term limit, court decisions prohibiting Gbagbo and a former Ouattara ally, Guillaume Soro, from running, and the election commission’s lack of independence.
In the hours before Ouattara’s victory was announced on November 2, the opposition said that they did not recognize Ouattara as president and established a National Transitional Council, headed by a former president and opposition party leader, Henri Konan Bédié, to organize new elections. On November 3, Ivorian security forces surrounded Bédié’s Abidjan home, placing him under de facto house arrest, only removing the security perimeter on November 11.
In the days after the election, heightened political and ethnic tensions led to further clashes between opposition and government demonstrators, including in Daoukro and M’Batto. A community leader in M’Batto said an opposition march on November 9 ended with opposition and government supporters fighting with machetes, clubs, and guns, leaving at least five dead. On November 11, after 12 days of election-related clashes, Ouattara and Bédié met to try to calm tensions, promising after the meeting to continue their dialogue.
Clashes in Yopougon Kouté, Abidjan, October 31
Eight witnesses from Yopougon Kouté, an Abidjan neighborhood and opposition stronghold, described clashes between opposition and government supporters on election day. Witnesses said that, after opposition sympathizers tried to prevent voting at a local school, dozens of government supporters arrived in the neighborhood in Gbakas (minivans), taxis, cars, and scooters, resulting in a violent clash along one of the main roads running through the neighborhood.
Several witnesses said that the government supporters were armed with machetes and clubs and that some had handguns, while a video taken by a man Human Rights Watch interviewed shows the opposition supporters armed with sticks, clubs, and machetes. At least one person died in the clash: a government supporter who became separated from his group as they left the neighborhood.
Five witnesses said that police and gendarmes in Yopougon Kouté did not intervene to stop the violence, only firing teargas and warning shots to disperse Yopougon Kouté residents after the fatal clash. “No policeman intervened,” said one resident. “There were three police trucks at the court building, which isn’t far. And there were police at the voting center. But it’s only after the conflict that they arrived.”
Prior to leaving Youpougon Kouté, two government supporters attacked a 68-year old man, smashing a bottle on his head, cutting him with a machete on his neck, and stealing 32,000 CFA (US$57) and four mobile phones. “They said, ‘He is for Gbagbo,’” the victim said. “They hit me with a bottle in my mouth and the dentures that I wear fell out.”
A woman said that seven men entered her house, threatened her family, and stole money and phones:
I could hear them on the road, saying, “Anyone who doesn’t vote for Ouattara: we will cut them. He’s our president.” They broke my door with an axe and about seven of them came into my home. I just had time to hide my husband in the bathroom. I said straight away, “Don’t kill us, we are for Ouattara.” One of them said, “Give us your money, or we will cut you.” We gave them everything we had. They also burned down the restaurant of our neighbor – all she has left are the clothes she was wearing that day.
Following the confrontation, Yopougon Kouté residents set alight two vehicles that they said had belonged to the pro-government supporters.
All eight Yopougon Kouté witnesses referred to the government supporters involved in the confrontation as “microbes,” a term previously used to describe youth-dominated criminal gangs, but that opposition parties have more recently used to refer to pro-government thugs who they say attack opposition protesters.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International documented how two Gbakas (minivans) carrying dozens of young men attacked opposition demonstrators in Yopougon during an August 13 protest against President Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term. Amnesty said that police had allowed the attack to occur and failed to protect demonstrators. Asked about “microbes” on November 6, Côte d’Ivoire’s chief prosecutor, Richard Adou, said that “Until the [opposition’s] call for civil disobedience, there were not clashes between children in conflict with the law and other individuals.”
Clashes in Oumé Town, October 31
Human Rights Watch interviewed five witnesses who described intercommunal violence on election day in the town of Oumé, 240 kilometers northwest of Abidjan, leaving one dead and dozens injured. Witnesses said opposition supporters from the Gouro ethnic group destroyed voting material as it was being transported to polling places and sought to prevent voting in locations across the city. This led to confrontations between opposition supporters, largely Gouro, and pro-government youth, largely Malinké. Witnesses said that both sides were armed with machetes, clubs, and, in some cases, hunting rifles.
One witness observed the killing of an opposition supporter through a window along the road where the clash took place:
I went inside my house, and from the window I saw a young Gouro try to hide behind a table. He was hit by a bullet that pierced the table, and then I saw a Malinké come over to him and machete him on his head until he was dead. I ran away to hide, and when I returned to my house they’d taken everything – my clothes and even a computer that belonged to a friend who had come to Oumé from Abidjan because he was worried about election violence there.
Both opposition and government supporters interviewed said that police and gendarmes in Oumé didn’t do enough to stop the violence. “The people most to blame for this are the security forces,” a government supporter said. “They were just inside their barracks, and when they started firing teargas to disperse people, it was too late.” Another witness said that he had seen a local gendarme officer trying to separate government and opposition supporters early in the confrontation, but that he’d been unable to do so and that reinforcements didn’t arrive quickly enough to stop the violence.
Clashes in Toumodi Town, October 31 and November 1
Human Rights Watch interviewed five witnesses to intercommunal violence on the day of the election and the day after in Toumodi, 200 kilometers northwest of Abidjan. On the day of the vote, opposition supporters, largely drawn from the Baoulé ethnic group, erected barricades to prevent voting and clashed with government supporters from Dioula ethnic groups.
Despite an attempted mediation by the local authorities, the day after the vote, witnesses said, young men attacked Toumodikro, a predominately Baoulé neighborhood. Men armed with machetes, clubs, and hunting rifles set alight homes and shops, with a family of four burned alive in their home. A community leader said that dozens of residences had been burned during the violence, leaving hundreds of people to find shelter in local churches or neighboring villages. A local ruling party representative also said that Baoulé youth had set fire to garages belonging to Dioula and to a local market.
A Toumodikro resident said that the day after the election, fearful of more violence, he helped his wife get on a bus out of town, but that his mother refused to leave. As he returned from the bus station, he saw people running and shouting that Toumodikro was under attack:
I ran to my house to try to help my mother, but when I arrived my older brother’s room was on fire. I ran out, straight into a crowd of attackers. They hit me with machetes, knives, and clubs, but then one said, “he’s RHDP [the ruling party],” because I’m a musician and I had performed in some RHDP events during the election campaign. My mother said in Dioula, “Please don’t burn the house,” but they still burned other buildings in the courtyard, and they ransacked everything else.
One witness said that there weren’t enough police or gendarmes in Toumodi to prevent the violence, and that it took until the evening of November 1, after the family had burned to death and dozens of homes were destroyed, before adequate reinforcements arrived.
Excessive Force by Security Forces in Elibou Town, November 9
Human Rights Watch interviewed three witnesses who said that three people were shot dead on November 9 by gendarmes in Elibou, about 80 kilometers from Abidjan, during a peaceful opposition demonstration near the intersection of two main highways to protest Ouattara’s reelection. Human Rights Watch reviewed photographic evidence to confirm the killings of two of these individuals. One witness, who participated in the march, said:
There was initially a small group of us [protesters], about 150 to 200, who blocked the [East-West] motorway, but the gendarmes fired in the air and the crowd dispersed. But then other villages from the area joined in, and we went back on the road to try to block it. Another detachment of gendarmes arrived to reinforce a group permanently stationed at Elibou. The gendarmes fired teargas as well as live ammunition in the air, but the crowd resisted and didn’t leave the highway. Then the gendarmes fired [live bullets] on the crowd, and someone was hit in the chest. The crowd dispersed and the gendarmes took the person who had been shot and put him in their vehicle.
We reassembled again, this time on the North-South highway, and gendarmes opened fire and two people were shot and killed. One person was shot in the head and another in the chest. The gendarmes took away the first corpse, and it hasn’t been returned to the family, but the other two remained on the highway. I took pictures of them.
Zebeyoux, the human rights secretary of state, said that two people were killed in Elibou and that investigations were underway “to determine who is responsible … including as regards the members of the security forces who were present that day and if necessary to initiate criminal proceedings before a military tribunal.” Zebeyoux said initial indications are that security forces only intervened to prevent intercommunal violence and that it is highly likely that gunshots were fired by demonstrators.
All three witnesses to the killings in Elibou, however, said that at the time of the shootings there were no intercommunal clashes and that the confrontation was between opposition protesters seeking to block the highways and a smaller group of gendarmes. “We had banners, Ivorian flags, but no one had machetes, guns or anything like that,” said a demonstrator. “It’s true that there were more demonstrators [than gendarmes], but the primary objective for the security forces should be the protection of the population.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed a video, which an interviewee said he had taken shortly before the shooting of the second and third victims, that showed gendarmes in riot gear confronting dozens of protesters, and in which protesters do not appear to be carrying weapons. The video does not show what happened immediately prior to the shootings.
Another witness said that, after the men were shot and the march was dispersed, he was beaten unconscious by gendarmes:
We fled after the gendarmes fired at the crowd. I came into a neighborhood [sympathetic to the government] and some young men seized me and gave me over to the security forces. More than 15 members of the security forces hit me with their batons, Kalashnikovs, and sticks. I passed out. When they left, one of my brothers poured water on me and I woke up. I then went to a clinic to get medical treatment.
Arrests of Opposition Leaders
On November 3, police arrested 11 opposition members at Bédié’s Abidjan house. Eight of them were transferred that night to the National Surveillance Directorate (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, DST), a domestic intelligence agency that is not an authorized detention site under Ivorian law. They were detained and questioned there for three nights without access to a lawyer or communication with family members. Three opposition parliament members among those arrested were held in police custody but also questioned at the DST without access to a lawyer.
All 11 were brought before an investigating judge on November 6. Nine have since been released on conditional bail, while two prominent members of Bédié’s political party, Maurice Kakou Guikahué and N’dri Pierre Narcisse, remain detained at Abidjan’s central prison (Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction d’Abidjan, MACA).
Pascal Affi N’Guessan, an opposition spokesperson and former prime minister, was arrested the night of November 6, and, his lawyer said, held incommunicado at the DST and questioned without access to his lawyer. He was brought before an investigating judge on November 9, and denied bail.
Zebeyoux, the human rights secretary of state, said that if some opposition members had been denied means of communication during their detention, this was a “preventative measure aimed at ending threats to public order” resulting from public statements about the creation of a transitional government. Zebeyoux said that N’Guessan had refused his right to be assisted by his lawyer during questioning, which N’Guessan’s lawyer denied in an interview with Human Rights Watch.
N’Guessan and the 11 opposition members arrested on November 3 have been charged with terrorism, attacks against the authority of the state, and murder, among other charges. Adou, the chief prosecutor, said on November 2 that the charges relate to the opposition parties’ call for “civil disobedience” prior to and during the election and the announcement of a National Transitional Council. Opposition lawyers said the charges against them were politically motivated, while Ivorian human rights groups said that executive interference in political cases means that they have little chance of a fair trial. The Ivorian government should refrain from interfering in political cases, Human Rights Watch said, and the Ivorian judiciary should release anyone arbitrarily arrested on the basis of their political affiliation.