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IV. Intimidation, Harassment and Extortion of Civilians in both South and North

Situation in the South

Throughout the government-controlled south, government law enforcement agencies such as the police, gendarmes, and the Security Operations Command Centre (CECOS) continue to perpetrate serious human rights violations including extortion, unlawful confiscation of civilian property, and beatings. These violations most often occur during the frequent inspection of identification cards and driver’s permits at checkpoints and other locations. According to community leaders, civil society organizations, and victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, these ”security checks” often appear to be solely a pretext for extortion, and both the level of extortion and the violence associated with it far exceed what was known to occur prior to the civil war.53

While this is a phenomenon that affects all those traveling through the south, its effects are most keenly felt by those holding identity cards from Burkina Faso, Mali, and other neighboring countries, or those Ivorians with last names identifying them as a member of an ethnic group originating in the rebel-held north.

Passengers and Pedestrians

For many Burkinabe farmers living and traveling in the west, the level of extortion at checkpoints along the road has become so high that many have almost become prisoners in their camps and villages, unable to afford to travel into the towns.54  Others choose to brave the roads, but must be prepared to pay a high amount in bribes.  One Burkinabe witness explained to Human Rights Watch the fees that were paid during a recent 100-kilometer trip in the west:

I came back from my destination last night.  You always have problems with your papers when you travel.  If you have a Burkinabe identity card, you will have to pay. There are eight checkpoints between here and where I traveled.  My sister had to pay 14,000 CFAs [about U.S.$27] in bribes and 4,000 CFAs [about U.S.$7.60] for the transport ticket. But I have a card from the NGO where I work, so I only had to pay for the ticket.  Liberians in the car had to pay. Ivorians with papers don’t have to pay the extra money.  If you run out of money en route, they tell you to get out and you have to walk to your destination.55

According to one Burkinabe community leader interviewed by Human Rights Watch, those returning to Burkina Faso for a visit prefer to do so in large buses using an armed military escort provided by the Ivorian army, as this assures that they will be required to negotiate only a single price up front for safe passage, rather than being subject to the whims of every security officer at every checkpoint.56 One bus driver running the Bouaké-Abidjan line reported that he will sometimes avoid transporting Burkinabe passengers because of the problems he knows they will encounter along the road.  The same driver also reported that his company is regularly forced to abandon Burkinabe passengers at checkpoints when negotiations with security forces stall.57

Foreigners, or those from an ethnic group originating in the north, are also targeted during routine identification checks of pedestrians’ documents, which may occur at any time. Victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch described two such incidents during which they were ordered into gendarme vehicles, driven to isolated locations and then robbed. An incident on February 3, 2006, involved the robbery of money from some fifteen men.58 In another incident, a forty-eight-year-old Malian businessman described being robbed in November 2005 by a group of eight gendarmes: 

On that day I had gone to buy medicine for a friend. As I was walking I was stopped and asked for my identification papers by a group of gendarmes. All my documents were in order but it didn’t matter. The gendarme ordered me into the truck. When I got inside I saw there were two others like me—I later learned one was from Ghana and the other from Nigeria. The gendarmes told us to keep our heads down then started driving around. Every time we tried to raise our heads they beat us on our heads and backs. After driving around for several minutes they reached their hands in the pockets of the Nigerian, stole his money, then stopped the vehicle and ordered him to get down.

They started driving again and several minutes later did the same thing to the man from Ghana. Several minutes later they did the same to me. One gendarme reached in and grabbed the 35,000 CFAs [about U.S.$67] I had in my pocket. The one who stole my money then gave it to his comrade who put it into a black bag. I guess that’s where they kept all their day’s loot. After they did this I said, “Look…you asked me for my ID, I gave it to you. Now you’ve taken all my money. What do you really want?” Then one of them said, “Shut up! Do you want to end up dead with a bullet in your head?” Then he told me to go and pushed me off the vehicle.59


Security forces routinely confiscate driver’s permits and identity cards if they are not satisfied with the amount of money an individual is able or willing to pay.60  Not having documents in turn renders drivers increasingly vulnerable to police extortion the next time they are stopped, as government security forces are likely to demand even greater sums of money from those found without a driver’s permit or identity card.61 For many drivers of public transport vehicles, the confiscation of a permit means the loss of employment, as many are unwilling to risk the serious repercussions that can flow from being stopped without a permit. 

While drivers from all ethnic groups suffer from extortion at the hands of government security forces, Ivorians of northern decent, who have traditionally played a dominant role in the transport sector in Côte d’Ivoire, report that they are singled out for more severe harassment and abuse and are required to pay higher bribes than their counterparts from the south.62

Human Rights Watch spoke with several dozen drivers who had been subjected to extortion by members of government security forces. This driver’s experience was typical:  

In January 2006, I was whistled to a stop by CECOS 41.63 I had my driver’s permit, but they still insisted on a 500 CFAs [about U.S.$.95] bribe. I refused.  One of the soldiers struck me in the chest with his two fists and I was knocked back. They then snatched my permit and refused to give it back. In February, I was again stopped by CECOS 41.  I explained that they had taken my permit on January 10. The soldier went to his car and pulled out a sack. I looked into the sack and it was full of driver’s permits and other identity cards. There must have been at least one hundred cards inside it. My permit was in the sack, but he refused to return it. At this stage, there is nothing I can do. I am married with two daughters and I don’t dare drive now that I don’t have a permit, so I can’t work anymore.64

Another driver explained the repercussions of losing his permit:

About three months ago, I was driving along when the police whistled me to a stop. It was not an official checkpoint, just a few policemen parked on the side of the road. They asked for my ID card and I handed it over. I didn’t have my actual driver’s permit, but I had a receipt showing that it had been seized by the police two weeks earlier.  (I had gone to the police station to pay 5,000 CFAs [about U.S.$9.50] to get it back, but I was told that the policeman who had taken it had kept it on his person.) The policeman took my receipt and put it in his pocket. 

I was taken to the police station in Plateau. I was stripped naked by the police at the station and put into a small dark room. I was the only one in the cell. Later that day, my parents came with some food, but the police refused to let them give it to me unless my mother paid 2,000 CFAs [about U.S.$3.80]. The next day, she again came with food, but they refused to let her see me. Finally, she paid them 50,000 CFAs [about U.S.$95] and they released me. I have not been able to do any work since then. I have no permit: and I have no receipt showing that they took it.  I have one child who depends on me. I could pay 35,000 CFAs [about U.S.$67] to get a new permit, but I don’t have the money.65

Other drivers have been detained and suffered serious physical abuse for their refusal to submit to extortion or their inability to pay what is asked.  A twenty-eight-year-old Ivorian driver of northern origin described being severely beaten within the École de la Gendarmerie after being unable to pay a bribe (numerous scars including a five centimeter scar on his head and several deep scars on his arms and legs were visible to a Human Rights Watch researcher): 

Just after taking the car at 7:30 p.m. on January 25, 2006, I was stopped at a checkpoint manned by a group of about fifteen CECOS. An officer with 2 V’s66 on his uniform asked me for my papers. I gave him my license and the car’s documents. But it was money they wanted. I told him that I had just started my route and that I hadn’t yet made anything. He got angry, put my license in his pocket and said, “You’re not going anywhere.” I pleaded but he responded, “You the Dioulas control the transport business but you don’t want to share any of your money.”67

I stayed there for over an hour during which I saw CECOS shake down fifteen or so other drivers. Every time it was the same: they stopped the taxis, asked for the license and then after shaking hands with the drivers slipped the money in their pockets. 

Around 8:30 p.m. as they were getting ready to go I yelled at them, ”You can’t go with my license, it’s my livelihood.” After arguing for some time one of them whacked me hard on my head from behind. I fell down bleeding. Then the CECOS took me to the École de la Gendarmerie.

After arriving they tied me and led me to an open space. Then three gendarmes beat me for about forty-five minutes, including the one who’d taken my license. They beat me with a rubber cord, an iron bar and some of them stepped on me with their boots. 

After this, they put me in a warehouse where I saw about fifteen others. During the night we talked and I learned what had happened to them. They were from Burkina Faso, Mali and some were Ivorians. About seven of them were drivers like me who couldn’t afford to pay them off. The others were workers who didn’t have their proper documents. All of them said they’d been beaten. I noticed some of the injuries: one had a swollen leg, another had a bad cut in between his eyes, and several were bleeding. Some said they’d spent two or even three days there.    

In the morning they divided us in work groups. Some of us cleaned the toilets and others, including me, were ordered to clear the yard. I worked for about four hours. During the day a few of us were freed but others—about nine or so including Malians and some Dioulas—came in. Many had also been beaten. I never saw the beatings but we could hear yelling from outside: “Leave me alone be, I don’t have anything.” 

At around 8 p.m. the owner of the car paid 25,000 CFAs [about U.S.$48] and I was freed, but I have yet to get my license back: I’ve gone to the École de la Gendarmerie four times but they won’t give it to me. Because of that I’m presently not working.68

To help combat the problem of extortion, union leaders representing workers in the transport sector interviewed by Human Rights Watch explained that each transport line69 has a designated leader charged with rapid interventions on behalf of drivers experiencing problems with security forces, and that such leaders are required to make between three and thirty interventions per day per line. Such interventions have not solved the problem, however, and transporters’ unions organized a strike in a neighborhood of Abidjan on March 5, 2006, to protest extortion and mistreatment. 

During a visit with a Malian community leader in one neighborhood, Human Rights Watch counted 115 Malian identity cards and driver’s permits that the community leader had managed to get back from the police department in the previous three months.70 

Situation in the North

Extortion and robbery of civilians at all levels of society continue to be a problem throughout the territory controlled by the New Forces.

At the village level, Human Rights Watch interviewed several market women in a small village outside of Bouaké that had been occupied by a contingent of four to five New Forces soldiers in rotation who subject the villagers to routine extortion and theft.  In addition to being forced to provide free food and water to the soldiers, all villagers are required to pay a “tax” whenever entering or leaving their village.  While the tax appears relatively modest—400 CFAs (about U.S.$ 0.75) per person for a round trip—in some cases payment of this “tax” represents half of a villager’s weekly earnings.71  Many of these villagers are internally displaced, having fled towns like Bouaké at the outbreak of hostilities in 2002.  As one woman explained:

Since coming to the village, I travel to the market town twice per week to buy dried fish, which I then resell so that I can make enough money to feed my children, but the soldiers in the village are a problem. Here they make each passenger get out of the car and pay them.  As a result, I have to give 800 CFAs [about U.S.$1.50] per week to the soldiers.  Because they have the guns, I never try to challenge them—I just pay. Sometimes I’m left with nothing, sometimes I even lose money after paying the soldiers. But the rebels are just here to run the country.  Because they have the guns, that’s how it works. You have to pay money. I would like to complain or sue them, but you can’t sue someone with a gun. The people in Bouaké [administrative capital for the New Forces] are the same guns as the guns here. They sent them, so there is no point complaining.72

According to community leaders interviewed by Human Rights Watch, several other villages in the area have been similarly subject to routine extortion and theft by the rebel contingents which occupied them.73 While the scale of the theft from civilians has decreased as compared with what Human Rights Watch documented in summer and fall 2005,74 the New Forces soldiers continue to steal animals and other foodstuffs from villages. The local chief from a village near Bouaké explained:

In September and October 2005 the rebels were more aggressive. They would come with a truck, fire guns in the air to scare us, and then take almost all the goats and sheep. Sometimes they would load up a whole truck with goods. These days, things are better. They don’t fire their guns anymore, but we are still scared when they come. They still come and take sheep and goats. They only take four or five goats at a time now though.75 

New Forces spokesperson Sidiki Konaté acknowledged that continued theft and extortion at the village level remains a problem, and said they have expelled numerous combatants from the New Forces for their involvement in criminal acts and are engaged in a public education campaign to address the problem. However, he tried to diminish the rebel leadership’s responsibility by asserting that they retained limited control over rebel forces based in more distant villages.76

In rebel-held towns such as Bouaké and Korhogo, the extortion perpetrated by rebel forces involves much larger sums of money. Several businessmen and shop owners explained to Human Rights Watch how they are periodically summoned to New Forces offices by high-level commanders and told how much they will be required to pay per month, either in cash or in kind.77  When asked whether it is possible to negotiate the required fee, three different merchants all explained that when one of their colleagues had tried to negotiate, he was locked in a room for a day, and the price of his “tax” was increased when they let him out.78 The money demanded by the rebel commanders from businessmen varies, but mid-level merchants are often expected to pay 50,000 CFAs (about U.S.$95) per month.79 Truck drivers crossing through rebel-held territory into Burkina Faso and Mali are also required to pay considerable sums to the rebels at the border, and at individual checkpoints within New Forces-controlled territory.  Several transporters testified that the sums required by the New Forces to transport goods within New Forces territory are several times higher than before the war.80

New Forces officials maintain that they have the right to levy “taxes” as a means of generating a public purse, and reject the assertion that the sums collected exceed pre-war levels.81 Reports of extortion and robbery of civilians at all levels of society would suggest that what the rebels consistently refer to as a system of “tax collection” could be more accurately described as a system of collective extortion, notwithstanding that the New Forces spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that all “taxes” within the New Forces zone are informal and voluntary.82 The reports would also suggest that the New Forces are collecting large amounts of money.

Human Rights Watch noted during its visit that in a few areas at least, the New Forces are making increasing efforts to carry out public works by patching roads and restoring a few buildings, most notably in Korhogo. But despite the sums of money being collected by the New Forces, public services in the territories they control are in large part delivered by international NGOs, or even by the government in the south.83 This raises serious questions as to where and how the sums of money collected by the New Forces from businessmen, transporters, and other import and export levies are spent. Moreover, numerous low-ranking New Forces soldiers told Human Rights Watch that they are not paid.84  While this could not be confirmed, when asked for a response to the charge that rebel soldiers regularly steal from villagers, the New Forces spokesperson noted that even “paid” soldiers steal in other parts of the world.85 

Arbitrary or Absent Judicial System in the North

At the outbreak of hostilities in late 2002, many court and prison buildings in the north were ransacked or destroyed. Most judges serving in the north fled, leaving a vacuum where the judicial and penal system once stood.86  In the period immediately following the hostilities, New Forces officials explained to Human Rights Watch that in the absence of these institutions, executions and other “extrajudicial methods” were the primary means of enforcing the law.87

The problems of that period, and a fear of public lynching by citizens taking the law into their own hands, prompted the New Forces to set up an ad hoc judicial and penal system run primarily by New Forces police commissioners. The territory controlled by the New Forces is divided into ten military districts, with the police force in each district headed by a police commissioner.88 According to New Forces officials, most of the police commissioners currently operating in New Forces territory were trained and serving as police officers before the war, though they are reportedly now not paid and serve on a volunteer basis with no supervision from the Ivorian government.89  Police commissioners have jurisdiction over all crime, including when committed by New Forces soldiers. The head of the New Forces police is a member of the armed forces.90

Under this ad hoc system, individual police commissioners serve, in effect, as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury.  As an initial step, police commissioners carry out investigations into alleged crimes brought to their attention by civilians or New Forces officials. On completion of the investigation if the police commissioner has identified a likely perpetrator, the same police commissioner reaches a personal determination as to the guilt of the suspect, based on his own findings and conclusions.91 Finally, the same police commissioner determines the punishment including, if appropriate, any custodial sentence to be imposed on the alleged perpetrator. An accused does not have the benefit of defense counsel at any stage of the investigation, determination of guilt or sentencing.92

For individuals who are deemed guilty of a crime and are sentenced to a term of imprisonment, some commissioners attempt to impose a sentence corresponding to the range provided by the Ivorian penal code for a particular offence, while others simply place an alleged perpetrator in detention for an undetermined period until they feel that he or she has been sufficiently punished.93  New Forces officials acknowledge that while some commissioners understand the rudiments of the penal code, others have little idea of how a legal system is supposed to function.94  As a consequence, the criminal justice system in New Forces-controlled territory operates in an arbitrary and patchwork fashion.  As one U.N. observer put it, “some people stay too long in prison, and others are freed before they should be.”95

The fundamental injustice in this system stems from the complete lack of independent limits or checks on the power of the police commissioners. Local human rights monitors report that although police commissioners have the power to pursue punishment of soldiers who commit crime, investigations are often influenced by the military, and investigations are not pursued if a military chief intervenes.96 Experience also shows that there is little evidence of political will or ability to punish abuses by high-ranking New Forces officials.97  The result of such a system is a climate of lawlessness and impunity.

Prison conditions for those required to serve a custodial sentence are deplorable.98  However, since the International Committee of the Red Cross has assumed responsibility for feeding prisoners in Korhogo following the deaths of four inmates from severe malnutrition in August 2005, no further deaths have been observed.99 

According to U.N. sources, secret detention facilities, with individuals being held incommunicado, continue to exist.100 The secret detention of individuals constitutes a “disappearance” and is a serious violation of international human rights law.  Even in situations where detention is acknowledged, holding people incommunicado, in depriving detainees of essential safeguards against arbitrary deprivation of liberty, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, or indeed risk to the right to life, also constitutes a serious violation of international human rights law.

Officials from the New Forces interviewed by Human Rights Watch were very frank about the shortcomings of having justice meted out by police commissioners, but maintain that it is better than the situation that preceded the present system.101  While the peace agreements do not require the New Forces to establish functioning and effective judicial institutions within the territory under their control, customary international humanitarian law provides protections for civilians in internal armed conflicts such as in Côte d’Ivoire and prohibits arbitrary deprivation of liberty and disappearances.  New Forces officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch acknowledge that a redeployment of judicial officials into the North would improve matters.  However, they maintain that the Ivorian government will not permit a redeployment of judicial officials from the south to the north until the New Forces have disarmed.102  For the welfare of Côte d’Ivoire’s citizens, the Ivorian government and New Forces officials should work together to reach an agreement for the redeployment of judicial officers, even if on a limited basis, as soon as possible.  Such measures could be an important step in beginning to address the climate of impunity in northern Côte d’Ivoire.

[53] Human Rights Watch interviews, Abidjan, March 2006.

[54] Human Rights Watch interviews with members of the Burkinabe community in southern Côte d’Ivoire, March 2006.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with a member of the Burkinabe community in western Côte d’Ivoire, March 10, 2006.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview, Guiglo, March 9, 2006.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview, Bouaké, March 16, 2006.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview, Abidjan, March 4, 2006.

[59] Human Rights Watch interview, Abidjan, March 12, 2006. 

[60] Human Rights Watch interviews with community leaders, transporters’ trade union members, human rights monitors, and diplomats, Abidjan, March 2006.

[61] Human Rights Watch interviews with transporters’ trade union leaders and drivers, Abidjan, March 2006.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Many CECOS vehicles are prominently numbered.  Drivers and other victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch often refer to CECOS vehicles by the number displayed outside the vehicle.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview, Abidjan, March 3, 2006.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview, Abidjan, March 5, 2006.

[66] CECOS members are drawn from the police, the gendarmerie, and the army.  It is possible that the rank insignia described by the witness is that of a sergeant from the Gendarmerie.

[67] The term “Dioula” is actually a Sénoufo word for trader.  It also refers to a small ethnic group from the northeast of Côte d’Ivoire. However, it is most commonly used to refer to people of several ethnicities from northern Côte d’Ivoire, including Malinké and Sénoupho, who are in fact not ethnic Dioula.  Some northerners view the use of the all-encompassing term as pejorative.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview, Abidjan, March 4, 2006.

[69] A transport line is typically a fixed route connecting two neighborhoods in Abidjan, with shared taxis and microbuses picking up and dropping off passengers at various points along the line.

[70] Human Rights Watch interview, Abidjan, March 8, 2006.

[71] Human Rights Watch interviews, small village outside of Bouaké, March 15, 2006.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview, small village outside of Bouaké, March 15, 2006.

[73] Human Rights Watch interviews with community leaders, March 15, 2006.

[74] See Human Rights Watch, “The Human Rights Cost of the Political Impasse,” pp. 19-21.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview, small village outside of Bouaké, March 17, 2006.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with New Forces spokesperson Sidiki Konaké, Abidjan, March 21, 2006.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with businessmen in New Forces-controlled territory, March 19, 2006.

[78] Ibid. 

[79] Ibid.

[80] For example, one commercial truck driver interviewed by Human Rights watch claimed that prior to the outbreak of war, he was required to pay 25,000 CFAs (about U.S.$48) in bribes to travel between two major northern cities, Korhogo and Man, with his goods.  At present, he reported that he needed at least 150,000 CFAs (about U.S.$286) to complete the same journey. Human Rights Watch interviews with businessmen, members of civil society, elected officials, and New Forces officials, Abidjan, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with New Forces spokesperson Sidiki Konaké, Abidjan, March 21, 2006.

[82] Ibid.

[83] In Bouaké, for example, garbage collection and sanitation are administered by the international nongovernmental organization CARE, and the central hospital is administered by Médecins Sans Frontiéres.  In the education sector, teachers’ salaries are paid either by the government in the south, or are covered by voluntary contributions from parents in the case of volunteer teachers.  Water and electricity are free for most of the population, who are effectively subsidized by the population in the south.  At the prison in Korhogo, a local Roman Catholic charity run by nuns, Saint Camille, in conjunction with the Red Cross, found it necessary to assume responsibility for feeding the prison population when four prisoners died of malnutrition in August 2005.  Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. sources, international nongovernmental organizations, and civil society organizations, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[84] Human Rights Watch conversations with New Forces soldiers, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[85] Human Rights Watch interview with New Forces spokesperson Sidiki Konaké, Abidjan, March 21, 2006.

[86] Human Rights Watch interviews with New Forces officials, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Human Rights Watch interviews with New Forces officials and U.N. sources, Bouaké, March 2006.

[89] In addition, in August 2005, 537 volunteer policemen were given a forty-five-day training with the help of ONUCI.  Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. sources and New Forces leaders, Abidjan and Bouaké, March 2006. 

[90] New Forces officials report that in the past there was friction between New Forces police commissioners and New Forces military commanders, who often would not accept the arrest of their soldiers.  Placing a military officer at the head of the police forces was a “political solution” designed to ease tensions between New Forces police and the military. Human Rights Watch interviews with New Forces leaders, Abidjan and Bouaké, March 2006.

[91] Human Rights Watch interviews with human rights monitors and New Forces leaders, Abidjan, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with New Forces spokesperson Sidiki Konaké, Abidjan, March 21, 2006.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview, Bouaké, March 2006.

[96] Human Rights Watch interviews with human rights monitors and New Forces leaders, Abidjan and Bouaké, March 2006.

[97] Human Rights Watch interviews with human rights monitors and U.N. sources, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[98] Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. sources and with local and international civil society organizations, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[99] Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. sources and civil society organizations, Bouaké and Korhogo, March 2006.

[100] Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. sources, Bouaké, March 2006.

[101]  Human Rights Watch interview with New Forces spokesperson Sidiki Konaké, Abidjan, March 21, 2006.

[102]  Ibid.

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