General Background on the Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire

"Ivoirité" and the beginning of the crisis in 2000

For nearly seven years Côte d’Ivoire, once considered a pillar of stability in West Africa, has been consumed by a political and military crisis rooted in ethnic, religious, political and economic power struggles.

From independence in 1960 until the 1990s, Côte d’Ivoire enjoyed relative harmony and economic stability, becoming a key economic power in West Africa, a global leader in cocoa and coffee production, and a magnet for migrant workers who would eventually come to make up an estimated 26 percent of its population. Under the leadership of long-time President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a Catholic and ethnic Baoulé, over 60 ethnic groups coexisted with over 3 million immigrants from the West African sub-region.

Following Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993, which coincided with a steady deterioration in Côte d’Ivoire’s economy, politicians began focusing on the issue of nationality and “Ivoirité” (or Ivorianness)—an ultra-nationalist political discourse that marginalized perceived outsiders and denied them citizenship.2 Politicians exploited ethnic divisions to oust political rivals in elections, using the state apparatus to repress opponents and incite hatred or fear among populations that had lived in relative harmony for decades.

In 2000, candidates for the presidential elections played up the issue of Ivoirité. This focus proved explosive. Nationalist political fervor stoked by politicians turned popular sentiment in some constituencies against foreigners, Muslims, and northern Ivorians, precipitating two unprecedented waves of violence which resulted in over 200 dead.3 The killings of that year shocked Ivorians and members of the international community alike, grimly highlighting the danger of manipulating ethnic loyalties and latent prejudice for political gain. The elections culminated in a contested victory for current President Laurent Gbagbo.

Armed conflict and political-military stalemate 

On September 19, 2002, armed men attacked Abidjan, the commercial and de facto capital of Côte d’Ivoire, and the northern towns of Bouaké and Korhogo. The rebellion would spawn several groups whose stated aims were the redress of recent military reforms, new elections, an end to political exclusion and discrimination against northern Ivorians and the removal of President Gbagbo, whose presidency they perceived as illegitimate due to flaws in the 2000 elections.4  

Although they did not succeed in taking Abidjan, the rebels encountered minimal resistance and quickly managed to occupy and control half of Côte d’Ivoire. Rapidly joined by two other western rebel factions,5 they formed a political-military alliance called the Forces Nouvelles (“New Forces”). Their advances were fueled and facilitated by the easy circulation of arms and mercenaries from neighboring Liberia and by the willingness of Burkina Faso to provide support to the rebel forces, underscoring the fragility of the sub-region and drawing Côte d’Ivoire into a complex regional quagmire.6  

Peace agreements 

Efforts to resolve the conflict between the government and the rebels have resulted in a string of unfulfilled peace agreements,7 over 11,000 foreign peacekeeping troops on the ground to prevent all-out war and to protect civilians, and the imposition of a UN arms embargo in addition to travel and economic sanctions. On February 27, 2004, the United Nations Security Council established a peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire. The force, deployed on April 4, 2004, is comprised of some 8,000 UN peacekeepers (“blue helmets”) and nearly 1,000 police officers, and is backed by 3,500 more heavily armed French troops belonging to Operation Unicorn (Licorne). These peacekeepers monitored a buffer zone running the width of the country east to west and separating the opposing Ivorian forces, which was known as the “Zone of Confidence.” The UN peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire is also charged with assisting the government with implementing a national disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) plan, and with protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and its areas of deployment. The UN Security Council also imposed an arms embargo on Côte d’Ivoire in November 2004, and in February 2005 named a panel of experts to monitor it.

Although the peace agreements and French-backed UN peacekeeping mission brought about a cessation of active hostilities, they did not bring peace or unity to the country. The end result is a stalemate, a situation of “no peace, no war,” in which the rebels continue to refuse to disarm because they do not trust the government to manage free and fair elections in which Ivorians from the north will be allowed to vote. For over four years, Côte d’Ivoire remained split between the government-controlled south and rebel-held north, with a dividing buffer zone patrolled by United Nations peacekeepers and French troops.

A new peace accord signed in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou on March 4, 2007 (“The Ouagadougou Agreement”), and later endorsed by the African Union and the United Nations Security Council,8 is the latest negotiated effort to reunite the country and bring about an end to the conflict. Unlike all previous peace agreements, the Ouagadougou Agreement was the process of direct negotiations between Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and the New Forces rebels. The agreement outlines six key provisions: a new transitional government, resumption of a stalled citizen identification process that will lead to voter registration and issuance of national ID cards, the disarmament of the rebel fighters in the north and pro-government militias in the south, the creation of a new integrated military command center for both rebel and government armies, the redeployment of administrative officials into the north, and the gradual elimination of the buffer zone with security henceforth to be assured by Ivorian forces.  

Though many political observers believe that the Ouagadougou Agreement presents the best hope yet for settlement of the Ivorian crisis, it is not without its risks and shortcomings. In particular, the Ouagadougou Agreement does not provide for victim compensation or services for war victims, nor does it establish a plan for accountability for past human rights violations. It could eventually leave civilians unprotected by UN and French peacekeepers, and the call to end the arms embargo could lead to arms proliferation and further violence.

At the time of writing, several provisions of the Agreement had been implemented including initial dismantling of the buffer zone formerly patrolled by French and UN peacekeepers and the creation of an integrated military command center. However, little or no progress has been seen on the vital points of disarmament, voter registration, or issuance of ID cards.9 Under the timeframe originally established by the agreement, elections were anticipated approximately ten months after signature. However, due to delays in implementation, it is likely elections will be pushed back by at least several months. Few, if any, of the problems at the heart of the Ivorian conflict—such as the eligibility for citizenship of millions of immigrant residents and competition for land resources between “indigenous” and immigrant communities in the volatile western region—have been comprehensively resolved.

Impact of the war and ensuing militarized stalemate: human rights abuses and displacement

The human rights fallout from the crisis for civilians living on both sides of the political-military divide has been and continues to be devastating. Political unrest and the impasse following the 2002-2003 armed conflict between the government and northern-based rebels have been punctuated by atrocities and serious human rights violations attributable to both sides including extrajudicial killings, massacres, enforced disappearances, and numerous incidents of torture.

Rebels in Côte d’Ivoire carried out widespread abuses against civilians in some areas under their control. These included extrajudicial executions, massacres, torture, cannibalism, mutilation, the recruitment and use of child soldiers and sexual violence including rape, gang rape, egregious sexual assault, forced incest, and sexual slavery. Liberian combatants fighting alongside Ivorian rebel groups were responsible for some of the worst crimes. However, even after their departure, various forms of violence have continued.

In response to the rebellion, government forces and government-recruited Liberian mercenaries frequently executed, detained, and attacked perceived supporters of the rebel forces based on ethnic, national, religious and political affiliation. Southwestern Côte d’Ivoire was especially hard-hit, but pro-government forces carried out abuses throughout the areas under their control. Civilian militias, tolerated if not encouraged by state security forces, engaged in widespread targeting of the immigrant community, particularly village-based Burkinabé agricultural workers in the west. The conflict also sparked a sharp escalation in inter-community, inter-ethnic violence in the west and elsewhere, often pitting presumed non-native groups, such as Burkinabé, Malians, or Dioula,10 known derogatively as the allogènes (namely foreigners), against the presumed indigenous groups (known as autochtones), such as the Guéré, Bété or Krou.

Even after the end of active hostilities, state security forces assisted by government-supported militias such as the Jeunes Patriotes (“Young Patriots” or JP) regularly harassed and intimidated the populace, particularly those believed to be sympathetic to the New Forces rebels or the political opposition. Security forces in government-controlled areas regularly extorted and physically abused Muslims, northerners, and West African immigrants, often under the guise of routine security checks at road blocks.

Violence by armed men on all sides has triggered mass displacement and economic disruption. At least 700,000 people are displaced in southern government-held areas alone (many having fled the rebel-held north) and 1.7 million people are estimated to be internally displaced nationwide.11  A conservative estimate of additional population displacement suggests at least 350,000 people of Malian origin living in the government-held south have fled for Mali, a country which many of them have never visited.12 About 450,000 individuals of Burkinabé origin are in a parallel situation, seeking refuge in Burkina Faso.13 Many of these people are Malian or Burkinabé migrant workers, while many others are second or third generation immigrants. Tens of thousands more have fled Côte d’Ivoire for other countries in the sub-region and beyond.

A nation divided, Côte d’Ivoire continues to experience the most serious political and military crisis in its post-independence history. Conflict-related sexual violence has taken place and continues to occur against this backdrop of instability, violence, and impunity.

2 Upon the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, Henri Konan Bédié became the second president of Côte d’Ivoire. Within a few years of assuming the presidency and after winning scheduled elections in 1995, Bédié and his counselors reversed Houphouët-Boigny’s ‘open door policy’ to immigrants, replacing it with the philosophy of “Ivoirité,” and sending the once immigrant-friendly nation into a downward spiral of ethnic discrimination. A succinct review of this period can be found in Thomas Hofnung, La Crise Ivoirienne: Dix clés pour comprendre (Paris: La Découverte, 2005), pp. 29-31.

3 Presidential and parliamentary elections in Côte d’Ivoire in October and December 2000 were marred by political violence, leaving over 200 people dead and hundreds wounded. Human Rights Watch, Côte d'Ivoire – The New Racism: The Political Manipulation of Ethnicity in Côte d'Ivoire, vol. 13, no.6 (A), August 2001,

4 A crucial argument for his illegitimacy was that the 2000 elections were flawed because 14 of 19 presidential candidates had been excluded.

5 The Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire, MPCI) was joined by two western groups: the Movement for Justice and Peace (Mouvement Pour la Justice et la Paix, MJP) and the Ivorian Popular Movement for the Far West (Mouvement Populaire Ivoirien du Grand Ouest, MPIGO).

6 The situation analysis in this paragraph is based on a previously published report: Human Rights Watch, Trapped Between Two Wars: Violence against Civilians in Western Côte d’Ivoire, vol. 15, no. 14 (A), August 2003,ôtedivoire0803/.

7 Linas-Marcoussis brokered by the French government in January 2003; Accra III brokered by West African countries and then-UN-Secretary-General Kofi Annan in July 2004; and the Pretoria Agreement brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African Union and signed in South Africa on April 6, 2005.

8 “The Situation in Côte d’Ivoire,” United Nations Security Council Presidential Statement, March 28, 2007 S/PRST/2007/8 (2007).

9 An estimated three million Ivorians do not have nationality documents or voting cards. See, “Côte d’Ivoire: Key pre-electoral identification process delayed,” IRIN, March 31, 2006, available at This issue has come to be seen by many as the raison d’être of the rebellion, according to New Forces officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Abidjan and Bouaké in March 2006.

10 The term “Djoula” or “Dioula” refers to a simple description of an ethnicity primarily from northeastern Côte d’Ivoire. However, it can also be somewhat pejorative and over the past decade, the term “Dioula” has come to mean more than just another ethnic group such as that of the “Baoulé.” It often now encompasses northerners of Malinké, Sénoufo and other ethnicities, as well as foreigners and people of foreign origin like Ivorians of Burkinabé and Malian heritage. In this report, Human Rights Watch will use the term Dioula as it is commonly used by many Ivorians: to refer to Ivorians who, even if resident in the south, originated from the northern Mande and Gur ethnic groups, including members of the Malinké, Sénoufo, and Bambara ethnicities.

11United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Emergencies - Côte d'Ivoire,; A joint publication of the Ministry of Solidarity and War Victims, the École Nationale Supérieure de Statistique et d'Économie Appliquée (ENSEA), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Living Conditions of Displaced Persons and Host Families in the Government-held Zones of Côte d’Ivoire: Investigations Results, January 2007.

12 Human Rights Watch interviews with senior consular officials, Côte d’Ivoire, September 2006.

13 Human Rights Watch interviews with senior consular officials, Côte d’Ivoire, September 2006.