Côte d'Ivoire: Immigrants Targeted as Government Vows All-out War Against Dissidents
21 September 2002
Johannesburg — Anti-immigrant feeling ran high in Cote d’Ivoire on Saturday, in the aftermath of a bloody military uprising and coup attempt on Thursday. The government blamed the mutiny on a former military leader, killed in Thursday’s violence, and an unnamed 'neighbour from the north’, a euphemism widely taken to refer to Burkina Faso.
As Ivorian government troops headed north to confront mutinous soldiers, who still hold the strategic central and northern cities of Bouake and Korhogo, immigrant workers from Burkina and other neighbouring countries had their homes torched and their valuables stolen.
Reports said the raids on foreign households, purportedly to flush out 'rebels,’ were led by the paramilitary gendarmerie, fiercely loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo. The Ivorian leader cut short an official visit to Italy and cancelled an audience with the Pope to return home on Friday. "I have come to retake my place as head of state and head of the armed forces, to continue the battle started by the soldiers," said Gbagbo.
He added that the rebels had the use of heavy weaponry and hardware which the Ivorian army did not possess. "The arms and targets show that they want to change the regime of Cote d’Ivoire. Cote d’Ivoire has been attacked. The hour of battle is here."
On Thursday, the prime minister said 750 disgruntled dissident troops, who initially called for negotiations with the government, had taken up arms because they objected to being forced out of the military. They were given a deadline to lay down their weapons by Thursday afternoon, which was ignored.
Vowing that his army would wage an all-out war on his enemies, Gbagbo said: "This is not some display of anger by a few soldiers, this is an attempted coup d’etat."
On Saturday, the authorities called on the security forces not to target foreigners, adding that the only objective of the army was to regain control of the national territory, reassert the power of the president and restore calm and order.
Despite the government’s entreaties, and judging by previous events in Cote d’Ivoire, once the military embarks on reprisals against immigrants, elements of the Ivorian population are quick to follow, mainly in poorer areas and shantytowns.
Immigrant workers were instrumental in building Cote d’Ivoire into the regional economic cocoa-producing 'eldorado' it used to be. But they are regularly blamed for everything, including coup-plots, monopolising jobs and small enterprises and enriching themselves on the backs of local people.
There is already bad blood between the Burkinabe and Ivorian governments. Burkina has accused Cote d’Ivoire of harassing its citizens across the border, while Gbagbo’s government says Ouagadougou is harbouring dissident Ivorian soldiers, allowing them to train and prepare to destabilize Cote d’Ivoire.
On Friday, the Ivorian Defence Minister, Moise Lida Kouassi, claimed that a foreign military column of reinforcements had crossed into Cote d’Ivoire from a neighbouring state, to join and support dissident soldiers.
The Ivorians made a similar claim in January 2001, after a previous failed coup bid. Burkina Faso is reported to have tightened security inside the country and at the border.
Simmering political and ethnic divisions - polarising the mainly Christian and animist south and the predominantly Muslim north - have caused widespread strife in Cote d’Ivoire, since the previously peaceful country suffered its first military takeover in December 1999.
Tensions have pitted the main opposition leader, Alassane Dramane Ouattara - a Muslim northerner - against the Gbagbo government, which draws much of its support from the south and west.
Ouattara, who was prime minister under the late President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, was prevented from standing in presidential elections in 2000, because of doubts about his nationality. But he was recently granted Ivorian citizenship, prompting renewed condemnation from his critics who maintain that Ouattara is from Burkina Faso.
Strained political relations eased a little after a national reconciliation forum. And the situation looked more positive when Gbagbo included members of the opposition, including Ouattara’s party, in his new government during a recent cabinet reshuffle.
Ouattara, himself, has taken refuge in the French Embassy residence, although the authorities have stressed that he is not a target.
President John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire's eastern neighbour, deplored Thursday's coup attempt, describing it as a setback for the whole region. On his return from the United Nations' General Assembly session in New York, where continental leaders were trying promote African development, Kufuor said: "It is most unfortunate and quite embarrassing that, while we were urging the world to disregard negative reports which tagged us as undemocratic and immature... others were undermining our efforts".
The Ghanaian leader said his country would remain steadfastly behind the "legitimate" government in Cote d'Ivoire. "We will do whatever is within our powers to support the tenets of democracy and the rule of law in the sister country."
There were similar messages from both the Senegalese and Togolese leaders.
There are growing fears that the current turmoil in Cote d’Ivoire could be a prelude to a wider conflict in this country of 16m people, which has so far managed to stay relatively free of the civil conflicts that have plagued some of its neighbours.