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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Wednesday 13 April 2005

COTE D IVOIRE: How dangerous are the loyalist militias in the "wild west"?

GUIGLO, 13 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - If the western government-held zone of Cote d'Ivoire is known for anything, it's for its loyalist militias. But how dangerous are they really?

The two sides in the West African nation's more than two-year-old war - rebels in control of the north, and the government that holds the south - struck a new deal on peace last week in South Africa's Pretoria that provides for the disarmament of the militia groups operating across the land.

Few are as notorious as the Liberation Front for the Grand West FLGO), headquartered here in Guiglo, some 500 km northwest of the main city of Abidjan and only a few kilometres from the confidence zone that cuts a swathe across the country and is manned by 10,000 UN and French troops.

In the past months, Guiglo suffered from a sharp increase of robberies and ethnic killings. While most of the murders took place in the nearby countryside and are believed to be tit-for-tat killings between pro-government villagers of the dominant Guere ethnic group and foreign immigrants disputing the right to work on cocoa plantations, many residents hold the FLGO militia group responsible for growing insecurity in the town itself.

Calm returned only two weeks ago to Guiglo after security forces moved into the region and secured the road between Guiglo and the village of Blolequin, some 60 km west towards the border with Liberia.

The truth about Guiglo does not emerge easily. Some residents say people are killed each day, while others insist that relative peace has returned. What all have in common is a refusal to be quoted for fear of reprisals.

Militia HQ are right in town

The headquarters of FLGO are easy to find. "We're right across the road from the town hall," said militia leader Denis Maho Glofiei, who is also a traditional chief of the W people which comprises the Guere and the smaller Wobe group.

Maho, as he is known, occupies at least two brick houses with large, furnished verandas where young men in faded T-shirts and loosely worn battle fatigues mingle with militia dressed exactly like government soldiers, and carrying the accessory AK-47 automatic rifle. Several boys sit watching TV. With one of Maho's aunties sitting on a comfy couch, the atmosphere is a strange mix of casual family get-together and military meeting.

In Maho's own terms, the FLGO is not a militia, but rather "a patriotic organisation of sons of the western region" which uses arms "snatched" from the rebels in combat.

Yet the militia leader said that last year he had handed over a list to the national disarmament committee carrying the names of all 6,850 young men allegedly under his command. "I am totally cooperating with the disarmament committee, the government and the prime minister," he said, sitting on a traditional studded throne and surrounded by a small crowd of underlings.

"Pretoria or not, we want peace, we want social peace and we want the war to end," he said, referring to the 6 April Pretoria peace accord.

The FLGO was one of the first militias to emerge after the start of the civil war in September 2002

Witnesses say members of the FLGO have been seen on occasion with the new militia, the Ivorian Movement for the Liberation of the West of Cote d'Ivoire (MILOCI), which staged an attack on rebel positions in western Logouale last February, raising fears of a new flare-up in the war.

The FLGO became notorious for recruiting Liberians of the closely related Krahn ethnic group, with whom the W share a common language. The militia fought alongside the government army and together they succeeded in recapturing a rural northwestern border strip of Cote d'Ivoire from the rebels in early 2003.

Ivorians and Liberians all the same

Maho denied there were Liberians in FLGO, explaining on the other hand that to the untrained eye, Ivorians of the W group who had spent time in neighbouring Liberia were practically indistinguishable from the Krahn. He pointed to a young Liberian-looking man at his right side and said: "Look, this guy's mother is Ivorian, but his father is Liberian. It would be nonsense to accuse him of being Liberian. We're the same people."

A town resident told IRIN on condition of anonymity that although there were "many less" Liberians in town, there were still dozens living in Guiglo. "They're crammed up in houses on the outskirt of town," he said. "It's true that they speak the same language, but they speak it with a Liberian accent."

Maho also told IRIN that the lesser known militia groups, Patriotic Alliance of the W (AP-W) and Union of Patriots for the Resistance of the Grand West (UPRGO), both in nearby Douekoue, had sprung up after the FLGO but had close links to his organisation.

"I am the dean of this business," he said.

The United Nations and international non-governmental groups have repeatedly called for disarmament of the militias, warning that they risk turning the political conflict in Cote d'Ivoire into a full-scale ethnic war.

But so far Maho's militias have taken part only in short battles against the rebels at the height of the fighting in late 2002 and early 2003. Several residents described the militias as merely "annoying" as they intimidated foreign immigrants and people not of the W ethnic group.

As a powerful traditional chief, Maho is close to the mayor of Guiglo, who in turn is close to President Laurent Gbagbo. Global Witness has accused local town hall officials of pillaging the nearby Scio forest, a charge never officially denied.

A UN worker in western Cote d'Ivoire told IRIN that he believed the militia fighters were not a serious threat but rather an unorganised bunch of racketeers who even at times had played body guard for timber-men who pillaged the protected Scio forest on behalf of a timber company.

"They certainly have a nuisance value," the UN worker said. "They harass people. But are they a fighting force? No. To be a fighting force, these gangs should have some sort of training. But they consist mostly of unemployed young men who seem unmotivated to fight."

Troubling the peace

Still, the volatile mix of armed young men, unemployed youth, disgruntled immigrant farmhands and pro-government Guere militants have produced a climate of suspicion and fear which subsided only recently, said Jacques Ki, the regional consul for the local Burkinabe community, which is several thousand strong.

"This town has not known much peace," Ki said, sitting in the breezy headmaster's room of the catholic school he runs. "At the end of last year, there were exactions, hold-ups, and killings. In the beginning, everybody accused the militias and the Liberians who are among them. But then we found out that there had been infiltrations by the rebels and that there were arms stashes, so it was very difficult to know who had done what."

Ki said most neighborhoods in Guiglo had set up self-defence committees which warn residents with whistles whenever 'suspicious individuals' are seen walking around at night.

He also said he sometimes consulted with militia leader Maho, with whom personal relations were "good", and that the local army commander, colonel Yedess, had managed to restore calm by calling in extra troops from Abidjan to patrol the region.

"It's calmer now," Ki said. "We all hope it will last."

But the question that remains is what is to become of the militias. Judging from the atmosphere in Guiglo, their dismantlement would be just one small step towards the establishment of peace.

"One thing is sure, the town will heave a sigh of relief when the militias are disarmed," one resident told IRIN.

According to a local businessman, even the military and the police in Guiglo feel increasingly annoyed by the presence of the militias, who they cannot control.

"The army people believe they are strong enough to fight the rebels," he said. "They don't need the militia anymore, and they don't like them much anymore either because they're lawless."

Asked if this was true, colonel Yedess, an amiable commander with a trademark grey beard, emphasized his loyalty to what he called "my brothers". Standing in front of a huge crucifix adorning his office at the otherwise stark army headquarters, he outlined his views without reserve.

"I call them patriots who have understood the Ivorian crisis very well, I call them my brothers," he said. "Now, we don't need the militias - our army is capable of kicking the rebels out of the country - but we cannot lift a little finger to tell them 'Stop!' because they won't. They'll say: 'We'll follow you in whatever you do.' So I make do and I try to channel them and if they have to disarm, I will take their arms from them."

In reports this month and last, the New York based group Human Rights Watch has said ex-combatants from Liberia are being recruited to join pro-Gbagbo militia forces in the West.

The army has strongly denied involvement. And like Maho, Colonel Yedess told IRIN that it could be hard to tell a Liberian from an Ivorian.

"Anyway, I'm busy enough as it is, and I certainly don't need Liberians to wage this war," he added.

And despite the recent peace deal agreed in Pretoria, Yedess seemed prepared to lead his men into combat once again.

"I support the Pretoria agreement and I hope that peace will return very soon," he said. "But if the rebels do not disarm, let us fight. Even if I have to fight the UN and (France's) Licorne (force) and the rebels all at once, even if I am up against three enemies, there is no problem."


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