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Ivory Coast Conflict

2004

With the New Forces ending the 4 month boycott of the reconciliation government in late December of 2003, 2004 held the promise of finally ending the civil war started by the military mutiny in 2002. To help protect the fragile integration process, on 27 February 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1528, which established United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). UNOCI was designed to last an initial period of 12 months starting from 4 April 2004, with a military strength of a maximum of 6,240 United Nations personnel. Its stated objective was to establish a presence in the Ivory Coast to supervise the disarmament of rebel forces and monitor the presidential elections due in October 2005. The council voted unanimously in favor of creating the new peacekeeping force after the United States dropped its earlier opposition to the proposal. While the US did not pledge to send any troops, it did agree to pay for nearly a fourth of the $303 million dollar cost. UNOCI replaced the existing UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire, known by its French acronym MINUCI, which included a handful of military liaison officers.

The new timetable for disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation (DDR) of the rebel armed forces set by Prime Minister Seydou Diarra was set to begin on 8 March 2004. However, the New Forces, led by Soros said that they would only disarm in phases in conjunction with the specific implementation of important clauses from the French negotiated agreement. The disarmament was planned to occur in 3 stages, first demilitarizing the center area of the country, especially the rebel held city of Bouake, followed by a disarmament of the rebels in the east and west, and finally of those in the far north of the country.

Amidst the uncertainty over the disarmament schedule, one of the 2 main opposition parties, the Democratic Party of Cote d'Ivoire (PDCI), the party of former president Felix Houphouet Boigny, suspended the participation of its 7 cabinet members on 5 March 2004. The PDCI claimed that their power was being undermined and blamed the dysfunctional government on president Gbagbo's underhanded politics. This triggered a meeting between rebel groups and the opposition parties, which united them as a coalition known as the Group of Seven or G7 to discuss what their roles would be in the new government.

A group of students and young supporters of Gbagbo known as the Young Patriots protested against the other groups, demanding that the rebels disarm before a new government was formed. Their demonstrations became violent and included attacking newly appointed magistrates. In response, President Gbagbo issued a ban on public demonstrations in an attempt to limit the zeal of his supporters. The Group of Seven stated their intentions to demonstrate in Abidjan on 25 March 2004, to call for the full implementation of the treaty, defying the ban. This announcement sparked the fear of a violent counter-protest by the Young Patriots.

The demonstrators had planned to march up to the presidential palace and were warned by the army that any group coming near that area would be viewed as an enemy. Mi-24 helicopter gunships were sent up to circle over the city's suburbs and coordinate movements with the ground troops. In densely populated parts of the city, demonstrators were met by police and presidential guards, who used tear gas and fired live rounds to disperse the unarmed crowds. Security forces claimed that they were provoked by protesters burning tires and throwing rocks. As the violence spread, western diplomats put the death toll above 100, with hundreds more wounded, many by the use of machetes. Protesters claimed that many more were killed by the police reaction. While the government announced an official death count of 37, opposition groups claimed that as many as 500 were killed.

In light of the government's reaction to what the opposition referred to as peaceful demonstrations, the New Forces rebel group along with the opposition party Rally of the Republicans joined the PDCI in withdrawing from the government. They stated that President Gbagbo was sabotaging the process and refused to take part in a government that they felt was collapsing.

On 2 April 2004, the Internal Security Minister accused the "parallel forces in army clothing" of committing the majority of the violent acts that occurred during the banned opposition march, which occurred the previous week. This statement added credence to the claims made by relief workers that youth group militias loyal to President Gbagbo armed with automatic weapons were spread through the city raiding houses.

In an attempt to entice opposition leaders back into negotiations, on 16 April 2004 President Gbagbo yielded to their demand to lift the ban on public demonstrations, as well as allow the opposition equal access to media outlets. This allowed the opposition and their supporters to hold a memorial service for those killed at the demonstration. Approximately 10,000 people attended to offer Christian and Muslim prayers as they gathered in a sports stadium in Abidjan.

The United Nations conducted an investigation into the events of the March 2005 demonstration and in early May 2005 the report leaked through the French media. The UN report stated that "At least 120 people were killed, 274 wounded and 20 disappeared. These figures are by no means final." The report also accused the army and pro-Gbagbo militias of attacking citizens indiscriminately and unprovoked. The Government responded by accusing the UN of encouraging instability in the country by releasing such an irresponsible and unfair assessment. The student groups also staged a series of protests against the report.

President Gbagbo stepped up pressure against his opposition by firing 3 of the appointed ministers in late May 2005, including rebel leader Guillaume Soro, and replaced them with members of his own party. Soro stated that the New Forces would no longer acknowledge Gbagbo as a representative of the government. The move was seen as an attempt by Gbagbo to pressure the politically independent Prime Minister Seydou Diarra to resign by continually encroaching on his authority. The move was accompanied by an outcry by Gbagbo's supporters for the UN to immediately disarm the rebels. If the UN was incapable of doing the job, the Young Patriots demanded that they leave and let them do it themselves.

Armed conflict broke out again on 8 June 2004, pushing the country even closer to the resumption of full-fledged civil war. Helicopter gunships were used to attack rebel positions, killing 20 people, and marked the first time in nearly a year that government helicopters were used to attack positions on the frontline. Fighting broke out near the village of Mamimigui between government forces and an unidentified rebel group. The New Rebels denied any involvement with the rebel group. The blatant violation of the ceasefire led to fears that the government had committed to military action as the solution to the nation's division.

Later in June 2004, fighting occurred in the rebel held North in an apparent power struggle for leadership within the New Forces. Rebels claimed that many assassination attempts failed, and that the government was responsible for instigating the rift and planning to use mercenaries from Guinea to attack the rebel positions. Many rebels held Mr. Coulibaly, a former bodyguard in exile in France, as the true leader of the movement as opposed to Guillaume Soro.

As the international community continued to lose patience with the process and the UN increased pressure to resume negotiations, President Gbagbo invited the leaders of the rebel and opposition groups to reestablish peace talks. The New Forces declined the invitation, calling it a stall tactic before the government launched new attacks. While other opposition parties met with Gbagbo, the New Forces agreed to meet with the President of Gabon. Gbagbo refused to reinstate the 3 ministers fired in the wake of the boycott and very little came of the talks with the opposition. Eventually all sides were persuaded to come back to the negotiation table.

On 31 July 2004, the Accra Agreement was signed with the goal of getting the peace-process back on track. Named after the city in Ghana where it was signed, the agreement was the result of heavy pressure from several African leaders and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Key elements of the agreement were to make it easier for West African immigrants and their descendants to gain Ivorian nationality, a new law to make it easier for immigrants to gain title to the land they worked and allow their children to inherit that land, constitutional reform that made it easier for immigrants to become president, and crucially, an agreement calling for beginning the process of disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation, which was to be initiated by 15 October 2004 at the latest. The agreement also called for President Gbagbo to formalize the specific powers to be held by Prime Minister Diarra, as well as reinstate the 3 ministers who had been fired. The implementation of the agreement was to be closely monitored by the UN and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Even as the rebel groups and opposition parties ended their boycott of the government, Gbagbo was slow to enact the conditions of the new agreement. Without the political reform scheduled to take place in late September 2004, the rebels announced that they did not have to uphold the 15 October 2004 date for beginning disarmament. The tension reached a crescendo again when the rebel forces declared a state of emergency on 28 October 2004 in anticipation of resumed fighting. New Forces leader Soros announced that the rebels had discovered a hidden shipment of weapons into the Northern capital of Bouake. He accused the government of attempting to arm dissidents in order to spark infighting in the rebel territory.

On 4 November 2004, the war resumed as military planes, namely Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 jets, carried out raids on rebel held positions in the north. The raids did damage to Bouake's infrastructure and Doctors Without Borders reported that it treated nearly 40 wounded people as a result of the attack. Coinciding with the military activity, the loyalist group the Young Patriots began rioting in the city of Abidjan, burning the offices of opposition newspapers, blocking access to the airport, and burning at least one UN vehicle. As the airplane attacks and troop advance continued, the United Nations suspended its humanitarian efforts and Mr. Soro declared that diplomacy was no longer an option.

On 6 November 2004, aircraft from the Ivoirian Government struck a French military base, resulting in the deaths of 9 French troops and one American aid worker, and the wounding of an additional 31. In retaliation, the French military destroyed 2 Sukhoi-25 aircraft, in addition to 3 helicopters and an Ivorian army weapons cache, effectively destroying the Ivory Coast Air Force. The order to retaliate was reported to have come directly from French President Jacques Chirac.

The UN Security Council meanwhile held an emergency session to discuss the situation in the country and called for an end to all military operations by Ivory Coast forces. In Abidjan, thousands of protestors supporting Gbagbo attacked and burned French owned property as the president called the resumed fighting, not only a war against the rebels who had refused to disarm, but also a war against colonialism. Loyal militants burned down French homes, schools, and businesses. Some 150 foreigners were evacuated by helicopters flying from the French embassy to remove them from harms way.

French peacekeepers moved to stabilize the capital and more than 30 tanks were deployed near the presidential residence. Tanks were also stationed at key bridges and the airport. The president of South Africa, Thebo Mbeki, was sent to the Ivory Coast at the behest of the African Union and ECOWAS. Even as the president arrived, French troops fired on protestors to disperse a crowd, killing at 20 people on the streets of Abidjan.

On 15 November 2004, the UN Security Council took action by imposing an immediate arms embargo on the Ivory Coast. By 23 November 2004, French peacekeepers had begun to withdraw from certain sites, including the airport at Abidjan in an attempt to restore the situation to a manageable level. New Forces Leader Mr. Soros traveled down to South Africa to meet with president Mbeki to discuss the prospects of peace.

President Gbagbo accused the French of using excessive force to disarm his military while passively accepting the rebels' armaments. He also stated that the French were attempting to overthrow his government and would no longer be viewed as impartial arbitrators. President Mbeki of South Africa traveled to the Ivory Coast on 2 December 2004, to meet with the leaders of the warring parties individually in an attempt to renew the foundations of a peace process. Through these meetings, Mbeki was able to obtain pledges to commit to the peace process by all parties. On 17 December 2004, the parliament approved a reform measure which loosened the eligibility requirements for the presidency, which was a key demand of the rebels.

As 2004 drew to a close, there remained a great deal of skepticism over a workable political solution. The year had seen many false promises, with both sides failing to complete their sides of the bargain. When French forces neutralized the Ivory Coast Air Force, they prevented a full scale resumption of civil war, but also became tainted as arbitrators. With president Mbeki's involvement, his goal was to prepare the nation for the crucial elections to be held in October 2005.




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