“A very highly systematized and orchestrated campaign of violence” in Ivory Coast

It has been five days since the arrest of Cote D”Ivoire strongman Laurent Gbagbo.  We are now beginning to get a more complete picture of the scope of the violence that was unleashed after the disputed election late last year.

I just spoke with Jonathan Elliot, the Africa Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, about the kinds of crimes that occurred and how they were pulled off.  He describes a systematic and centrally directed campaign of violence and intimidation — committed by both sides.

Here is a very lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Do we know how many people were killed in election related violence?  Do you have an estimate of numbers of killed?

We don’t. One of the things that is going to come out in the next few of weeks as — commissions of inquiry get on the ground and areas that were under Gbagbo’s control are eventually returned to civilian policing  is that we will have a better sense of the numbers.

Are we talking in the hundreds? In the thousands?

People have been very conservative so far in estimating around 1,000 or 2,000. It is  quite conceivable that it could be larger.

How centrally directed and organized was the violence against Ouattara‘s supporters?

From the eyewitness accounts we have seen and from the types of militia and institutions that were carrying out these attacks, they seemed politically coordinated and particularity well targeted.  Their objectives seemed coherent in the sense that they were targeting people at particular levels in the RHDP [Ouattara’s political movement.] Also, they were targeting particular ethnic west African groups and Diasporas living in Abidjan. At times they were also deliberately targeting Muslims who predominate in the north of the country in order to try and provoke retaliation by Christians who are predominantly southerners.

Also we have seen the use of informal check points, which is a long standing Ivorian practice, basically to look at people’s identity cards and distinguish them from others who are on the streets to take them aside and either brutally beat them or summarily execute them to send a message to that community.

All of those things point to a particularly orchestrated campaign of violence.

I think the numbers are testament to that as well.  If it were out of control and disconnected, you are probably looking at a lot more casualties…But that fact that you are talking about 500 or 1000 plus people killed in Abidjan—a city of over 4 million people—does suggest that the evidence points to a very highly systematized orchestrated campaign.

Do you know who organized this campaign?  Do you think it came from the top?

Yes. I don’t think it could have been carried out effectively without someone at the top pulling the strings.  The EU has a very detailed list of  people being sanctioned. Diplomats have talked about there being an “inner circle” around president Gbagbo that includes his wife, the head of the Young Patriots Charles Ble Goude, the head of the presidential guard, the head of the gendarmerie, and also one or two other military commanders. We are looking at an inner cabal of 5-10 people.

On the other side, what do we know at this point about the alleged massacre of Gbagbo supporters that occurred in the town of Duekoue?  That seems to point to evidence that Pro-Ouattara forces were involved in massacres as well.

This was an area in the west of the country where for several reasons pro-Ouattara groups wanted to go on the offensive.

First, it would effectively close off the border with Liberia, where mercenaries were being ferried into the country to bolster Gbagbo’s forces.  Those Liberian mercenaries and other Gbagbo irregulars had been committing horrendous atrocities themselves in that area, which could have been a contributoring factor to the violence committed by pro-Ouattara forces.

Second you have the port of San Pedro. This is the major port for shipping cocoa.  We believe there were large stockpiles waiting to be exported so they wanted to capture that before Gbagbo could sell it and ship it away.

You also have local ethnic disputes coming into the picture.  “Pro-Ouattara forces” included local militias — Burkina Faso nationals — which were being targeted by Gbagbo’s forces. There was probably a desire for revenge on their part.   Also an ally to Ouattara’s forces were a local tribal militia called Dozo. There was also the Forces Republicans—the regular Ouattara forces.

Those three elements were clearly involved in the massacre of Duekoue.  They went to specific part of Duekoue looking for people from the Guru ethnic group, which they associated with supporting Gbagbo.  They carried out systematic killings.  Dragging people out of their house, shooting them in street, burning their houses, raping…that kind of thing.

Do we know if this was centrally directed in a way similar to how you describe Gbagbo’s campaign of violence? Is there any evidence that speaks to culpability of Ouattara or his inner circle?

We are still trying to pick over the exact chain of command about what happen in the west.  There are several things one could say about Ouattara’s forces. First, they were given plenty of warnings about this. The Forces Nouvelles, as they used to be called when they were rebels, committed some serious atrocities during the civil war in 2002-2003. These were documented in a UN commission of inquiry report in 2004 which has never been published.  We are concerned that it has never been published because there is a history here that we need to understand.  We need to understand the patterns of violence and the individuals associated with those patterns of violence.

The person in charge in 2002-2003 is still in charge of the Forces Republicans today. He is Ouattara’s Prime Minister Guillaume Soro. We know that Soro was in the west of Ivory Coast on the 9th and 10th of March —  two weeks before the massacre. We know that he appointed a commander to oversee those forces in the west, a commander named Fofana Losseni and we also know Soro was in Toulepleu, a town not far from Duekoue, around that time.  For us it is a question of looking back through the command chain to rebuild a picture based on that.

What do you think should come next in terms of accountability for these crimes? Should there be local or international prosecutions?

We can’t have a situation where there is truth and reconciliation, but no justice for what happened. I think that as world we have moved beyond the days when we could just sweep everything under the carpet.  For Ivory Coast to move beyond this last 10 years of violence and division it needs to have some reckoning with the past, as well as the reconciliation element that need to be there.

The second thing is how you go about working through a judicial mechanism that is seen to be impartial and objective and not carrying out victor’s justice. There’s a risk that if you have prosecutions run just by the Ouattara government then you’ll have only Gbagbo’s people prosecuted and no-one from his own side.

We have to remember that even though Ouattara won the election, over 40% of the country voted for Gbagbo. If you are truing to rebuild a society you have to be even handed in your justice and even handed in truth and reconciliation.

I would imagine that some of the bigger trials –Ggbagbo and others—will be too sensitive to be tried domestically. The chance of a fair trial by internationals standards is going to be difficult. That is why it seems that Ouattara is looking at international mechanisms like the International Criminal Court.