What are we to make of the spurt of attacks against Ivorian soldiers over the past two weeks? The death spasms of the pro-Gbagbo military forces or the start of a new violent phase /even a new war? Let me try and make a stab at an analysis.
– Sadness – I think the response of many Ivorians living in the country has been a cry of ‘oh no, not again’. Though incompetence, corruption and languor haven’t vanished completely, the new government did seem to be doing a decent job of reforming the economy and attracting interest from international investors. There was hope that things were looking up after thirty miserable years (I still feel optimism for reasons I’ll outline below).
Personally, what discouragement I felt was more a result of the response from the Ivorian media rather than events themselves. The story, particularly the attack on the Akouedo military base, was very badly handled by the press – in blantant lies, in exaggerations, in the typical ‘accepting whatever version best favours our position regardless of the truth’, and in radical headlines that undermine reconciliation. The pro-Gbagbo press seemed to cover the story with a disturbing relish in the fact that violence was tainting Ouattara’s time in office, while the pro-Ouattara press were often irresponsible in blaming anyone on the pro-Gbagbo side of being responsible for the attacks, even the moderates that head the current FPI party.
– Predictable – many months ago on this blog, we discussed the similarities between 2012 and 2002 and said that attacks were likely given the presence of i) radical extremist positions ii) plenty of weapons iii) trained military soldiers in exile. It was naive to think that good economic management would open a completely fresh chapter in Ivorian life and few countries jump from violence to peace with a clean break. Guerrilla-style attacks are common elements of most country’s history.
– Incompetence – the attacks revealed a worring number of lapses in military performance, on both sides of the violence, some of which would be comic if they were not true.
1. The main Akouedo military base had no-one in the watchtowers, something that remained the case after the attack and to my knowledge remains the case to this day.
2. Four hours after the attack had ended I drove into the camp without seeing any guards and happily drove around the middle of the camp.
3. Akouedo is one of the country’s biggest army bases. And yet 2,000 soldiers were completely hostage to 30-100 attackers, who controlled the base for several hours with very little resistance. The alert wasn’t sounded. Soldiers scampered for the protection of a UN base within the camp. The attackers had no trouble helping themselves to around 200 AK-47s.
4. Were it not for tweets by former Prime minister, Guillaume Soro, the government communication on the Akouedo attack (in Abidjan’s principal middle class commune, Cocody) was terrible and hours late.
5. Here’s an account of the attack on the Abengourou military base by someone who lives nearby – “Several men approached the guards and said ‘hey there’s an incident over there’. The guards abandoned there posts to find out more, leaving the guns propped up against the wall. The guns were taken by the attackers who started firing. The response of the soldiers in the camp was complete panic. In the 50 injuries reported by soldiers, not one was from a bullet wound and most were injuries sustained when the soldiers climbed over the wall of the camp to flee.”
6. The details of an Akouedo style operation and a campaign of attacks were clearly in the offing. Two days before several newspapers, most notably the PDCI rag ‘Le Nouveau Reveil’ printed an account of the strategy which should at least have put the authorities on alert.
7. In the attempted attack on Mossou/Bassam, the Ivorian army had all the details 24 hours in advance and were easily able to intercept the attackers when they struck. However the apparent head of the operation was transported to hospital as an injured civilian, and when later the soldiers found out the person’s true identity, he’d already escaped.
8. In the attack on the Ivorian border post by militia from Liberia, despite their knowledge of the dense forests and the benefits of a surprise attack followed by ‘several hours of intense shooting’, not one Ivorian soldier was killed. Those charged with defending the base fled over the border to Liberia and had to be brought to Monrovia for repatriation.
– Prognosis – some friends of mine have the following reading – the attacks were a surprise, the attackers withdrew when they wanted, things will only get far worse. I take a slightly different view. The attacks have received a lot of attention and were more widespread than before, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the Tai attacks in June were actually more deadly, and no attackers were arrested. Every army in the world is vulnerable to guerilla-style tactics.
In this context, I think it’s worth asking the question as to what the aim is. I think the best they can hope for is to make certain parts of the country ‘unruly’ and then to try and force the government into some sort of negotiating position (although what are they negotiating for?). I can’t see them ever holding any territory given their inferiority in numbers, lack of success in Spring 2011, the presence of international forces and the lack of international support, especially from neighbours. What’s achievable is perhaps to regularly kill a few Ivorian soldiers and get the country in the international news for the wrong reasons and scare off some businessmen.
Beyond these strategy-related weaknesses, there are a number of other ones as well. Firstly, the government and peacekeepers seem to be adapting and improving in relation to these attacks. Better roads in the far West, closer coordination with the governments of Ghana and particularly Liberia, and better discipline in the FRCI will reduce the number of successful attacks and improve the speed of response.
Another weakness is in the support base. Refugee life is getting increasingly difficult for those pro-Gbagbo Ivorians in Ghana/Togo with food rations from the UNHCR declining. I suspect their numbers will continue to fall as might enthusiasm for participation in attacks. While faith in a miraculous return for Gbagbo ‘in the near future’ may prove resistant, time will probably sap confidence in this.
The pro-Gbagbo camp is undoubtedly divided on the attacks and I wonder how much support they really have outside a few radicals. Is it morally justifiable to fight with the only reasonable goal of hurting the economy, killing some soldiers and reducing what a government you don’t like is able to achieve for the country? Isn’t the violence a little too close to the tactics of the much condemned 2002 attackers and, in which case, is there a danger of losing the ‘high-ground’? While pro-Gbagbo commentators seem to have been quick to publicise the attacks online (which suggests they see the advantage in them), there’s been an equal embarrassment at being identified as being in the same camp as the attackers, as seen in elaborate explanations that these were committed by pro-Ouattara forces.
Arrests have also followed swiftly. The day after the Akouedo attacks we had some of the stolen weapons recovered, and we apparently had the full identities including parents and birthplaces of a number of attackers and the names of the ring-leaders. Some argue this was all make-believe, but if it is true, it shows a reasonable level of efficiency. For those seeking to make the comparison between these attackers and the ‘invisible commandos’ of 2011, the difference is striking. There, three months after the invisible commando had emerged and taken over a decent part of the city, fighting every night and gaining more and more territory, the government couldn’t given us the identity of a single invisible commando soldier or tell us who was in charge. Today we had announcements and names of several people arrested by the Liberians for suspicion of involvement in the border post attacks.
A part of ‘what happens next’ is down to the response of the government. Can they improve the security apparatus without endangering human rights and making certain communities feel like the victims of government persecution. One local journalist yesterday told me about the response of one pro-Ouattara youth leader: “The difference between Gbagbo’s government and ours is that in similar situations in Gbagbo’s time, he let the youth militias take over security, set-up checkpoints throughout the city, and start to persecute the opposition. We trust the formal government forces to carry out their role”. That’s obviously a one-sided view, but in doing what it takes to improve security, the government needs to make sure the message is clear and understood – “we are after attackers, we are not after opposition supporters or the members of one ethnic community”.