As Ivory Coast beefs up its border security with Burkina Faso, ethnic Fulanis say they are being labeled as supporters of Islamist militants and persecuted by security forces. Rights groups warn the heavy-handed tactics could backfire, providing fertile recruiting ground for the insurgents.
Since armed groups attacked military targets near the border with Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast's government has been sending large numbers of troops to the north over the past two years.
In the town of Kong, near where many of the attacks took place, Boubacar Koueta was among many men arrested by recently arrived Ivorian government forces. Koueta was one of three ethnic Fulani men who described how army troops beat them and their relatives and held them for 11 days to two months without charge because of their ethnicity.
Koueta said he was outside one day with several other people, including women. Two large vehicles pulled up, he said, and soldiers detained them and another group of people before firing into the air and beating them. Koueta and the others were tied up, beaten and left in the afternoon sun.
Throughout the Sahel, there is a common misconception that ethnic Fulanis are behind attacks linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaida groups that have ravaged neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali.
Relations had been cordial
A community leader for the Fulanis in Kong, Amadou Sidibé, said they had good relations with security forces before new soldiers arrived two years ago.
Amadou Sidibé said that before the arrival of the new military personnel, everything was fine. He said there were no problems with the authorities or security forces. But since their arrival, he added, the Fulani are often arrested and branded as terrorists.
Officials with Human Rights Watch said the persecution of Fulanis in Burkina Faso and Mali is a major catalyst for recruitment by terror groups, who exploit resentment toward the state.
Jihadist groups rely on long-standing tensions between farmers and herder communities like the Fulanis to stoke violent conflict, analysts say.
Lassina Diara, an analyst with the Timbuktu Institute, said he thinks that beyond the religious rhetoric, terror groups are exploiting social fractures and ethnicity. He said there is a fracture between the Fulani communities and the region’s other communities.
A farmer near the northern city of Korhogo, who asked that his name be withheld for safety reasons, said he resented having to erect fencing because herders allow cattle to graze cashew crops. He said the farmers bear the costs of protecting their plantations while herders do nothing because they want to see their cattle well fed.
Lassina Sele, who runs an NGO that aims to resolve disputes between farmers and herders, says local militiamen called dozos add to tensions. Sele says that when dozos arrest a thief who is Fulani, they are treated worse than those of another ethnic group.
Diara, the analyst, said he did not think the government was doing enough to relieve tensions between herder and farmer communities.
Ministers in charge of security and social cohesion did not respond to multiple requests for comment.