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Ex-Combatants Face Uncertain Future Ivory Coast

Dosso Abou clears brush to support himself, his wife and their five children, Bouake, Ivory Coast, May 4, 2013. (R. Corey-Boulet/VOA)
Dosso Abou clears brush to support himself, his wife and their five children, Bouake, Ivory Coast, May 4, 2013. (R. Corey-Boulet/VOA)
Officials in Ivory Coast have begun disarming ex-combatants from the country’s decade-long political crisis. But in the former rebel capital of Bouake, unanswered questions about the process have fueled anxiety among former fighters, whose successful reintegration into society is seen as essential for lasting peace.

Each morning, 47-year-old Dosso Abou makes the rounds of his neighborhood with his machete, looking for brush to clear. For the past two years, since the end of Ivory Coast’s 2010-'11 post-election conflict, this has been his only means of supporting himself, his wife and their five children.

For nine years, Abou fought with the New Forces rebel group, whose members staged a coup against President Laurent Gbagbo in September 2002. Though Mr. Gbagbo stayed in power, the rebels took control of the northern half of the country, making Bouake their capital.

In 2010, Gbagbo refused to leave office after losing the November 2010 election to current President Alassane Ouattara. In the ensuing power struggle, the New Forces threw their support behind Mr. Ouattara, helping him come to power in April 2011. Many rebels assumed - and were often told by their commanders - that they would be integrated into the new national army.

Today, however, it has become clear that many rebel fighters will be left out, causing anxiety for Abou and thousands like him who have few skills and must watch passively as Bouake’s economy recovers.

He says, "We are not doing anything now. We’re not working. And we haven’t been engaged in the growth of the country since the conflict began in 2002." He says, "So how many years have we lost? That’s why I’m asking the authorities to give me work. In a store, maybe, or with the police, or some other kind of position."

Dosso Abou clears brush to support himself, his wife and their five children, Bouake, Ivory Coast, May 4, 2013. (R. Corey-Boulet/VOA)
Dosso Abou clears brush to support himself, his wife and their five children, Bouake, Ivory Coast, May 4, 2013. (R. Corey-Boulet/VOA)
Last August, the government created a national Authority for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, or DDR. This process is seen as perhaps the most important for maintaining peace in a country awash both in weapons and unskilled young men vulnerable to recruitment. The failure of previous DDR efforts was seen as partly laying the groundwork for the 2010-'11 conflict.

While Abou is confident Bouake’s ex-combatants will be taken care of, not everyone is so optimistic.

Last month, dozens of former combatants, who splintered off from the main ex-combatant organization, staged two demonstrations in the city, blocking a main road and demanding nearly $80,000 per person - a sum universally dismissed as unreasonable. Last week, Deputy Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi visited Bouake and appealed to the fighters for calm.

Kaba Sory, an organizer of the protests, said the ex-combatants felt they had been left on their own.

He says, "After the crisis, we found that our leaders abandoned us. For that reason we decided to march in order to remind the government that we are here."

Ivory Coast’s United Nations peacekeeping mission has repeatedly called for a transparent DDR process. However, so far the national authority has kept the details closely guarded. For several weeks, officials have not responded to VOA requests for an interview.

The previous government estimated there were more than 100,000 former combatants eligible for DDR, though that was based on a census widely seen as flawed and inflated. Now the government says it will reintegrate 64,000 ex-combatants over two years. But while breakdowns of this figure have been provided privately to donors, no public explanation has been given - fueling concern among ex-combatants worried they will not be able to participate.

The first phases of the program have also been cause for anxiety. Roughly 2,000 ex-combatants have been reintegrated into working for the prison system, and several thousand more are slated for reintegration into other civil service divisions. These are widely seen as the most desirable options because they amount to a lifetime of salaried employment. But the selection process has not been transparent, and there are not enough civil service positions for everyone.

A diplomat with knowledge of the program told VOA only 6,500 former combatants are likely to be incorporated into the civil service.

Konin Aka, prefect for the region that includes Bouake, said fears of an unfair selection process were causing “suspicion” among the ex-combatants, creating the divisions that sparked last month’s protests.

He said the ex-combatants posed one of the biggest security threats to his region.

He says, "For the moment, they have been demobilized, but they have not been completely disarmed. And as the reinsertion is not complete, they don’t have activities to sustain themselves." He says, "So they are sometimes obliged, and I’m not saying all the time, but they are sometimes obliged to return to using their arms to support themselves."

In a report last year, Human Rights Watch called for the urgent disarming of Bouake’s former combatants, who residents said were behind a violent crime wave marked by armed robberies and rape. Residents today say crime persists, though on a smaller scale. They largely hold the ex-combatants responsible, and are looking to the DDR process to improve the city’s security situation.