Tension is mounting in Ivory Coast, which, one year after an army rebellion, is far from the oasis of stability it once represented in turbulent West Africa. The papers say violence this weekend in the country’s largest rebel-held city has former colonizer France considering an expansion into rebel-held areas in the north—until now, the nearly 4,000 French troops stationed in Ivory Coast since the September 2002 coup attempt have limited themselves to the government-controlled south. An expansion could lead to clashes with rebels, who are now publicly warning the French to stay put. Le Figaro said the precarious situation in Ivory Coast leaves France stuck with pursuing its diplomatic and military engagement in the country—at a cost of about 30 million euros per month—or risk “watching its former colony sink into chaos and its own role as a great power in Africa fade.”
Ivory Coast has been split in two since rebels took control of the predominantly Muslim north last year, and the country has seen little progress on a French-brokered peace accord signed in January 2003. Last week began with the rebels—now referred to as “New Forces”—pulling out of the national unity government and ended with a bank-robbery-turned-shootout in the rebel stronghold of Bouaké that killed 23 people and injured at least 37. Papers carried conflicting reports over the extent of rebel involvement in the burglary and over how many of the dead were civilians. Most accounts said unruly and frustrated rebels instigated the bank raid, with civilians injured or killed in a crush to enter and loot the building. Following the ensuing gun battle, French troops, backed by West African peacekeepers, moved into rebel-held Bouaké for the first time to stabilize the city center. Le Figaro echoed several press accounts in saying that “far from being unexpected,” the violence in Bouaké signifies increasing unrest within the ranks of the “ex-rebels” who, after months without pay and with no other means of survival, have resorted to violence and pillaging. The paper said the forces counted on a rapid coup d’état last year and do not have the resources available for a long-term operation.
The Bouaké violence came days after the rebels’ withdrawal from the national unity government; it is still unclear whether the rupture is permanent. The rebels’ latest beef with President Laurent Gbagbo is their allegation that he failed to consult with them on the naming of the defense and interior ministers. There is little trust between the two sides, with each accusing the other of blocking peace efforts and reinforcing for further armed conflict. For his part, according to Le Figaro, Gbagbo recently declared himself “tired of the blackmailers holding the country hostage.”
According to Le Monde, France’s defense minister said the Bouaké incident has France studying the possibility of widening its patrols in the country. The defense minister said that for the French to make the risky move of expanding into rebel-held northern areas, there would have to be agreement among the parties involved—the government, rebels, and West African troops—”and today that is not at all the case.” Ivorian papers say rebel leaders are uneasy with the French troops’ presence in their stronghold of Bouaké and are warning French forces not to move farther north. The daily Soir Info said the faction’s leaders in the area are panicking and publicly declaring they “will not be pushed around.”
Notre Voie, the Ivorian daily run by President Laurent Gbagbo’s political party, predicted that the infiltration of French and West African troops into rebel territory would lead to the rebels’ disarmament. “The attack on the bank is the fatal move that will surely finish off the rebels’ bloody operation,” the paper said.