Soldiers Mutiny in Ivory Coast, Reviving Memories of Civil War

United Nations peacekeepers arrived Friday at Bouaké, Ivory Coast, where earlier in the day soldiers demanding more pay had closed roads into the city.
Credit Sia Kambou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Angry soldiers took up arms in at least two cities in Ivory Coast on Friday in a demand for pay raises and other concessions, paralyzing commerce and street life, and terrifying citizens who still have memories of civil war.

Gunfire rang out early Friday across Bouaké, the second-largest city in this West African nation, amid news reports that soldiers had seized at least two police stations there. Bouaké was the crucible of a civil conflict that plagued the country from 2002 to 2011 and left thousands dead.

Later in the morning, soldiers launched a similar mutiny in the city of Daloa, according to Yolande Kouame, who works for a financial institution there. She said that shots had been fired at about 10 a.m. and that soldiers had blocked entrances into town.

There were news reports of a similar disturbance in the northern city of Korhogo.

In recent years, Ivory Coast has shed its violent past to become one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. It is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, and President Alassane Ouattara has invested in roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects that have lured back multinational corporations that fled during the conflict. The country celebrated its first peaceful presidential election in two decades when Mr. Outtara was re-elected in 2015.

But last year, militants stormed a popular strip of resorts and killed more than a dozen people, leaving bodies strewn across a beach. The North African affiliate of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the attack, one in a series to hit West African capitals. Ivory Coast is also struggling with a serious deforestation problem and has been evicting cocoa-farming squatters from its lush, protected forests.

Tensions from past conflicts simmer, but the soldiers’ actions on Friday took Ivorians by surprise.

Just after midnight on Friday, troops broke into a military barracks in Bouaké, according to the Defense Ministry, and stole a cache of weapons. The renegade soldiers were circling the city on motorbikes, firing shots in the air to disperse crowds, according to Moussa Coulibaly, 30, a student from Bouaké. He said schools were closed, and the streets of the normally bustling city were quieter than usual.

Dominique Koffi, a moped repairman in the city, said a lot of gunfire could be heard early Friday morning in the city center. “Then we saw uniformed military men around town,” he said. “We got scared and left. The city is paralyzed and shops are closed because of fear.”

Military leaders have been talking with the renegade soldiers, according to Ivory Coast’s defense minister, Alain Richard Donwahi, who appeared on national television Friday afternoon. The soldiers are seeking raises, bonuses and shorter tenures of military service, among other issues, he said.

“There are ongoing negotiations between the authorities and the soldiers,” Nicolas Djibo, the mayor of Bouaké, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Djibo said he was optimistic that the situation would be resolved by day’s end, but that it had become a national issue that was beyond his authority.

“The mayor can’t give security guarantees,” he said.

In a statement, the Defense Ministry urged all soldiers “to remain calm and return to the barracks, with a view to finding lasting solutions for all of the components of the armed forces.”

A similar uprising took place in November 2014, when thousands of soldiers left their barracks to demand back pay and benefits. At the time, the government agreed to meet the demands of the roughly 9,000 former rebel fighters, but those grievances have apparently endured.

A fractured military has threatened to undercut stability in Ivory Coast, as the government has struggled to effectively bring former rebels into the fold.

Bouaké was a stronghold for rebels during a 2002 civil war that divided the country. A 2007 peace deal appointed a former rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, as prime minister, but the military remains a loosely knit national force.

Rebel fighters helped install Mr. Ouattara in 2011 after the president at the time, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to recognize Mr. Ouattara’s electoral victory. When Mr. Gbagbo would not step down, it took an international military intervention to remove him.

The ensuing crisis left about 3,000 people dead. Mr. Gbagbo is facing charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague relating to the violence.

Mr. Ouattara, an American-trained economist and a former top official at the International Monetary Fund, has promised to deliver inclusive economic growth. But threats to the country’s stability such as the mutiny on Friday pose a stiff test for his economic goals.

Source: NYTimes