Grievances in Africa’s best-performing economy are still being settled by the gun
Barracuda was a loyal, if frustrated, soldier in Ivory Coast’s army for years. But in January, he and thousands of troops stormed out of their barracks, fired into the air and took Bouake, the country’s second-largest city, hostage.
The mutiny was triggered by the government’s failure to pay bonuses promised years ago. The troops returned to their bases after the government agreed to give more than 8,000 soldiers the equivalent of $20,000 each. However, the unrest suggested an unsettling reality in Africa’s best-performing economy: lingering grievances dating back to a war that ended six years ago are still being resolved through the barrel of a gun.
Barracuda, a softly spoken man in his 40s who uses his nom de guerre, says taking to the streets with their rifles was the only way the soldiers’ demands would reach Alassane Ouattara, the president.
“We had to do this, because it’s our right,” he says, flicking through photos of the second home he is building thanks to his sudden windfall.
But analysts and diplomats warn that the government’s swift concession to the mutineers risks setting a dangerous precedent in a country that was blighted by a decade of intermittent conflict that ended in 2011.
Since the initial mutiny, similar mini-revolts have rippled across the world’s top cocoa producing nation. This week, a special forces unit mutinied in a town in the south-east, firing shots and demanding payment of bonuses. The unrest was predicted by a western security official who, after the uprising in Bouake, remarked: “We have not seen the end of this.”
The west African nation has largely been peaceful since Mr Ouattara became president in 2011 after French troops and local rebels, including Barracuda, quelled a bloody post-election conflict. And Mr Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund official, has drawn praise for steering his country out of crisis and overseeing an economic boom.
At a time when many African countries are reeling from low commodity prices and policy mis-steps, Ivory Coast’s economy has grown at close to 9 per cent for each of the past four years.
The president argues that increased prosperity will heal wartime wounds and reduce the risks of conflict in the future. But the recent mutiny has underscored the flaws in a near-singular focus on the economy, analysts say, and highlighted the danger of ignoring the unrest emanating from the army, which is a patchwork of former warlords and their loyal men.
“Everyone wants to say, ‘everything is good in Ivory Coast’,” says another foreign security official who worked with the army on a disarmament process initiated after Mr Ouattara took power. “Make no mistake, this is a divided army and a fragile state.”
A handful of peace deals signed before the conflict formally ended have only been partially implemented — one reason why some groups within and outside the army believe the state is in debt to them.
“The problem with the army is structural disorder that can’t be sorted out with the punctual signing of cheques, even if the cheques are big,” says Rinaldo Depagne, west Africa director at the International Crisis Group. “Nobody has an idea how to reform it.”
Observers say the issue with Mr Ouattara’s approach is not just that growth has yet to trickle down and transform lives. The other problem, they argue, is that pay-offs to soldiers fuel the perception that the spoils of the boom are being shared exclusively among the powerful.
In Bouake, in the impoverished centre-northern part of the country, shopkeepers express anger at the government’s decision to meet the soldiers’ demands. But they also welcome the mutineers spending their windfalls in their shops.
“Business is finally moving,” says Kante, selling bags of cement in a dim warehouse. “But the real problems have not been dealt with, and the only people with money around here are the men with guns, because the government does not listen to anyone but them.”
Still, it is not just armed men who are speaking up.
Unions representing some 200,000 civil servants jointly launched a strike over salary arrears of roughly $400m days after last month’s mutiny. They returned to work after three weeks but continue to negotiate with the government.
“If there’s money, give it to us too,” says Theodore Gnagna Zadi, a union leader.
Although the strike was planned for months, it was the government’s “poor handling” of the mutiny that spurred the civil servants to action, he says.
And Barracuda, himself a former rebel who joined the army after the civil war ended, warns that more unrest is in the air.
Referring to a faction of former rebels who gave up their weapons after the war but are now considering their own protests over unpaid bonuses, he says: “Tomorrow, there will be a problem. Because if our brothers come out to fight, we cannot fight them. They have their right to make demands too.”