Sympathy for the Devil

Nostalgia for an ousted tyrant is on the rise in Ivory Coast.

For more photos of post-Gbagbo Ivory Coast, click here. 

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Dressed in a white undershirt, long dark trousers, and plastic flip-flops, Florent Tahé gave an angry frown as he took a break from his work. He had spent the better part of the morning unloading 140-pound bags of cocoa beans from the back of a cargo truck in San Pedro, in southwestern Ivory Coast. It was dirty, backbreaking work, and it paid less than $5 a day for a 10-hour shift. But it was a job, and for young men in West Africa, those are in short supply.

Ivory Coast, mercifully, is no longer making regular, front-page news. More than a year has passed since President Laurent Gbagbo was forced from power after refusing to accept election results that didn't go his way. More than 3,000 people were killed and a million or more displaced in the four months of fighting that led to Gbagbo's ouster in April 2011. But the conflict ceased, for the most part, with his departure, and the country seems to be on the mend. The new president, Alassane Ouattara, has the backing of the international community, including a vote of confidence from the United States -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, on a visit to Abidjan in January, that Ivory Coast is now "open for business."

Tahé, nonetheless, was not happy. Gbagbo is now in The Hague in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with four counts of crimes against humanity, and Tahé and many of his fellow co-workers were furious about it. The next phase of Gbagbo's trial was due to begin June 18 but has now been postponed to Aug. 13 to give his defense team more time to prepare. Gbagbo will be the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC, which was established on July 1, 2002, and is the world's first permanent, treaty-based court. (The cases of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, were tried by international courts that were set up in conjunction with the United Nations for people accused of war crimes specifically in those countries.)

"They should leave Gbagbo in peace," Tahé said, sitting on a pile of cocoa sacks and surrounded by a dozen other men who shouted in agreement. "Alassane Ouattara started the war. Because of him our country is rotting away. He is the one that is a criminal."

Gbagbo's arrest last November was hailed by Ouattara's camp and praised by the West as an important sign that sustainable peace had returned to Ivory Coast and that the perpetrators of war crimes in the country would be brought to justice. The former leader's supporters, meanwhile, have accused Ouattara of victor's justice, pointing out that though the president has said he will pursue all war criminals, regardless of affiliation, thus far the only people detained have come from Gbagbo's side.

The ICC's chief prosecutor, as stated in an ICC news release, has accused Gbagbo of directing "murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution and other inhuman acts, allegedly committed in the context of post-electoral violence" between mid-December 2010 and mid-April 2011. It was during these months, following his loss at the polls, that his forces unleashed a reign of terror against opponents, particularly in Abidjan and western Ivory Coast, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. Human Rights Watch reported that troops and militias close to Gbagbo had murdered pro-Ouattara politicians in Abidjan, gang-raped women known to have worn pro-Ouattara T-shirts, and seized other Ouattara supporters "and then beat them to death with bricks, executed them by gunshot at point-blank range, or burned them alive."

Despite the accusations, Gbagbo remains a very popular figure in Ivory Coast (he won 45 percent of the vote in the runoff election against Ouattara, after all), and resentment regarding his arrest is widespread.

"It's not right that Gbagbo is in The Hague," said Barthelemy Gnepa, one of Tahé's co-workers at the cocoa-processing plant in San Pedro. "[Ouattara supporters] cut my grandfather's throat, right in front of me. And stuff like that is still going on. There will be no reconciliation unless Gbagbo is released and sent home. We'll never have peace."

Ivory Coast was once seen as one of the most stable and dynamic countries in West Africa. For it to regain that position, Ouattara will have to bring Gbagbo supporters back into the fold. That won't be easy. The divisions between the two camps are bitter and often cemented by bloodshed. The job will be made all the more challenging by Gbagbo's trial, each step of which will be major news in Ivory Coast as it plays out over the next few years.

Making Ouattara's efforts to reconcile with Gbagbo supporters even more difficult is that his rise to the presidency would not have been possible without the rebellion that formed in the wake of a failed coup attempt against Gbagbo in September 2002. Thwarted in their attack and pushed out of Abidjan, the rebels quickly seized control of the northern half of the country and sent Ivory Coast spiraling into its first civil war. It was a war born of years of rising tensions between native Ivorians in the south and the millions of foreign farmers who tend the country's vast cocoa plantations in the south and southwest. Many of the farmers were born in Ivory Coast and had lived their whole lives there, but as the descendants of immigrants who had come from neighboring countries decades ago, they were not eligible for citizenship.

By the 1970s, the immigrant farmers had helped build Ivory Coast into the world's largest cocoa exporter, creating a vibrant economy touted as the "Miracle of Africa." Many farmers had become wealthy along the way, but when the country's economy bottomed out in the 1980s, that wealth made them objects of envy. Immigrants increasingly became the targets of discrimination. Native Ivorians from the north were targeted as well, victimized because northern ethnic groups are often indistinguishable from those in neighboring countries -- the countries most of the immigrant farmers call home. The term Ivoirité (literally, "Ivoryness," a measure of purity of citizenship) worked its way into official government discourse, and by the late 1990s, a state-sponsored campaign of hate was under way.

Ivoirité was not Gbagbo's creation, but he embraced the idea soon after coming to the presidency in 2000, encouraging Ivorians from his native southwest to reclaim the land they had ceded to foreigners over the years. The farmers, many of whom had been in the southwest for generations, were not inclined to leave or give up their land. When soldiers from northern Ivory Coast launched the war in 2002, northern Ivorians and immigrants all over the country were quick to support the cause. Ouattara, who for years had battled rumors (fueled by Gbagbo and others) that he, too, was a foreigner, denied being behind the rebellion, but the rebels and their supporters made it clear that they wanted him to be president.

Gbagbo supporters like Tahé are quick to forget the discrimination, confiscated identity papers, threats, and physical attacks that northern Ivorians and immigrants suffered in the years leading up to the outbreak of war. "We lived very well. We had no problem with our brothers who were from elsewhere," Tahé told me. "The trouble started when Ouattara sent in his rebels. Then all the foreigners from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea suddenly supported them. All these foreigners who had nothing before they came here -- now they all had weapons hidden everywhere. And they started killing us."

These are not the rantings of a fringe extremist. People like Tahé make up a substantial minority of the Ivorian population. Over the course of two recent weeks in western Ivory Coast, I met dozens of people who were in lockstep with his views. Many were from Niambli, a village of more than a thousand people that lies 200 miles north of San Pedro near the town of Duékoué, in the west. The Duékoué area has seen more bloodshed than any other part of the country over the last 10 years, and during the post-election violence it was hit hard by troops loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara alike.

A paved road bisects Niambli and separates the indigenous and immigrant communities. Today, much of the village lies in ruins. By late March 2011, when it had become clear that Gbagbo's days were numbered, the regular army had largely abandoned the area. Gbagbo's youth militias took advantage of the security void that was left when the army departed, and they attacked the immigrant community in Niambli on the morning of March 23.

"Every house that you see here was on fire," Rasmani Badini told me. A 59-year-old farmer from Burkina Faso who has lived in Niambli since 1977, Badini sat on a wooden bench in the sun's full glare among a cluster of mud huts. "It seemed like there were thousands of them -- Gbagbo's militia, all dressed in black. They didn't have machetes or the kinds of guns you normally see with farmers in this area. They had Kalashnikovs. And by the end of the day the whole village was flattened. There wasn't a single house left."

Badini fled with a few hundred other immigrants into the bush, where they hid for a couple of weeks. By the time they returned home, the indigenous side of Niambli had been flattened as well. Pro-Ouattara troops had charged through town on their way to Abidjan, exacting revenge along the way. Olivier, a 21-year-old native Ivorian, fled the town with his pregnant sister when Ouattara's soldiers arrived. But they couldn't outrun them. "They stabbed her in the belly with a knife," he told me. "Killed her and the baby. I panicked and ran, and they were shooting at me. I got hit in the elbow." He lifted his arm and showed me the scar.

Olivier eventually took refuge at a Catholic mission in Duékoué, making him one of the lucky ones. Hundreds of other civilians in the area were ultimately stopped in Carrefour, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Duékoué, where international human rights groups and dozens of witnesses with whom I spoke say they were executed by troops loyal to Ouattara and dumped into mass graves.

No one from Ouattara's camp has been arrested for these and other alleged crimes, a fact that infuriates Gbagbo loyalists and makes it very difficult to see how the president can successfully secure peace and reconciliation for the country.

"There have been problems," Ouattara acknowledged to the Africa Report in May. "When it comes to the question of human rights, things are progressing.… Justice will be allowed to follow its course; there will not be any discrimination."

Still, many experts fear that not enough progress has been made. "You cannot have reconciliation if you have one-sided justice," a human rights officer with the United Nations, who asked not to be named, told me. "It just creates grounds for revenge and hatred. If the ICC doesn't arrest someone from the Ouattara side, the reconciliation process will not work."

Ouattara's job has been further complicated by the insecurity that still plagues the country's west. Numerous communities have fallen victim to attacks from shadowy armed gangs -- leftover war-makers suddenly without a productive role to play in a society trying to stitch itself back together. In March, I visited Zibablo-Yeblo, a small village north of Duékoué that had been torched by unknown assailants, killing two people and destroying all the village's food stocks. In early June, seven U.N. peacekeepers and eight civilians were killed when a village on Ivory Coast's western border with Liberia was attacked. (Human Rights Watch had published a report just before that attack, accusing the Liberian government of ignoring the well-armed Liberians and former Gbagbo militiamen camped among the thousands of Ivorian refugees still living in eastern Liberia.)

Ouattara is in the difficult position of needing to provide security to a region where a large portion of the population doesn't trust his motives and is highly suspicious of his security forces. "The pro-Gbagbo people don't recognize this army," said the U.N. human rights officer. "The ongoing clashes are a clear indication of a serious crisis. If things continue like this, there will be no peace."

It is a sentiment echoed by Florent Tahé at the cocoa plant in San Pedro. "Alassane Ouattara is not our president," Tahé told me as he and his fellow co-workers finished their break and got ready to go back to work. "The president is Laurent Gbagbo. He will always remain our president. It's not going well here at all now. They try to make it look like it's OK, but it's not. When we go outside, we have to worry that Ouattara's soldiers will beat us up. You see? What are we to do? We don't know."



Turkey's Not Messing Around Anymore

But does Prime Minister Erdogan have a plan for what comes next in Syria?

ISTANBUL – On June 22, a stricken Turkish RF-4 Phantom reconnaissance aircraft splashed down in the Mediterranean, brought down by anti-aircraft fire from the Syrian military. The pilots have yet to be located, and are most likely dead. The incident has deepened the rift between Turkey and Syria, former allies whose partnership deteriorated along with President Bashar al-Assad's brutal 15-month crackdown on his own people. Although this incident alone will not push Turkey into direct military confrontation with the Syrian regime, it has put the country in a position where one more incident will force it to, in the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "teach those who dare to test the limits of its might."

Beyond the basic fact of a downed Turkish jet, Ankara and Damascus disagree over the essential details that led to the incident. Turkey insists that the plane was in international airspace when it was fired upon and had only crossed into Syrian airspace briefly, an event that President Abdullah Gul described as "routine." The Syrian regime, meanwhile, insists the Phantom was shot down well within Syrian territory -- a claim that backs up the regime's claim that the uprising, which the U.N. estimates has left more than 10,000 dead, is being guided by foreign powers.

Erdogan responded with typical anger over yet another Syrian provocation. In a June 26 address to a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara that was attended by Arab diplomats, he announced that any Syrian forces approaching the countries' 565-mile border would be considered a threat and that any infringement of the border would be met with force. The Syrian regime presented a "clear and present danger," Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, Erdogan's top aides publicly pushed the message that the rules of the game had changed. Ibrahim Kalin, one of the premier's top foreign-policy advisors, expanded on the statement on Twitter: "The rules of engagement for the Turkish armed forces have been changed and expanded," he wrote. "Any military element approaching Turkish borders from the Syrian side will be considered a direct military threat."

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, backed up this newly aggressive rhetoric. With the continued bloodshed in Syria and, now the shooting down of the Turkish Phantom, Ankara is no longer playing "Mr. Nice Guy," the official said.

Erdogan's words immediately raised the question of whether a de facto safe zone -- a policy option long broached as one way Turkey could hasten the Assad regime's demise -- was being created to aid opposition forces, yet neither the prime minister nor his advisors specified what "approaching Turkish borders" meant.

Turkey's understanding of how the incident played out has its increased outrage at Assad. The Turkish official told me that the pilots accidently entered Syrian airspace for five minutes, most likely miscalculating their flight path by incorrectly identifying a pair of mountain ridges toward which they were supposed to fly. They were informed of their mistake by Turkish radar station operators and returned to Turkish airspace. The pilots were then asked to correctly repeat their maneuver, which was meant to test Turkey's domestic radar capabilities, the official said. They returned to international airspace, looping around and flying back toward Turkey, parallel to the Syrian coastline, when they were shot down near the Syrian city of Lattakia, according to the official.

Turkey intercepted the Syrian radio communications during the incident. There was "no panic" in the voices of Syrian forces, the Turkish official said. It appeared they had been previously instructed to take such actions and proved themselves aware it was a Turkish aircraft, referring to it as the "neighbors'" plane.

There is no denying that Turkey has emerged as a regional hub of anti-Assad activity in the Middle East. In the past year, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has established an office in Istanbul, with a section dedicated to military coordination. The nominal leadership of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with an estimated 33,000 Syrians who fled the spiraling violence inside their country, are based in 10 Turkish camps in the border region. The U.S. State Department has also established an office in Istanbul to help train activists and provide non-lethal equipment to the opposition.

In the past weeks, reports have also claimed that Turkey's National Security Organization (MIT), its intelligence agency, has transported multiple shipments of weapons to rebels along the border. Turkey's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Selcuk Unal denied the claims, but one Syrian activist involved in transferring the new weapons from MIT to the rebels along the Syrian-Turkish border confirmed the shipments. "For myself, it was not my aim," said the activist, who had previously told me he preferred nonviolent measures to bring down the Assad regime. "But it's generally what everyone wants. It's sort of a victory."

Turkey is arguably doing more than any other country to help the Syrian guerrillas. But if Erdogan wants to convince the world that now he really means business, he's going to have to overcome skepticism from Syrian rebels themselves -- not to mention his domestic political opponents.

Abo Nidal, a 39-year-old FSA fighter, is one such skeptic. I first met him last December on a muddy hilltop in the Syrian village of Ain al-Baida. His FSA unit had raised the Turkish flag next to the green, white, and black standard of the Syrian opposition -- but now he didn't sound sure that Erdogan would match his actions to his words.

"With all due respect for Mr. Erdogan, the Syrian Army has more than several times crossed the border with helicopters and shooting. They shot a Turkish police station, they shot it from a distance," he said. "If Erdogan will help us, all we need is anti-aircraft weapons and anti-tanks weapons. We will respond and we will revenge this airplane."

Abo Nidal said that since joining the FSA he had fought only with a Kalashnikov. However, his unit had recently received rocket-propelled grenade launchers from the FSA, he said.

Mahmoud Mosa, a Syrian activist from the northern Syrian town of Bdama, echoed the lukewarm response to Erdogan's speech: "We have heard stronger threats to Syria from Erdogan before. We know that the Syrian forces are less than 300 meters from the Turkish borders in Ain al-Baida. We need deeds, not words."

The polls are also against Erdogan if he pushes for a military confrontation with Syria. According to a recent survey from the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), a Turkish think tank, 56.2 percent of respondents oppose an intervention in Syria while 40 percent say they do not support any diplomatic or military intervention. Just over 11 percent would like to see Turkey invade Syria. And only 7.9 percent of respondents support arming the FSA.

Faruk Logoglu, the deputy chairman in charge of foreign relations for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), has signaled that he would oppose more aggressive action against the Assad regime. "The Turkish government has taken sides in this crisis since the very beginning," he told me. Instead of engaging with the Assad regime and the opposition on equal footing, he said, the AKP had simply chosen the opposition as a favorite.

While Logoglu condemned the violence in Syria, which he described as mostly being carried out by regime forces, he faulted Erdogan for "not listen[ing] to the full spectrum of voices" in Turkey. He also implied Erdogan was positioning himself as a Sunni standard-bearer for Western efforts to roll back Shiite Iran's influence in the Middle East.

"I am not pointing the finger at Mr. Erdogan and saying he is crusading for the Sunni leadership in the region," he said. "But most of his actions add up to such quote-unquote accusations or allegations, as you like."

The Turkish government's conditions for unilateral intervention in Syria have also yet to be met. Since Syrian refugees began fleeing into southern Turkey, Turkish officials have has made clear that there are two possible scenarios in which they'd ponder military action: First, if there were a mass influx of thousands of refugees that threatened to overwhelm Turkey's capabilities. The second scenario is if there were a large-scale massacre of defenseless civilians by pro-Assad military forces in the border area.

Yet even more important than the change in rules of engagement, the jet incident has confirmed Ankara's belief that Assad is rapidly losing control of the country. "It's a matter of time," the Turkish official said. "This guy will go."

On that point, at least, Syria's rebel fighters are inclined to agree. "He is losing his believers and the people who trust him more and more," Abo Nidal said. "There are defections every day. We think that is why they shot the Turkish plane."

Whether Ankara is prepared to give the Assad regime a final push remains to be seen, however. Asked if Erdogan's warning the Syrian military away from the border was creating a de facto buffer zone, the Turkish official demurred. "As a responsible government we had to think of everything," he said. "But frankly we haven't decided on anything yet."