Land conflict in Ivory Coast's wild west simmers on

Reuters News
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Posted: May 23, 2011 10:38 AM
Land conflict in Ivory Coast's wild west simmers on

By Tim Cocks

FENGOLO, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - World leaders have lauded the inauguration of President Alassane Ouattara as marking the end of the violence in Ivory Coast, but villagers in the volatile, cocoa-growing west are much less sure.

Ouattara was invested as head of state on Saturday in front of 20 other national leaders and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, an event they hope will enable the former economic star of West Africa to recover from the worst turmoil in its recent history.

But in the rolling hills cloaked in tropical forest and cocoa trees near the border with Liberia, the local tensions that flared into war during Ouattara's bitter poll dispute with ex-president Laurent Gbabgo are far from resolved.

"For us, this war was never really about the election," said Diara Yakonda, chief of the Dioula half of Fengolo, a village divided in two by an ethnic feud over cocoa-growing land.

Ouattara's migrant Dioula tribe occupies the land on one side of the road cutting through Fengolo, while the indigenous Guere people, seen as pro-Gbabgo, live on the other.

"There was a conflict between Dioula and Guere long before the election. They want our land, but we'll never give it up," Yakonda said.

Feelings like these underscore the challenge Ouattara now faces in reuniting a country riven by feuds over land and

nationality, between migrant farmers and indigenous peoples, that triggered two civil wars in a decade.

While much of the country slowly regains a sense of security, residents in the far west say ethnic militias still roam and thousands of people are trapped in refugee camps.

TABLES TURNED

Ivory Coast's well-watered forests have long attracted migrant workers from drier states to the north like Mali and Burkina Faso to work cocoa farms, but populist politicians have exploited tensions between them and the indigenous people.

Politicians stirred up xenophobic sentiment and denied Ivorian nationality to migrants' descendants and northern Ivorians with cultural ties to migrants, ultimately triggering the country's first civil war in 2002-03.

"Ever since Gbagbo took power, there was violence and intimidation toward people seen as foreigners. Now we feel safe," said Yakonda, who came from Burkina Faso 40 years ago.

But just as the victory of pro-Ouattara forces liberated northerners and foreign nationals from Gbagbo's militias, the Guere say they are now being persecuted with equal zeal.

The U.N. is investigating reports that 800 Guere were killed by pro-Ouattara forces advancing on Duekoue town last month.

Analysts say Ouattara will find it difficult to disarm the forces that helped him seize power from Gbagbo when Gbagbo refused to quit after losing the November 2010 election -- but he must do so if Ivorians are to feel safe again.

Some 27,000 people, mostly Guere, are sheltering in the grounds of the Catholic mission in Duekoue, living in squalor. Cocoa farmer Michel Taiiloula, too frightened to leave, says he fled to the mission when ethnic militias allied to Ouattara razed his village.

"We want the new president to say everyone who does not have the right to bear arms has to put them down," he said. "

SAFE TO GO HOME?

A pick-up truck carrying heavily armed former rebels rumbles over dirt roads through cocoa fields and grassland.

Kicking up dust as they pull up at a village, the men with sunglasses, automatic weapons and a rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG) hop off the back.

The man carrying the RPG launcher lights a cigarette as another fighter bends down to pick up a hand grenade he dropped.

Nervous villagers scatter in fear, though the commander says the patrol is supposed to reassure them that security is back.

"We are doing everything we can to reassure the population that it is safe to go back home," commander Issa Konda, who is in charge of the Duekoue area, told Reuters.

But he also said ominously that those living in camps were people hiding because "they know they did something wrong."

In the short run, former rebels will have to be disarmed or integrated into an accountable military.

In the longer term, as with other land conflicts in Africa, talks between communities and proper land titles will be needed.

"This is a challenge," Cyprien Ahore, the Catholic priest looking after the Guere refugees, told Reuters.

"It will happen by dialogue to reconcile these conflicting communities. All actors must be involved. This is a test case. If we can achieve reconciliation here, then we do it for the whole country."

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Tim Pearce)