West African immigrants, northerners fear they may be next target
As French and other foreigners continue to
bail out of Cote d'Ivoire after days of mob violence, northern ethnic
groups and West African immigrants fear that militants loyal to President
Laurent Gbagbo might soon turn their wrath back on them.
Forty-three-year-old Mamadou, an Ivorian whose parents hail from Mali, was
keeping his head down in Abidjan's predominantly Muslim suburb of
Koumassi. He said he had been staying home by day and occasionally
venturing out at dusk to meet friends.
"Nobody wants to be noticed much these days," he told IRIN. "Everybody
keeps a low profile."
"The Gbagbo people think they've kicked the French out. They say they've
felled a big tree with a small axe. It's possible that sooner or later
they'll come to attack us because they say we are with the rebels," he
The north-south divide is the crux of Cote d'Ivoire's problems. The West
African country has been split into a rebel-held north and a
government-controlled south, with 10,000 French and UN peacekeepers in
between, since September 2002, when an unsuccessful coup attempt against
Gbagbo developed into an insurgency.
Former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, who draws much of his support
from the north, was barred from running in the 2000 presidential election
on the grounds that his father was from Burkina Faso. The rebels demanded
the constitution be changed to allow Ouattara to stand in the 2005 ballot
before they disarmed, but Gbgabo said they had to lay down their weapons
The political deadlock was broken in dramatic fashion last week, when the
Ivorian army launched air and ground assaults on rebel strongholds,
shattering an 18-month-old ceasefire. But two days into the campaign,
former colonial power France became the number one enemy.
Paris retaliated for a deadly bombing on one of its bases by destroying
almost the entire Ivorian airforce. Irate Ivorians rampaged through the
streets of Abidjan looting and burning French interests, beating up
expatriates and, according to French Foreign Ministry sources, raping some women.
Expatriates have been fleeing the former French colony
by the planeload. But now that more than 3,000 expatriates, mainly French, have fled the
country, analysts fear a fresh backlash against more traditional foes.
"Until they were evacuated, French citizens bore the brunt of the
militias' xenophobic attacks," said Peter Takirambudde, the head of the
Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Now we are concerned that the
militias will turn their rage on their more familiar targets -- Muslims,
northerners and West African immigrants."
Immigrants from Mali and Burkina Faso, who flocked into Cote d'Ivoire to
work the cocoa and coffee fields, have long been a lightning rod. In the
wake of the 2002 coup attempt, for example, at least 1 million immigrants
living and working in the south fled the country. Some were forced from
their homes and farms, while others were driven out by fear.
Ivorian security forces and pro-government militia have continued to
commit random acts of violence against immigrants from West Africa as well
as people from northern Cote d'Ivoire, accusing them of being in cahoots
with the rebels, according to human rights sources.
Clashes in Gbagbo's home town
Since the latest cycle of instability began, there have already been
isolated cases of ethnic violence in the cocoa-rich west of Cote d'Ivoire,
notably in Gbagbo's home town of Gagnoa, about 250 km northwest of
Clashes erupted there on Monday and Tuesday, pitching the president's
ethnic group, the Bete, against the Dioula population, who are mainly from
the north, but who settled in the town decades ago.
"We have counted six dead and 29 injured," Marc Gbaka, a town council
official, told IRIN, saying youths had attacked with machetes, kitchen
knives and sticks.
UN peacekeepers are now patrolling the area around Gagnoa, often a
flashpoint for ethnic strife. Before this week's attacks, more than 20
people had been killed in the last year and around 500 immigrant farmers
driven off their cocoa farms.
Residents in the town said the latest trouble began when word arrived from
Abidjan that the French had decimated Cote d'Ivoire's airforce. Militant
government supporters, seeing the move as help for the northern rebels,
attacked clothing shops and rice stores belonging to Dioula merchants who
then retaliated by trashing food shacks and restaurants owned by Betes.
"It's the scenario that we've all been fearing since 2002. The ground is
set for a clash of the communities," explained Francois Ruf, a cocoa
specialist based in Accra, Ghana. "The worst thing that could happen is
that those from northern Cote d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso start using
hardcore weapons and the Bete get out their guns and then there's