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New president wants to turn the war-torn country into a prosperous one, but hurdles to peace and security still lie ahead.
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — From inside a glassed-in corner office on the 17th floor of a financial building in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, International Monetary Fund representative Wayne Camard is feeling optimistic.
“It’s early to say we’re completely out of the woods, but the recovery has been extraordinary. Everything has come back very fast,” he says.
Just six months ago, militia groups and mercenaries in Ivory Coast torched mosques and executed civilians for having the wrong name. Prisoners were freed, hospitals closed and police precincts were looted for guns. Shipments of cocoa, the country’s biggest cash crop, ceased.
This West African nation was falling into civil war, and the economy was collapsing.
But since French and United Nations forces pried defeated president Laurent Gbagbo out of a bunker in the presidential palace, Alassane Ouattara’s new government has made tangible strides toward putting the country back together.
The government and United Nations forces are collecting weapons from former fighters. Police stations, manned by the former rebel soldiers after the crisis, have been returned to the police, and prisons have been reopened.
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Normal economic and social activity has resumed.
Abidjan’s chic downtown bustles with business people in tailored suits and pointy Italian shoes talking on cell phones. The streets of working class neighborhood Adjamé are packed with overcrowded buses and roadside markets are heaped with produce.
On the streets of Yopougon, where mass graves litter neighborhoods, normal life has also resumed. Pillaged stores have reopened. Women sit on the side of the road selling yams, young men haul timber through the busy streets on wheelbarrows, and exhaust-spewing shared taxis bring workers home from their jobs downtown.
Ouattara, a former vice-president of the International Monetary Fund, has told the United Nations and his own countrymen he wants Ivory Coast to become an “emerging country” by 2020. And he’s not wasting any time.
Road workers are paving the pot-holed roads and beginning major construction on a bridge over the city's central lagoon. The government has accepted a Chinese bank loan to help fund a coastal highway to bring tourists to the country’s pristine beaches. And new information technology will bring government operations into the 21st century, according to the country's information minister.
In early September the IMF, pleased with Ouattara’s policies, announced it would offer a $614 million loan to help ensure “sustained recovery,” for an economy that underwent six months of post-election violence and before that, ten years of stagnation and conflict.
The Ouattara government has quickly implemented new economic policies — spending public funds on public projects, investing in long-neglected infrastructure projects, and opening up the markets to the private sector, said IMF representative Camard. “They are on the path,” he said.
The new projects and policies are not just for Ivorian eyes. Ouattara wants to attract tourists, and investors.
“The idea is, if we build it they will come,” Camard said.
Unlike many developing world cities, Abidjan is already stunningly well-planned with tree-lined boulevards, divided highways that wrap around the city’s perimeter, and a walk-able, concentrated downtown with wide, if crumbling, sidewalks. In Abidjan, you will not see open sewars, and you can even drink the tap water. Once hailed as the “Jewel of Africa,” it could become so again.
But infrastructure projects are only one piece of the puzzle.
While tensions have diffused over the past few months, the security and humanitarian situation remains precarious for many. As of late September, 178,000 Ivorian refugees remain in Liberia, and nearly 18,000 in Ghana. Tens of thousands are still internally displaced, afraid if they return home they will face reprisal attacks.
In Abidjan, the overall security and humanitarian situation is still “fragile,” according to the U.N. humanitarian agency. Armed men in military uniforms continue to man illegal check-points and racketeering persists. Society remains fractured along ethnic and political lines.
IMF representative Camard said that many foreign investors are waiting for clearer signs of political and financial normalization. And “the strongest signal will be the upcoming legislative elections,” he said, which the government plans to hold in mid-December.
Right now, Ouattara is reaching out to opposition parties to mitigate tensions. He invited members of Gbagbo’s party to the presidential palace and heard their complaints during the last week of September.
In late September former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny launched the Truth, Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after the South African body that helped repair that country’s wounds following apartheid. Ivory Coast's favorite son, international soccer star Didier Drogba, was named to the commission.
But many wonder if “real reconciliation” is underway.
“Right now it’s revenge,” said Serophin Kokri, 32, who works as a waiter in Abidjan and hails from Gbagbo’s region.
Over 100 people from Gbagbo’s camp have been arrested and charged with crimes ranging from armed robbery to breaching state security. However, no one from Ouattara’s side has been charged, even though the U.N. and human rights groups widely documented atrocities by pro-Ouattara fighters as well, including hundreds killed in a massacre in Duekoue, in the west.
“The law is not applied in Ivory Coast,” said Kokri. He said Ouattara’s Republican Forces continue to illegally arrest people and hold them for ransom, a practice Human Rights Watch documented in September, according to Matt Wells, a researcher with the watchdog.
Forty-six percent of the country voted for Gbagbo in the November poll, and many people want him freed. They know this is not a popular opinion right now, however. One 32-year-old man in Yamoussoukro said for there to be reconciliation, “the government should free the people in prison, even Gbagbo. That’s what I believe,” he admitted nervously, and would not give his name.
But he has faith in the reconciliation process. “It will bring both sides together so we can have peace,” he said.
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Many victims are also ready to move on with their lives.
Outside of Cinéma Dialogue, a long-faded movie theater pock-marked with bullet holes in Yopougon, Ousmane Dansoko, 35, talks of losing his brother, who managed the theater. Pro-Gbagbo militias pulled him from his home on April 4 and shot him in a parking lot 100 yards away, he said. He had a Senoufo name, Sinaly Dansoko, indicating he was from the north, indicating he was a Ouattara supporter, but Sinaly didn’t care about politics, Ousmane said.
Despite the grief he and his family have gone through, he said he has put it behind him. “I can forgive. We’ve passed that point,” Ousmane said. His friends around him agree.
Kalo Aboubakar Sidik, 31, was good friends with the cinema manager, and he stayed in Yopougon throughout the violence. Now, he has “a lot, a lot of hope because of what Ouattara says on television.”
“I’ve already forgiven," he said. "If you don’t forgive, the executed becomes the executioner.”