5:14pm

Fri April 22, 2011
Africa

Infighting Threatens Ivory Coast's Path To Peace

Ivory Coast is struggling to get back on its feet after a five-month presidential tug-of-war that claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than a million people.

But there's possibly more trouble brewing for the incoming president, Alassane Ouattara, with infighting among former rebels who propelled him to power.

Ouattara ordered soldiers from all sides of the conflict back to barracks on Friday. Ouattara says his top priority is to restore security, after weeks of fierce fighting in the commercial capital, Abidjan.

But clearing a city awash with weapons and fighters, where pockets of violent resistance remain, and holding together a fractured military alliance is a tough challenge. In addition, Ouattara faces a battle for power among the troops who helped dislodge disgraced former President Laurent Gbagbo.

A Renegade General

In Abidjan's volatile Abobo suburb, local residents thank Ibrahim Coulibaly for protecting their neighborhood. He's a renegade, self-styled general who says he's the head of the militia called the Invisible Commando.

Coulibaly, who goes by the initials IB, is an imposing, bearded figure in fatigues and a red beret.

Speaking to NPR, Coulibaly called for national reconciliation and pledged his allegiance to Ouattara, the commander in chief, who he says is a father figure dating back to the 1990s. Ouattara was then prime minister and Coulibaly was his wife's bodyguard.

But Coulibaly's Invisible Commando is made up of irregular soldiers. They fought against Gbagbo's forces, but have not joined the newly renamed army, the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast.

Coulibaly says he's waiting for an audience with Ouattara to discuss these matters.

Renewed Fire

On Wednesday evening, terrified Abobo residents reported the ring of renewed heavy weapons fire. Analysts conclude these gunbattles were fueled by animosity between Coulibaly and Ivory Coast's prime minister, Guillaume Soro.

A spokesman for Soro, Meite Sindou, says Coulibaly's forces, based in their Abobo headquarters, are acting against the law, because no soldiers other than those of the national army should be manning positions or checkpoints.

Soro and Coulibaly have been adversaries since the two fought for the rebel leadership in 2004 at the end of a civil war that split Ivory Coast in two. Coulibaly lost that bitter battle. In the recently ended struggle for power, it was Soro's military allies who swept into Abidjan and drove Gbagbo out of the presidential bunker, with U.N. and French help.

Military infighting aside, Abidjan is witnessing, for the very first time, young and heavily armed soldier-fighters zooming around this lagoon-side city in vehicles they have commandeered, bristling with weapons and what appear to be looted goods.

Observers warn that unless the former rebel commanders rein in their men, peace may be a long time coming. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.