When the war is over

What are the fates of ex combatants from Cote d’Ivoire’s 2002-2011 civil war and would they go back to fighting?

Damage from the Civil War in Duekou in the west of Cote d'Ivoire, February 2011, Image Michael Fleshman

“I’m so fed up, I would happily go and fight with the jihadists in Mali,” a former Forces Nouvelles (FN) fighter declares to me during an interview in Korhogo, northern Cote d’Ivoire in November 2017. The interview was one of many in which ex-combatants expressed anger and frustration with the failings of the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program implemented by the UN and the Ivorian government from 2011 to 2015.

The FN were one of the main protagonists in a conflict fought against the government of Laurent Gbagbo and several of his militias between 2002 and 2011. The FN ruled the north of the country during this time and at its height comprised 33,000 members. The conflict, fought primarily as a result of the perceived marginalisation of northern people who were often viewed as not being “Ivorian”, ended after a particularly brutal round of conflict in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election. President Gbagbo refused to step down after the poll, which he was declared to have lost. This prompted clashes around the country, leaving around 3,000 people dead and eventually resulting in UN, French and FN troops bringing the now government, led by northerner Alassane Ouattara, to power.

In the most extreme cases these FN ex-combatants have called for revenge and violence against the current government because of their failure to adequately reintegrate them and keep promises made to them at the end of the conflict.

This feeling chimed with analysis made in a 2016 report by NGO Interpeace. The peacebuilding organization argued that ex-combatants who were demobilised in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 remain a significant risk to peace.

The report added that ex-combatants who have been well-trained in weapons and poorly demobilized represent a breeding ground for violence and mobilization.  

And yet, there is no evidence of large-scale remobilization taking place in Cote d’Ivoire. Also, despite there being a raging conflict over the border in Mali, there are very few reports of ex-combatants going to fight in that conflict either.

As my interviewee in Korhogo pointed out, fighting in Mali presents a fine opportunity for many demobilized ex-combatants who are desperate for money and a job. Many Malians fought in Cote d’Ivoire’s conflict before returning home and business and family ties are common between Ivorians in northern Cote d’Ivoire and Malians.

So, why is remobilisation so scarce? What is it that is preventing former fighters taking up arms again in Cote d’Ivoire? And why are ex-combatants threatening to remobilise if they are not actually doing it?

Based on research with around 30 former FN fighters in post-conflict Cote d’Ivoire, I have found that ex-combatants’ approaches to remobilisation are typically shaped by their experience of their first conflict. The primary combat encounter has a long-lasting impact on former fighter’s identities and their attitudes to violence, and in the case of Cote d’Ivoire, this creates something of a barrier to remobilization.

For example, most Ivorian combatants thought of themselves as peacekeepers, rather than rebels. They were the ones who had installed the current government in power, ending the nine year on-off conflict and bringing peace to the country. Rather than being unruly mercenaries, they viewed themselves as noble warriors. “We are the peace,” exclaimed one ex-combatant during an interview, clearly a sentiment that is at odds with the prospect of remobilization.

The ex-Forces Nouvelles fighters are eager to point out that they fought for a clear objective in the conflict in their own country. They wanted to end the oppression of northerners in Cote d’Ivoire, which they believe they achieved. They now have the impression that fighting in a conflict requires clear objectives, and much as they need the money, being a mercenary is perceived to be beneath them. This is particularly the case with regards to Mali, a conflict they struggle to understand and often see as synonymous with suicide bombings.

Another result of having fought in such a long conflict in Cote d’Ivoire is that, despite their many gripes with the government, ex-combatants are extremely patriotic. This feeling is heightened by the fact that they had fought in a conflict that centred around the right to have an “Ivorian” nationality. The connection these fighters have to their country reduces their interest in remobilization, which they feel would bring shame on Ivorians and on their government.

Perhaps the most obvious impact the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire has had on these ex-combatants is that they are war weary. It is often argued that ex-combatants struggle to return to civilian society because they are unable to accept the civilian way of life and are addicted to the drug-fuelled lifestyle of a rebel. But this is, by and large, not the case in Cote d’Ivoire. The former fighters told me that they were relieved to hand in their weapons at the end of the conflict in and that for them “the time to fight is over.”

Moreover, the relationship that ex-combatants had with their primary mobilizer, the current government, has fundamentally altered their ability to trust remobilizing agents. Ex-combatants speak of how because the government allegedly failed to keep the promises made to them during the DDR program, they are unable to accept a remobilization offer from anyone else, because they fear they would not follow through with their payment offers.

An ex-combatant in western Cote d’Ivoire told me that he had been approached by Hezbollah to fight in Syria but that because the organization only offered to pay after the fighting, and not beforehand, he refused. He said that his experience of broken promises in Cote d’Ivoire had taught him not to trust such people unless they paid upfront.

Thus, repeated threats to take up arms again or to go and fight with armed groups in Mali appear to be empty. There is considerable reluctance to participate in another conflict, much less one with which they have no affiliation. Yet the threat to rearm is a way of trying to pressure the government to give them what they are owed from the DDR program. They are aware that they could present a threat to the peace if they wanted to and they are attempting to use this dynamic to their advantage.

This is not to say that ex-combatants in Cote d’Ivoire will never take up arms again: they are angry, betrayed men with many motives for revenge violence. Rather, these ex-combatants are not inclined to pick up a weapon at the slightest opportunity, they would much rather avoid further conflict if they can, and maintain their peacemaker identity. This is arguably why they have avoided becoming embroiled in combat for seven years since relative peace came to Cote d’Ivoire.

As we consider the DDR programs around the world at the moment, from Colombia, to Central African Republic, to Mali, it is important to bear in mind that ex-combatants are not as easy to remobilize as we might have once thought. As such, they should not be considered solely as security threats and spoilers to a peace process.

An intricate array of factors influences the decision to remobilize, not least the experiences that fighters have had in their first conflict. As in the case of Cote d’Ivoire, it may be that the primary experience of conflict has shaped ex-combatant’s identities and attitudes to conflict and trust to such an extent that they can act as a block on remobilization.

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