With the UN this week calling for warring factions in the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire to “tone down the hateful rhetoric and work to find common solutions,” there is continued violence in the streets following the disputed October reelection of 78-year-old president Alassane Ouattara. We asked Schar School of Policy and Government Assistant Professor of International Security Philip Martin, who studies armed conflict and Africa, to explain what is happening, and why. He co-authored a paper earlier this year called Ex-Rebel Authority After Civil War: Theory and Evidence from Côte d’Ivoire that examines the causes and ramifications of the conflict.
In 2011, the long-running civil war in Côte d'Ivoire came to an end when Laurent Gbagbo's government was overthrown by northern rebel forces supported by the United Nations. Since then, President Alassane Ouattara has ruled the country with the help of his former rebel allies, who were awarded key positions in the postwar national army. Though Ouattara's government has overseen an impressive economic recovery, political stability in the West African nation has remained elusive. Military mutinies by disgruntled soldiers are frequent. Many roads are still plagued by illegal checkpoints manned by militias and ex-rebels with uncertain political loyalties. All of this is unfolding amid an economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
To understand the potential for violent escalation and instability, it is critical to understand the political role of former rebel commanders in Côte d'Ivoire. These commanders can mobilize significant resources, armed supporters, and voters, which makes them key power-brokers.
What We Found
Our study used extensive interviews and field work in northern Côte d'Ivoire to explore the roots of ex-rebel commanders' political authority. What makes for a powerful commander in a post-conflict country like Côte d'Ivoire? How do they remain politically relevant?
We found that ex-rebel commanders built their political authority in two distinct areas: Local-level ties to civilian communities, and national-level ties to state elites. Local ties provide commanders with popular legitimacy and a regional support base. These ties are sustained through social relationships, kinship networks, and participation in local community events. National-level ties provide commanders with patronage resources and the legal privileges of the state. When commanders combine both local- and national-level ties, they can exercise significant authority and act as powerful intermediaries between citizens and the state. Commanders with only one source of authority, by contrast, were less likely to retain their political influence over time.
Why It Matters
Côte d’Ivoire is currently experiencing a political crisis in the aftermath of the October 31 presidential election. Violence has intensified around the country as opposition forces reject the legitimacy of President Ouattara’s re-election to a third term. A growing number of opposition political leaders are finding themselves in prison.
Former rebel commanders in the Ivorian military are critical players in the unfolding drama. On November 4, the exiled former rebel leader Guillaume Soro called on the army to “restore our Constitution” and block Ouattara’s reelection. Those commanders with significant mobilization power and authority could yet play king-maker, either by siding with Ouattara or throwing their weight behind one of his rivals. Those commanders with weaker local- and national-level ties may be left on the outside looking in.
In the longer term, building a sustainable peace in Côte d'Ivoire will eventually require the central government to reduce the power of these military actors. As long as ex-rebel commanders retain political clout, the risks of violent escalation and military intervention in politics remain.
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