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An ambush that killed seven United Nations peacekeepers, the deadliest attack on foreign troops in Ivory Coast in eight years, marks growing insecurity in the key cocoa-growing area along its porous border with Liberia.
The troops from Niger patrolling villages were ambushed and killed on June 8. At least 10 civilians and an Ivorian soldier also died in the attack. It was the worst since a government fighter jet bombed a military camp in 2004, killing nine French soldiers. Four more residents died in attacks in the area overnight on June 12 and as many as 5,000 people have fled their homes, according to the UN.
Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, is recovering from violence that left at least 3,000 dead following ex-leader Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power to Alassane Ouattara after a November 2010 election. The attacks are extending a decade of violence which started with a military uprising in 2002 that left the West African nation divided between a government-controlled south and rebel-held north. Ouattara was inaugurated in May 2011.
“We are very worried as the troubles are recurring,” Kader Kobenan, head of a farmers’ cooperative in the region, said by phone from Guiglo. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to harvest any cocoa beans during the mid crop,” he said, referring to the May-to-September harvest that produces smaller beans than the main season.
The attack on the peacekeepers is similar to recent raids by Liberian mercenaries and Ivorian militiamen who supported Gbagbo in last year’s conflict, Matt Wells, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said by phone on June 11. Gbagbo instigated an anti-UN campaign last year in a failed bid to force the departure of the peacekeeping mission.
“The fighters have larger ambitions and they expressed them again and again -- they spoke of attacking the southern town of Tabou,” Wells said. The information was based on interviews conducted in the area, according to the group.
Ivory Coast’s western region is seen by farmers as the most fertile area for cocoa because plantations there are younger than in the western and central growing regions and the forest hasn’t been totally cleared.
“The area is notoriously difficult to monitor given the dense vegetation and the long 700-kilometer (435-mile) border,” Wells said. The region includes Tai National Park, the largest remaining pocket of primary rainforest in West Africa, which has been designated a World Heritage site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“The problem of insecurity is not new. There are too many guns circulating in the region,” Moussa Zoungrana, head of a group of cocoa-farmer cooperatives, said by phone from Guiglo. “Many cocoa farmers have left their farms and they are scared to go back.”
Ivory Coast accounts for about 34 percent of the world’s total cocoa production, the biggest export in its $23 billion economy. Growth is forecast to expand 8.1 percent this year from a 4.7 percent contraction in 2011, led by a halt in exports of cocoa and coffee during the post-election crisis, according to the Finance Ministry. Coffee output plunged 32 percent in the 2010-11 season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Cocoa for July delivery gained 1 percent to 1,568 pounds ($2,440) per metric ton by 6:38 p.m. in London yesterday. The yield on Ivory Coast’s defaulted Eurobonds, due in 2032, rose 26 basis points, or 0.26 percentage point, to 9.82 percent.
Some refugees say their plantations were seized by Ouattara supporters when the conflict ended last year, according to Anna Osborne, a senior analyst with risk-advisory company Maplecroft, based in Bath, U.K.
“Land issues compound political tensions,” she said in an e-mailed note on June 12. “More attacks are likely unless Ouattara addresses security sector reform and political reconciliation outside of Abidjan.”
Ivory Coast’s ability to patrol the remote region is limited, Paul Koffi Koffi, the minister delegate for defense, said by phone on June 12.
“There are dozens of villages on the border with Liberia,” he said. “Whatever our military capacity, we are not able to put soldiers everywhere.”
During the post-election crisis, Gbagbo supporters recruited Liberian mercenaries in the country and in a refugee camp in Ghana to use as a parallel fighting force, according to a UN panel of experts report published in December 2011.
It is estimated that “several hundred Liberian mercenaries who fought in Moyen-Cavally, including most of their commanders, have returned to Liberia unhindered,” according to the report. The region of Moyen-Cavally includes villages where the current attacks are taking place.
In May 2011, less than a month after Gbagbo was arrested in Abidjan, about 300 people were killed by a group of pro-Gbagbo fighters from Liberia and Ivory Coast that were retreating from the city back to Liberia, the UN panel said in the report. It found evidence of “execution-style killings and the use of a flamethrower against civilians” along the coastal route.
In Liberia, which is recovering from civil wars that ended in 2003, young men working at five small-scale gold mines are participating in and planning cross-border attacks on supporters of Ouattara, according to a Human Rights Watch report published last week. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf closed the border on June 9 and suspended mining in the area, according to a statement.
“The closing of the border by Liberia will have little effect,” Osborne said. “The border is porous and poorly monitored so shutting down the official border is unlikely to prevent further attacks.”
Liberia is extraditing Ivorian mercenaries in detention and conducting surveillance on refugee camps, Deputy Information Minister for Public Affairs Isaac Jackson said by phone on June 12. Closing the border shows Liberia’s commitment to preventing further attacks, he said.
Shutting the crossing is “symbolically and psychologically a very good thing,” Koffi Koffi said. Ivorian officials are “sure those attacks come from the other side of the border from mercenaries and militias financially supported by the former power and its officials based in Ghana,” he said.
Three militants in Liberia told Human Rights Watch they were receiving financial support from people in Ghana, Ivory Coast’s eastern neighbor, according to the report.
Ghana hosts about 11,000 refugees from Ivory Coast, including 171 suspected ex-combatants, Kenneth Dzirasah, chairman of the Ghana Refugee Board, said by phone on June 11.
The Human Rights Watch report is “misrepresenting the real issues,” he said. “They didn’t even bother to consult the Ghanaian authorities before going public.”
Ghana, the world’s second-biggest cocoa producer, may come under increasing pressure from Ivory Coast, said Osborne. A refugee camp near the Ghanaian capital, Accra, is “known to play host to prominent pro-Gbagbo supporters who freely move around the country and region,” she said.
“Given recent events, further pressure is likely to be put on the Ghanaian president to show that he is not supporting any insurgency movement,” Osborne said.
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