Can Ivory Coast's New President Heal the Nation's Wounds?

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Thierry Gouegnon / Reuters

Ibrahima Bakayoko, a resident of Doukouré in the Yopougon district of Abidjan, points at an area where buried bodies were recently recovered, May 9, 2011.

Residents of Youpougon affectionately refer to their sprawling district in Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan as "Yop City," after New York City. Not long ago, people used to flock to its outdoor street scene to party all night, every night. The neighborhood, home to 2 million inhabitants, was known for its vibrant pulse.

These days, that pulse is barely there. While life has picked up slowly but determinedly since Abidjan was wracked by four months of ferocious post-electoral fighting, Youpougon still feels like a war zone. A month after former president Laurent Gbagbo was pulled from a bunker in the presidential palace, still refusing to accept his loss in a November poll, the neighborhood is one of Ivory Coast's most visible open sores. It also typifies the hard road to reconciliation ahead for new president Alassane Ouattara.

In Youpougon, lone cars hurry past looted houses and burnt-out fuel stations. In some areas, bloodied corpses still haven't been cleared away. And everywhere, dozens of makeshift roadblocks are manned by soldiers from the Republican Forces, a hastily pulled together assortment of former rebels from the north of the country, as well as hundreds of army deserters.

Yet these soldiers could turn out to be as much a problem as they were a solution to finally dislodging Gbagbo. The balance of power finally tipped in Ouattara's favor only after the United Nations and French battalion, Licorne, entered the fray on April 4, bombing arms and ammunitions caches. Ouattara now faces the twin difficulties of coming to power on the back of a conflict and with international help. That means banishing the lingering ghost of Gbagbo's popular rhetoric against both foreigners — in particular former colonial power France — and northern Ivorians who constitute the bulk of Ouattara's supporters.

Feelings run high on both sides. Kouassi Abouet, 54, a pro-Gbagbo supporter who lost a daughter and brother during the conflict, didn't attend the official ceremony on May 12 to mark three days of national mourning. "The lucky [pro-Gbagbo] fighters are the ones who ran away before Abidjan fell," he says. "If you come out now and say you support Gbagbo, there will be no reconciliation, no forgiveness."

It's hard to disagree. A short walk past the bullet-scarred police station in Youpougon, U.N. officials last week discovered 68 bodies buried in a field used for marriage receptions and football games. "Every day [Gbagbo's men] came here and killed more. The stench was so bad, but people were afraid to leave their homes to identify the bodies," says resident Bakary Idriss, standing next to the burnt-out remains of a goal post. "It's too early to talk about reconciliation," he adds, staring at a single pink high-heel shoe lying between two unmarked graves. The U.N. has confirmed at least 3,000 died in the four months of fighting. The final figure will likely be much higher.

Another pressing task for Ouattara will be to figure out how to deal with an army composed of units that once fought each other — that's if he is able to exert any real control over them. For with the armies came huge caches of guns and ammunition. The government has issued an arms amnesty, with moderate success outside Abidjan. In the country's commercial center, the situation is "complicated," says military spokesman Leon Alla: "People are afraid to come forward." Some 2,000 militia have been transported to the north of the country, he says, without elaborating on their fate.

Meanwhile, easing the ethnic tensions that have gripped the divided country over the last two decades will also prove a challenge. Civil groups say leaders were pitting Ivorians against each other for political gain, but even Gbagbo's ousting may not diffuse tensions in the west of the country. There, a dozen pro-Gbagbo militia groups controlled an area known as the "wild west" for its lawlessness. As the northern-based rebels swept southwards to join forces with insurgents in Abidjan, the tables turned and the rebels left a trail of death and destruction in their wake.

On April 2, human-rights groups revealed mass graves of up to 800 civilians in the western town of Duekoue. Some organizations put the death toll as high as a thousand. The majority of the victims were from the Guéré ethnic group — traditionally seen as supporters of Gbagbo. "Frankly the [west] is a tinderbox," says a foreign security official. In a place awash with arms from both internal conflict and numerous conflicts in neighboring Liberia, retaliatory attacks are only a matter of time, the official adds. Ouattara has pledged to open an inquiry into the Duekoue massacres — regardless of who was behind them.

But by far the most pressing judiciary issue facing the president will be what to do with the man for whom 46% of the electorate voted. A truth and reconciliation committee has been set up amid fanfare from the new administration. Lawyers representing Gbagbo, who is under house arrest in the northern town of Korhogo, have already criticized Ouattara's handling of the situation. The former president has yet to be formally charged, and is instead being detained under a 1963 law that allows the unlimited holding of anyone suspected of threatening national security. Gbagbo's lawyers have complained that they were not present while their client underwent initial questioning on April 7, and have asked why no one is under house arrest for the massacres that took place in the west. The International Criminal Court has said it will launch a probe into possible crimes against humanity — a move that could involve both sides.

International support of Ouattara has been forthcoming, but perhaps most significantly for the new administration, few high-profile figures from Gbagbo's camp have given any public sign of accepting their new president. At his swearing-in ceremony on April 6, Ouattara sat just a few meters from the president of the Constitutional Court, Paul Yao N'Dre, who triggered the fighting four months ago when he illegally annulled some half a million votes in pro-Ouattara districts to hand victory instead to his long-time friend. The man who heads the country's highest court was heckled as he gave the audience an explanation for his actions: "We were all possessed by the devil," said Yao N'Dre. But for the millions touched by the war, casting the blame elsewhere — and on all the political actors — doesn't hold. Indeed, nothing short of a personal apology for legitimizing Gbagbo's subsequent use of violence will suffice.