Unrest hits Ivory Coast’s main city as army revolt spreads
Gunfire broke out in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan, and other cities on Saturday, residents and soldiers said, as a revolt by military personnel demanding higher wages and bonuses appeared to gain momentum.
Loyalist troops sought to reinforce security in Abidjan. A Reuters reporter saw elite Republican Guard soldiers deployed on two of the three bridges spanning the lagoon that divides the city’s northern and southern halves. Members of a special police and military security unit were positioned near the third bridge, a second diplomat said.
The uprising began early on Friday when disgruntled soldiers seized Bouake, the second-largest city. Unrest spread to at least four other cities and towns later in the day, as the government sought to calm the unrest by promising talks with the mutineers.
However, heavy gunfire was heard during the night in the northern city of Korhogo and in early on Saturday in Bouake.
Residents and soldiers later reported shooting in Man, Toulepleu and at a major military camp in Abidjan, a city of nearly five million residents where the president, administration and parliament are based.
“Shooting has started in our camp too now,” said a soldier at the Akouedo military base located in a residential section of Abidjan. The gunfire was confirmed by a local resident.
A diplomatic source said armed dissident soldiers – some of whom blackened their faces with ashes or wore scarves around their heads – blocked a main road near the camp and threatened people in passing cars.
Abidjan residents, meanwhile, rushed to supermarkets to buy up bottled water and other provisions, fearing violence could eventually paralyse the city.
Ivory Coast – French-speaking West Africa‘s largest economy – has emerged from a 2002-11 political crisis as one of the continent’s rising economic stars.
However, years of conflict and a failure to reform its army, thrown together from a patchwork of former rebel fighters and government soldiers, have left it with an unruly force hobbled by internal divisions.
A Reuters reporter in Bouake, who met some of the mutineers, said they were composed of low-ranking soldiers but also included some demobilised combatants.
Nearly all appeared to be former members of the New Forces rebellion, which had used Bouake as its de facto capital and controlled the northern half of Ivory Coast from 2002 until the country was reunited following a 2011 civil war.
The rogue soldiers remained on the streets of Bouake on Saturday despite pledges made to local officials seeking to mediate late on Friday that they would return to barracks.
“They are maintaining their positions. They are still at the entrances to the city and at the central roundabout,” a local journalist told Reuters, asking that his name not be used due to fear of reprisal.
Troop reinforcements were sent towards Bouake after word of the revolt reached the army headquarters in Abidjan, creating a standoff with renegade soldiers holding positions at the entrance to the city.
Soldiers from the country’s U.N. peacekeeping mission were also blocked on the outskirts of Bouake on Saturday after mutineers refused to allow them to enter.
Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi in a statement late on Friday called for calm and said the government was prepared to listen to the soldiers’ grievances after the uprising spread to other cities including Daloa, Daoukro and Odienne.
Calling the revolt “understandable but deplorable for the image of the country”, he said he was due to travel to Bouake on Saturday to speak directly with the mutineers.
During a similar uprising in 2014, when hundreds of soldiers barricaded roads in cities across Ivory Coast demanding back pay, the government agreed a financial settlement.
President Alassane Ouattara, who convened an emergency meeting with Donwahi and top military officers late on Friday to discuss the revolt, travelled to neighbouring Ghana for the swearing in of its new president. He was due to return to Abidjan late afternoon for a special cabinet meeting.
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