Army for "all Ivorians" takes first steps from chaos

By Mark John

YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) – On Wednesday, Ivorian army General Sekou Toure watched his men as they either fled the incoming forces of Alassane Ouattara or rushed to join their ranks as yet another town fell to their advance.

By Thursday Toure, the top commander for incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo in the official capital Yamoussoukro, pulled off a strategic back-flip as he welcomed Ouattara’s prime minister to an inspection of the defectors, watched over by the victors.

“Today the main thing is that everybody can train their sights in the same direction, to create this new army,” Toure told Reuters as he waited for the ceremony to begin in the local parade ground of the defeated army.

The sincerity of rapid conversions may prompt skepticism. But whether other soldiers follow suit could determine which way the military pendulum swings in the hours and days ahead. The other factor will be the extent to which pro-Ouattara forces can bring themselves to stand beside their former sworn enemies.

It was only a few days ago that northern rebels from the 2002-2003 civil war gave themselves a grand-sounding new name — the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI) — to formally mark their backing for Ouattara, the man internationally recognized as Ivory Coast’s president since a disputed November 28 election.

While rumours of an FRCI assault had been growing ever since the failure of the last round of African Union diplomacy to persuade Gbagbo to step down, few expected the sheer speed of the onslaught when it started on Monday.

NO WIGS

As town after town fell from east to west, wresting the key cocoa-growing areas out of Gbagbo’s hands and edging ever closer to the main prize, the economic capital Abidjan, it was the lack of resistance from pro-Gbagbo forces which stood out.

Even in Abidjan, many troops have deserted or defected, including the army chief and head of the gendarmerie, although a hard core of elite troops and civilian militias are battling hard to defend the president’s home and palace.

The other striking feature has been the apparent lack of executions carried out by the FRCI on local populations who in some cases voted Gbagbo, notably in towns around the Daloa center of the cocoa belt, although Human Rights Watch has documented cases of men claiming allegiance to Ouattara executing a number of pro-Gbagbo soldiers in Abidjan.

“The FRCI told us they weren’t here to do any killing, just to clean up,” said Yamoussoukro businessman N’Guessan Koffi of Wednesday’s apparently bloodless capture of the home town of former president Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

The FRCI have so far appeared to be making an effort to break from the cliche of the be-wigged, drug-fueled West African rebel soldiers who brought chaos to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Rather than eagerly posing with their weapons for journalists, FRCI units encountered on the main north-south road axis through the country this week politely turned down such requests with a short smile and wave.

The most extravagant sartorial twist on a standard soldier’s uniform has been the wearing of motorcycle helmets either to provide protection or anonymity.

“The army that we want is a single army for the whole of Ivory Coast,” Ouattara prime minister Guillaume Soro told the FDS defectors of an ambition which, while appearing basic, would mark the end of a decade of strife if achieved.

“HESITANT COMRADES”

For many former FDS, the decision on whether to join their FRCI counterparts or not is a gamble on who will be paying their next salary: if they judge that Ouattara will be in power any time soon, it is a financial no-brainer to jump ship.

The decision by Gbagbo’s chief of staff Philippe Mangou to take refuge at the home of the South African ambassador will be further encouragement for some to take that step.

But not all feel that way, and there is no clear picture yet of how many of the 35,000-strong national defense force have already defected. Gen. Toure acknowledged some “hesitant comrades” would need persuasion to come over.

The decision of Gbagbo’s roughly 2,500-strong elite Republican Guard forces to defend the presidential palace in Abidjan on Thursday suggests they do not yet believe the “game is up for Gbagbo,” as Soro predicted.

More heavily armed, better trained and more handsomely paid than their regular army counterparts, the Republican Guard have a more obvious personal interest in keeping Gbagbo in power. They could prove harder — if not impossible — to integrate in an army loyal to Ouattara.

The same may be true for the “Invisible Commandos,” a shadowy group which has inflicted a series of defeats on pro-Gbagbo forces and seized control of north Abidjan.

One such fighter told Reuters this weekend that the chief of its movement was not Ouattara but a commander of the 2002-2003 rebellion called General Ibrahim Coulibaly and known widely as “IB.” Whatever the military balance in coming hours, forging a new army for all Ivory Coast will be a matter of months or years.

Army for "all Ivorians" takes first steps from chaos