Little more than a week after having been inaugurated, the new government administration of Cote d’Ivoire is facing a sterner test than it ever would have wanted to take. State workers have been on strike for more than a week, crippling many public services; students have now joined in, requiring the intervention of the security services. As well as this, factions within the military and police have taken to the streets to protest their exclusion from the deal that was struck with soldiers responsible for the mutiny two weekends ago.
Deal with restive soldiers backfires
Instead of calming tensions, the 14th Jan deal struck with 8,500 soldiers party to the mini-revolt of 6th January has thrown the security services into further disarray. Although not confirmed by the government, it is reported that each soldier has been promised an amount of CFA 12 million (US$19,500) – the first instalments of CFA 5 million were paid on Tuesday with the remainder to be paid in monthly instalments of CFA 1 million over the next 7 months. Immediately, there were rumours of soldiers in some cities taking to the streets over the promised payment not arriving. However, as the day progressed, it became clear that it was rather those who had not taken part in the original uprising that were protesting. Unrest was reported in the cities of Man, Daloa, Bouake and Abidjan but the epicentre was Cote d’Ivoire’s capital, Yamoussoukro. Here, at least two soldiers (there are unconfirmed reports of six other deaths) were shot and killed by the Republican Guard whilst a naval base was also overrun.
Following on from this, members of the gendarmerie (paramilitary police force) took their turn on Wednesday by shooting in to the air, at the port of Abidjan forcing its closure and that of many surrounding businesses, including lucrative cocoa exportation outfits. This lasted around two hours before the Director-General of the port made an appeal for all businesses to return to operation. Later in the day the second port city of San Pedro was also rattled by heavy gunfire and Bouake also so continued tensions. Seeking to restore calm, four government ministers (Defence, Interior & Security, Public Service and the Government Spokesman), held a press conference at which they called for all leaders of the security services to immediately open dialogue with those they command to better understand their grievances. The government spokesperson, Bruno Kone said that “the President of the Republic assures his strong desire to improve their [security services] living and working conditions, and to build republican forces in service of the nation.”
Civil servants join the fray
Partially spurred on by the initial mutiny, various civil service unions led their members in a general strike on 9th January. Their key demands are a reduction of the retirement age to 55 (it was recently changed to 60); payment of arrears that arose due to a revaluation of wages dating back to 2009; the inclusion of shift workers as members of the civil service and a halt of violations of union freedoms. The protests carried out but the striking workers have been largely peaceful but they have caused massive disruption to the delivery of government services. Most schools and hospitals across the country are partially or completely closed and many government offices are working only with a skeleton staff.
In response to the disruptions caused by the strikes, students began taking to the streets to demand a resumption to their courses. This led to clashes with the security forces who resorted to firing tear gas and rubber bullets in order to disperse the crowd. This is a U-turn compared to the earlier attitude of some public-school students who forcibly entered private schools and forced them to take part in the strike.
Government is scheduled to meet union leaders on Thursday (19th January) morning to present their proposals aimed at meeting the demands of the striking public workers and ultimately ending the walkout.
President Alassane Ouattara’s government unwittingly opened a large can of worms in offering a deal to the soldiers involved in the original mutiny. Whilst they may have satisfied one element of the security forces, they have aggrieved the remaining majority who now feel that they are also owed some kind of bonus payment. Ouattara, his defence minister and the high-ranking officials of the army are now left with two basic options – appeasement or punishment.
It is unlikely that the government is willing and able to pay all 22,000 armed forces, 15,000 gendarmes and 144,000 police officers the same amount paid to the mutineers. However, deep fractures still run through the armed forces and each group has its own loyalties and punishment would risk a full scale substantive revolt.
The government launched a very ambitious US$1.4 billion 4-year reform plan for the army in 2016, it included modernisation and equipment purchases as well as an overhaul of personnel. This includes a reduction in the number of officers, many of whom are former rebel leaders that demanded senior ranks in order to peacefully join the armed forces. Implementation of this plan could be a fair middle ground that would see an appropriate ranking structure put in place as well as giving soldiers the modern equipment they need to feel part of a viable national army.
Many of the aggrieved public sector workers feel that they are not seeing their fair share of the positive growth that the country is currently experiencing. Their wages remain low, arrears are not paid and working conditions are poor compared to those in the private sector. Not only will this shutdown in government services damage Ouattara’s image (the opposition Front populaire ivoirein (FPI) has already called for a transitional government), it is hindering his ability to carry on with his much-touted development agenda. Much of it will have to be implemented by civil servants and if they are of the impression that he is neglecting their needs, they may decide to interrupt processes.
Written by Accra-based analyst Kobi Annan
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