COTE D'IVOIRE: Ivory Coast Marches on International Women's Day end in Bloodshed

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
The Guardian
Western Africa
Ivory Coast
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Marches by thousands of women in protest at Ivory Coast's president Laurent Gbagbo have ended in bloodshed after his army killed four people.

The women made their stand on International Women's Day, less than a week after Gbagbo's soldiers killed seven women at a peaceful demonstration, earning worldwide condemnation.

After a small women's march in the Treichville neighbourhood, one of several in Abidjan on Tuesday, security forces burst into the area and began shooting.

The bodies of three men and one woman were seen by an Associated Press photographer inside a clinic where they were taken for treatment. The overwhelmed clinic had nowhere to put them except on the floor where the blood of the dead pooled together.

Thousands of women continued to gather in the besieged suburb of Abobo, where the seven women had been killed, some shouting "Gbagbo, assassin! Gbagbo, power thief! Leave!" Some were in traditional dress, others wore T-shirts printed with the face of Gbagbo's rival Alassane Ouattara.

The women were surrounded by pro-Ouattara youths with AK-47 rifles to prevent a repeat of last week's violence.

Among the marchers was Gervais Bredou, who said: "The women were reluctant after what happened last week. A pickup arrived with some pro-Gbagbo forces who fired warning shots into the air. Most of the women were afraid and started to run."

One female protester, Mariam Bamba, 32, picked up a tree branch next to one of the blood stains on the pavement where the women had been shot. "This leaf is all that they were carrying when they were killed," she said.

Kadhi M'daw, who led around 1,000 women through the pro-Ouattara stronghold of Koumassi, told Reuters: "We started with a Muslim prayer for peace, then a Christian one. We didn't see any security forces. There was no violence. We are very happy to be able to demonstrate."

But in Port Bouet, near Abidjan's airport, witnesses said around 50 pro-Gbagbo youths armed with AK-47s and machetes arrived to disperse the 200 women who tried to march there.

Gbagbo has refused to cede power even though the country's election commission declared opposition leader Ouattara the winner of last November's vote. Nearly 400 people have already been killed, most of them civilians who voted for Ouattara.

Aid agencies said an estimated 450,000 people have been uprooted by the growing conflict, including tens of thousands who fled to Liberia. In Abidjan some 300,000 people are displaced, mainly because of fighting between rival forces in the Abobo district, according to the UN.

Jemini Pandya, spokeswoman of the International Organisation for Migration, said: "Displacement from the Cote d'Ivoire crisis has reached alarming proportions."

Abobo is now largely controlled by insurgents calling themselves the "invisible commandos" and professing loyalty to Ouattara, after a week of gun battles in which they pushed out police and military loyal to Gbagbo. Fighting has also raged in the country's west with rebels taking three towns from Gbago's army.

Both Ouattara and Gbagbo have been invited to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Thursday to hear the verdict of the African Union's peace and security council, which was attempting to find a solution that will avert civil war. Ouattara is expected to attend but sources suggested that Gbagbo will send one of his ministers.

Ouattara has called on the international community to launch an armed intervention against Gbagbo, who appeared on state television last week to say that he is "hanging in there."

Meanwhile, as economic pressure intensifies, Gbagbo has issued a decree under which the state becomes the sole purchaser of cocoa and handles its export to world markets. Ivory Coast is the world's top cocoa producer and the move has been widely criticised.

US state department spokesman, PJ Crowley, said: "His plan to nationalise the cocoa industry of Côte d'Ivoire, which is the world's largest suppler of cocoa beans, amounts to theft. It is another desperate act in his campaign to cling to power."

Cocoa prices have broken 30-year highs since the disputed election. Kwame Banson, west African co-ordinator of Fairtrade Africa, said: "The uncertainty following Gbagbo's move is concerning. At this stage, we don't know what nationalising cocoa production means for Côte d'Ivoire farmers who are in danger of being treated like a political football.

"One thing we do know is that the current unrest is hitting farmers, their families and communities very hard. We urge the international political and business communities to facilitate a peaceful resolution so stability can swiftly return for the farmers and people of Côte d'Ivoire."