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Ouattara's men waiting to march on Abidjan, Ivory Coast

21 March 11 13:53
Major Daouda "Big" Doumbia

As the Ivory Coast deadlock continues between Alassane Ouattara, the man widely recognised as the winner of last year's elections and his rival, Laurent Gbagbo, who nevertheless remains in power, the BBC's Mark Doyle reports from the northern town of Bouake - capital of the area under Mr Ouattara's control.

Bouake is a mixture of dynamism and frustration.

There is dynamism because this agricultural centre is surrounded by plantations of bountiful mango and cashew trees, cotton fields and rice paddies.

The central market has stalls piled high with vegetables, fish and consumer goods. Daily life goes on.

But there is also frustration and anger about the situation in the country's main city, Abidjan, where northerners and other suspected supporters of Alassane Ouattara are being oppressed or killed.

'Waiting for the order'

Laurent Gbagbo has encouraged strident nationalism in the south.

This has been interpreted by some of his followers as a licence to attack and rob northern Ivorians.

The several million migrant workers in Ivory Coast, from neighbouring countries to the north such as Burkina Faso and Mali, are tarred with the same brush and are often the victims of xenophobia.

There is impatience here with the fact that Mr Gbagbo's refusal to leave office has led to the re-emergence of the front line that splits the country between north and south.

Soldiers loyal to Mr Ouattara here say they are ready to march on Abidjan.

"We're waiting for the order from Mr Ouattara to oust Laurent Gbagbo," said Major Daouda Doumbia who goes by the nom de guerre "Big".

"When we have that order, we are confident we can execute it," he said.

'Men in place'

For now there are military clashes in the far west of the country, near the Liberian border, and there is daily violence in Abidjan. But there hasn't yet been a return to all-out war across Ivory Coast.

Some northern officers say privately that this won't be necessary.

"It's not going to be classic warfare with front lines and trenches," one very senior army officer in Bouake told me on condition of anonymity.

"That's not the tactic. We will take strategic locations in Abidjan and we already have our men in place there."

Another senior officer here, who also requested anonymity, received a phone call while I was sitting next to him.

The call was from Abidjan, the officer said. It was news about the attack last week by forces loyal to Mr Gbagbo on the largely pro-Ouatarra suburb of Abobo.

Then the officer made a second call: "I'm going to ring my boys," he said.

When he put the phone down on the second call, he claimed there would be "a reply" to the Abobo attack that night - in other words, that there would be a counter-attack.

I don't know if the "counter-attack" happened, or, indeed how much of these officers' comments were bluff. But they seemed to me to be telling the truth as they saw it.

It has certainly been widely reported that parts of Abidjan are controlled by anti-Gbagbo militiamen who call themselves Invisible Commandos.

These Invisible Commandos could be armed self-defence groups or they could be part of a wider, organised attempt at attacking Mr Gbagbo.

Most likely they are a mixture of both.

Their reported presence in Abidjan has been part of the justification Mr Gbagbo's supporters express for attacking pro-Ouatarra neighbourhoods in Abidjan.

But if the soldiers here are frustrated, so are small businesspeople.


"We're free to drive anywhere in the northern zone," said taxi driver Kone Moussa.

"But when we drive south and reach the checkpoints controlled by Laurent Gbagbo's troops, they hassle us for money."

In truth, some of the soldiers who support Mr Ouattara demand money too.

I drove to Bouake via Burkina Faso. On the Ivorian side I was stopped at a dozen pro-Ouattara military checkpoints.

At every single one I was asked for "a coffee for the cold nights", or "a little help". In the strange world of roadblock etiquette, this was code for demanding money.

Of course, northern Ivorians and citizens of neighbouring countries who travel through pro-Gbagbo checkpoints have a much harder time than I did.

"You can make it from Bouake to Abidjan," said a minibus station manager here who is known by his nickname, Muti.

"But it's hard. You have to pay dearly when you get to Tiebissou,"- the first town on the drive south towards Abidjan which is controlled by soldiers loyal to Mr Gbagbo.

"If you have an Ivorian ID card, you might pay 10,000 CFA ($20; £12) to get through", Muti said:

"But if you come from Mali or Burkina they demand 20,000 or 30,000 CFA."

Meetings without power

The north of Ivory Coast voted overwhelmingly for Mr Ouattara during last November's United Nations-organised polls. Parts of the electorate in the south and centre also voted for him.

Mr Gbagbo says there was vote rigging in the north and had the Constitutional Council - appointed by him earlier - annul some ballots and declare him the winner.

However UN officials in the north, who monitored the voting closely, are adamant that the rigging accusation is not true.

"There was no significant rigging in the north, I am certain of that. Alassane Ouattara won the election," said one UN official here.

The official is well-placed to know what he is talking about but cannot be named because he is not supposed to speak "on the record" to the press.

The mixture of dynamism and frustration in Bouake can be summed up by the difference in atmosphere between two places here, the Central Market and the Railway Hotel.

At the Central Market, men and women are rushing about buying and selling. And hundreds of people are buzzing about on cheap Chinese motorbikes trying to make a living.

By contrast the Railway Hotel is a place of frustration.

The hotel has become one of the unofficial centres of the Ouattara government, which according to most of the world apart from Mr Gbagbo and his close associates is, in fact, the national Ivorian government.

But like many government hotels, the Railway Hotel has an air of torpor about it.

Ministers go back and forth in the lobby after holding meetings.

But they know that they won't have any real power unless and until Mr Gbagbo goes.

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