Last week, an attack on the Ivorian side of the Côte d’Ivoire/Liberia border left at least 15 people dead, including seven UN peacekeepers from Niger. This attack, apparently perpetrated by a nebulous group of Ivorian and Liberian rebels, is not the first cross-border assault since former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo was deposed last year. According to Human Rights Watch, the UN and various other monitoring groups, Ivorian and Liberian militias who fought on behalf of Laurent Gbagbo last year fled to Liberia after his fall from power. Since then, there have been numerous cross-border attacks against, primarily, communities and people who support the new president of Cote d’Ivoire Alassanne Ouattara.
While last week’s attack, that left seven peacekeepers dead, is reprehensible, it is only one of many such deadly assaults in Ivorian border towns. The seriousness of the murder of international peacekeeping troops brought this story to international headlines, though it is the underlying tensions that are simmering on the border of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire that should really be the main story and cause for concern.
Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire share hundreds of kilometers of porous, poorly patrolled borders, enabling easy cross-border movement. Most of the people who go back and forth between the two countries are engaging in legitimate activities – and have done so for many, many years. As is common in border regions, people on both sides share an ethnic background and links between communities have long been established. The conflict in Côte d’Ivoire last year, however, profoundly affected this dynamic. Liberian militias – who have allegedly been fighting alongside pro-Gbagbo rebels since the early 2000s – participated in attacks against Ouattara supporters, and Ivorian militias sought security within Liberia’s borders. The constant back and forth, and the significant flow of Ivorian refugees into Liberia in 2011, adds to the difficulty of identifying exactly when and where militias are active, and preventing further attacks from taking place.
While the governments of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire are claiming to be working closely together to preserve the integrity of their border, peace, and security, Human Rights Watch came out last week with a scathing report accusing Liberia of not doing enough to track down and prosecute individuals responsible for committing atrocities against civilians in Côte d’Ivoire. Announcements by the Liberian government that a contingent of soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) would be sent to secure the border aren’t particularly encouraging either, as the AFL remains woefully under trained and under resourced. In a volatile area, their presence could add more fuel to the fire.
There are real concerns regarding instability in the region. In addition to people being driven away from their livelihoods, fleeing to other parts of the country or across the border, there are signs that these militias are becoming emboldened – i.e. attacking and killing UN peacekeepers. This is a particularly difficult part of the region to monitor and secure, but the willingness of Ivorian and Liberian officials to pay more than lip service to the security concerns in the region is critical to the long-term sustainability of peace.