United and credible: Côte d’Ivoire’s response to the Grand Bassam attacks
In the wake of the deadly Grand Bassam attacks, political rivals stood together and were able to act effectively.
The attacks that took place in mid-March at Grand-Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire, provoked the familiar knee-jerk reactions from 24-hour news outlets whose take on these events is often questionable. Due to their strictly Western perspective, these reports sometimes border on the grotesque. Unsurprisingly, Fox News was the most outlandish. The network claimed the attacks targeted Americans, and characterised the crisis that has rocked the country over the last years as a “religious war”. French media outlets hardly fared better, with many repeatedly stating that France had been targeted.
True to its usual rhetoric, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) hammered the same kind of simplistic narrative. According to its statement claiming responsibility, the goal of the Bassam attack was to punish the countries which make up the “satanic alliance” that “invaded” Mali in 2013 in the wake of the French military operation Serval, later replaced by Operation Barkhane. Côte d’Ivoire has indeed contributed troops to the UN peace mission in Mali, MINUSMA. It is also one of France’s major West African trading partners and political allies, with close military ties; a 600-strong French force is already stationed in the country. So the idea of trying to get to France by attacking Côte d’Ivoire is plausible.
But designating France as the main victim in an attack committed nearly 4,000 miles (6,000 km) from its borders, or uncritically swallowing AQIM propaganda, may not be our best option in trying to understand the attacks.
To begin with, basic decency requires us to note that most of the victims were Ivoirian and that they were not collateral damage in an attack targeting Western tourists. The beach at Grand-Bassam is located a few miles East of Abidjan. It’s a place where Ivoirians of all ages and social backgrounds converge on the weekends. They come to relax and enjoy the seaside.
Grand-Bassam is not a select resort: on weekends, it’s a sort of festive extension of bustling Abidjan. Visitors to this one-of-a-kind West African city marvel at its economic, cultural and social dynamism. Such is the prism through which most Ivoirians see these attacks. There was no mention of France in the headlines of Ivoirian newspapers on the day after the attacks, or the day after that.
Noms de guerre
While the Grand-Bassam attack took many people by surprise, such an event was predictable. Warnings had been issued, as they had been in Dakar, Senegal too. Reinforcements had been called on over the previous weeks.
The events come at a time when speculation has been rife about the uncontrolled proliferation in the Northern part of the country of Salafist mosques which might be used to stash weapons. These rumours have not been thoroughly verified. It is reasonable to assume that the Bassam attack was carried out using an organisational structure located outside of Côte d’Ivoire. The noms de guerre of the three terrorists, released by AQIM, suggest only one was Ivoirian (“Al Ansari”), while the two others come from a known pool of young AQIM recruits from the Sahel.
In August 2012, when the Economic Community of West African States was planning to deploy troops in Northern Mali, which was then occupied by Islamist militant groups, a high ranking Ivoirian official, referring to the luxury hotel bordering the lagoon in downtown Abidjan, articulated his doubts: “If we send our forces to Mali, Hôtel Ivoire will be targeted”, he said.
West Africa is a massively integrated human space. Goods and people travel freely and in great numbers. Many of its countries have recently been affected by war. Its large coastal cities harbour extensive areas outside of State control. Light weapons can be easily obtained. Organising an attack would not involve any major logistical hurdle, as security forces in the region are well aware.
What is next for Côte d’Ivoire?
The default assumption, privileged by Fox News, is that in a half-Muslim-half-Christian country, religious relations will sour. This does not stand up to scrutiny. In the nine-year civil war (2002 to 2011) between forces loyal to then President Laurent Gbagbo and the rebels, the major issue was the path to citizenship.
Clues as to how the situation will evolve can be found by examining the political class. The shock wave from the attacks seems to have bridged, however temporarily, the deep schisms of a country freshly emerged from a lengthy internal crisis. The trial of ex-President Gbagbo, accused by the International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity, began in late January. It has revived strong socio-political tensions and awakened painful memories of a lingering crisis, because of the bungled national reconciliation process.
In spite of this, Pascal Affi N’Guessan, the contested head of Gbagbo’s party, the Ivorian Popular Front, unequivocally stated that Ivoirians “must stand united against adversity”, following a meeting with President Alassane Ouattara two days after the attacks.
Guillaume Soro, leader of the former rebellion and now President of the National Assembly, is seen as the arch-rival of the powerful Minister for the Interior, Hamed Bakayoko, in the upcoming battle to succeed Ouattara in 2020. Speaking on behalf of the assembly, Soro congratulated the government for its “prompt reaction” and called for “nationwide solidarity with the government”.
It would probably be politically risky to exploit this event to deepen the already gaping divide between the pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara factions. The strong emotional public reaction to the violence of the attacks in a place so cherished by Ivoirians has clearly tempered some politicians who are prone to inflammatory speeches.
Nevertheless, the attack benefited some on the national political scene. It diverted attention away from the bad press the government had been getting because of the trial of Gbagbo and his co-defendant, Charles Blé Goudé. It allowed for the sudden resurgence of Bakayoko following the reasonably effective management of the attack by Ivorian security forces.
A credible local response
From a security standpoint, the Ivorian government’s management of the Grand-Bassam attack can be considered fairly effective. Special Forces were prepared for a terrorist attack. They mobilised in less than an hour (45 minutes according to government sources) following the attack and succeeded in neutralising the three militants.
President Ouattara, accompanied by members of his government, visited the site three hours after the events and publicly declared the attack to be over. The country went into three days of national mourning, following an extraordinary council of ministers on 15 March. Protection measures for potential targets where reinforced and an investigation into these attacks was swiftly opened by the state prosecutor.
This current snapshot of the country does not necessarily foreshadow possible developments. Calls to unity do not always result in action. But we can at least observe that Côte d’Ivoire is not lacking in political and security resources, and that its citizens remain vigilant in the face of terrorist acts.
Before resorting to the idiom of the global war on terror and the interventionist rhetoric it entails, it is possible to entertain the notion of a credible local response to the problem.
Yvan Guichaoua is a lecturer on international conflicts at the University of Kent. Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné is a sociologist at the Centre de Recherche et d’Action pour la Paix (CERAP), Université Alassane Ouattara de Bouake.