(Cultural Center in Korhogo, Côte d’Ivoire, financed by a former rebel commander. Credit: Philip Martin.)
What kind of political and social relationships do members of non-state armed movements sustain with communities they once governed during armed conflict? In 2017, I conducted research in northern Côte d’Ivoire examining the social and political roles of former rebel group members and ex-rebel commanders within local communities. Through a series of surveys and structured interviews, I documented how the Forces Nouvelles (FN) rebels established a political system and carried out a number of extra-military functions typically performed by governments (e.g. policing, taxation, and settling disputes). Even after the completion of the war, I found that many of these institutions and networks remained in place, creating the potential possibility for remobilizing ex-combatants down the line.
Between July and November 2017, along with collaborating researchers, I carried out a survey questionnaire in ninety-five (95) localities. Through structured interviews with local community leaders, the questionnaire sought to collect data on the rebel occupation of the Forces Nouvelles and the socio-political influence of ex-rebel commanders in the postwar period. The survey was complemented by ten months of fieldwork in four districts of the country, including in-depth case study comparisons of four rebel-ruled localities – Korhogo, Bouaké, Sangouiné, and Mahapleu.
Wartime rule under the Forces Nouvelles
The survey reveals that insurgents had a widespread political and military footprint across northern Côte d’Ivoire. In the majority of surveyed localities (74%), rebel forces established a permanent military camp, often set up at the police or gendarmerie barracks abandoned by pro-government forces. In the remaining areas, rebels either operated permanent checkpoints along main roads (18%) or, less frequently, only made sporadic visits to the region (7%). Recruitment was also widespread in FN-controlled territory. In 87% of localities, informants indicated that residents in the community were conscripted to join the rebels, most commonly as soldiers but also as cooks, drivers, interpreters, mechanics, or to fill civil positions such as tax collectors or administrators.
Rebel commanders also developed an elaborate system of revenue collection in many areas. In almost every locality in the sample, rebels operated barrages routiers to extract “taxes” from the population, which especially targeted traders and transit vehicles. On top of this checkpoint system, in 85 of 95 localities (89%), rebels collected revenue through an organized system of laisser-passers (paid permits for transport vehicles) and taxes collected directly on local markets and businesses.
In many areas, FN rebels were directly involved in the provision of a broad range of services and public goods within communities they controlled. This involvement varied widely by sector across localities (Figure 2). Policing and security functions were fairly universal: in 90% and 82% of sampled localities, FN rebels were the primary actor involved in policing against criminality (including issuing sentences through informal “courts”) and protecting the community from external attacks, respectively. By contrast, commanders were involved in regulating issues of land governance and property disputes among community residents in 54% of localities. Less frequently, rebel commanders provided direct assistance to the education sector (e.g. donations for schools and teachers), health care services (e.g. recruitment of doctors and donations for clinics), maintaining local infrastructure, and providing commercial loans.
In conjunction with these direct forms of public goods provision, FN wartime rule often relied on the active collaboration of local civilians, and especially community elites. These elites included traditional and customary authorities such as village and canton chiefs, school teachers and municipal civil servants, leaders of non-government organizations, and political party branch members. For example, in 75 of 95 surveyed localities (79%), informants reported that “traditional authorities or other important persons in the community” regularly negotiated or actively collaborated with the efforts of occupying rebels to provide basic order and governance. Such negotiations concerned a range of issues, from complaints about the comportment of rebel soldiers, to the organizing of schools and health care clinics, or raising funds for road repairs. An especially important mechanism for rebel-civilian dialogue was the practice of organizing public meetings chaired by the local commander or his representative.
Postwar commander-community linkages
Despite the official disbanding of the Forces Nouvelles rebellion and the integration of most rebel officers into the military in 2011, ex-rebel commanders retained influence within northern communities, though the forms of influence varied greatly. As the country transitioned to peacetime politics, many ex-rebel officers maintained access to extensive economic assets, social relationships with local elites, and contacts with former rebel combatants.
In approximately 30% of surveyed localities, petty forms of extortion and taxation at informal road checkpoints by former rebel soldiers also persisted during the first two years following the 2011 transition. However, such practices were quite rare by the time of survey enumeration in 2017 (6% of surveyed localities).
In over half (53%) of the localities surveyed, former rebel commanders continued to make regular visits to the area in a private capacity since 2011. The purpose of such visits ranged from attending ceremonial events (such as marriages, funerals, and religious celebrations) to visiting the homes of traditional authorities to in some cases, bringing donations to local development projects (such as schools, health clinics, or mosques). In over half of localities that received such private visits from commanders (52%), commanders were known to provide material support – such as food, spending money, and jobs – directly to their former armed supporters. And in over a third of surveyed localities (38%), community members continued to call on the former FN commander to help fight crime and maintain order after the 2011 transition. Finally, in a majority of localities (58%) a former rebel group member occupied a formal political office, such as legislative deputy, mayor or deputy-mayor, regional councillor, or another type of bureaucratic post.
To summarize, evidence from a representative sample of rebel-ruled localities shows that the political and military presence of Forces Nouvelles insurgents was widespread in northern Côte d’Ivoire during the civil war, that rebels engaged in a wide variety of governance practices, and that some commanders sustained strong postwar linkages within these communities. These layered forms of social and political influence are meaningful because they are strong indicators of ex-rebel commanders’ ability to access and control mobilizable networks within communities, with important implications for the state’s ability to provide political order and the potential for remobilization of ex-combatants in the future.
Findings from this research were disseminated through presentations to policy-makers in Côte d’Ivoire, including officials from USAID Côte d’Ivoire and the US State Department, which provided information about former rebel-controlled areas that can inform programming aimed at improving security sector reform (SSR) and the reintegration of former combatants. I also made a presentation based on these findings in August 2017 at a local research think-tank, the Laboratoire de Sociologie Economique et d’Anthropologie des Appartenances Symboliques (LAASSE). Part of these findings were also published in a French-language report in Francopaix.
Philip Martin is a doctoral candidate in the MIT Political Science Department and Security Studies Program. His work in Côte d’Ivoire is funded in part by MIT GOV/LAB’s seed grant program. Philip can be reached at email@example.com.