Ice Cream at 4 a.m

Night in Abidjan: Ivory Coast security forces are scourge of roads

October 31, 2003


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ It's 4 a.m. on the streets of this once-lively West African city and a grim-faced soldier is manning a makeshift roadblock made from old tires and a pair of 7-foot-high beer bottles, wooden advertisements confiscated from a nearby bar.

AK-47 in one hand, ice cream bar in the other, he stops each car that passes, and lets each go at a price. Every driver knows the routine _ they've all just paid to pass through another roadblock on the other side of the intersection.

Four years of coups, rebellions and violence have shattered Ivory Coast's reputation as a peaceful, economic powerhouse of West Africa, and allowed the country's security forces to grow increasingly lawless, corrupt and feared _ under a government reluctant to rein in the military and police that help keep it in power.

"They're spoiling the country," said taxi driver Adama Kunde, gesturing toward a phalanx of police inspecting two dozen cars pulled over one recent night on Charles de Gaulle bridge.

"They're supposed to be enforcing the law, but they're criminals," Kunde said. "It's a big racket and we're tired of it."

Pressured by former colonial ruler France, President Laurent Gbagbo's government did fire the national police chief last week after the killing of French radio journalist Jean Helene. Witnesses said Helene was shot in the back of the head by a policeman as he waited for interviews outside police headquarters.

Gbagbo, however, has done nothing to end widespread extortion at citywide checkpoints, regarded by many as the most visible _ and for drivers, unavoidable _ proof that security forces have grown out of control.

Since 1999, security officers have raped numerous women and fatally shot 16 cab drivers, prompting repeated strikes, local news media and residents say.
Police armed with assault rifles interrogate drivers and passengers harshly and relentlessly, usually forcing them to pay 500-1,000 francs (about $1-$2) whether they've done anything wrong or not.

Kunde was penalized after officers said his spare tire didn't have enough air.

"They always find something wrong. Even if all your papers are in order, they'll tell you something is missing," said Ibrahim Connate, 45, another cab driver. "You always have to pay."

Sometimes drunk and rarely smiling, military police are known to fire into the air to force cars to stop and can start shoving when payment is slow. Drivers who refuse to pay bribes are kept by the roadside for hours or threatened with arrest.

Toussaint Alain, a spokesman for Gbagbo, calls the checkpoints "a minor problem."
"The security forces are there to reassure the population. People should not be afraid of them," he said.

Roadblocks have plagued Abidjan's streets since 1999, when the nation's first-ever coup plunged Ivory Coast into turmoil and led to uprisings, revolutions and coup attempts.

Civil war broke out with a failed coup against Gbagbo in September 2002. The conflict was officially declared over in July, but tensions are still high. Rebels control the north of the country and many fear new violence.

"Don't you know we're in a state of war?" one police officer said at a roadblock near the airport, irritated after being asked by a taxi passenger _ told to remove his luggage _ why he was being harassed.

Most checkpoints are built from tires and overturned tables, sometimes broken car doors. Police wave vehicles off the road with flashlights and whistles, while a soldier often waits farther along with an AK-47 at the ready _ to ensure every car stops.

Muslims and citizens of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso _ frequently accused of supporting rebels _ are favorite targets of police, who've razed thousands of their homes and shops.

Foreigners who can't show "proper" passport entry stamps _ sometimes too faded to read because they weren't stamped hard enough _ are accused of slipping into the country illegally.

At least 10,000 French, 100,000 Malians, 300,000 Burkinabes and countless others have fled Ivory Coast.

For businessmen struggling to survive a humbled economy, the roadblocks are cutting ever deeper into dwindling profits, particularly at night. The head of the Ivory Coast's Chamber of Commerce, Jean-Louis Billon, described their effect as "disastrous."

"People are afraid to go out," said Ibrahim Dialo, the 30-year-old manager of Las Palmas, a restaurant-nightclub that averaged over 200 customers a day before 1999. Today, it's lucky to see 10.

"Security forces are supposed to be protecting people, making things safe. But they're frightening everybody and scaring off our customers," Dialo said.

Most security forces patrolling Abidjan defended Gbagbo during last year's coup attempt, and helped him come to power in a popular revolution in 2000.

"It's not easy for authorities to punish them. They know if they start rounding those people up ... they'll probably take up arms and revolt," said Tanoh Kouame, a court stenographer. "And nobody wants that."

Copyright 2003 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.