Ivory Coast & Liberia: Security concerns increasing as rising instability along shared border region emphasized by UNMIL troop deployment [May 26, 2014]

Armed assailants, reportedly crossing into the Ivorian town of Fetai from Liberia in the early morning hours of May 13, set homes on fire and robbed locals of their valuables. Guillaume Soro, the President of Ivory Coast’s National Assembly, announced that military forces were able to repel any further actions by the assailants, increasing their deployment in the area, with clashes between both parties resulting in thirteen deaths. Moreover, the military announced it had successfully pushed the assailants past the border and back onto Liberian soil. Soldiers of the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire (ONUCI) have additionally deployed to the area, in an effort to support the Ivorian forces.
  • Reports additionally indicate that armed individuals, believed to have carried out similar attacks in the past, remain present in the border region’s forested areas within the Ivory Coast, occasionally harassing and physically attacking local farmers.
  • On March 18, soldiers belonging to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) officially left Liberia’s Gbarpolu County and redeployed to Grand Gedeh, along the border with the Ivory Coast, in an effort to support the present Liberian/UNMIL security force in the wake of increasing violence in the area.
  • On February 22, an estimated twenty armed assailants, suspected by the Ivorian government to be Liberian bandits, attacked residents in the village of Fetai and Grabo, located in the Ivory Coast. Clashes with security forces ensued, resulting in the death of four Ivorian soldiers and one assailant.
  • Despite Ivorian claims that the attackers were Liberian militiamen in the February 22 incident,Liberian Defense Minister Brownie Samukai disputed the reports and challenged the Ivorian government to produce evidence that the attacks were carried out by assailants originating in Liberia. Only recently has the Ivorian government retracted its claims, announcing that the assailants were not Liberian.
  • Meanwhile, on February 24, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf accused Ivorian forces of exploiting border attacks in order to enter Liberia to arrest and forcibly repatriate Ivorian refugees. This, according to Sirleaf, is likely the reason for the attacks which she has deemed to have been carried out by Ivorian refugees within Liberia.

Assessments: Attacks in border region likely carried out by combination of Ivorian expatriate opposition supporters, Liberian mercenaries for both political and criminal aims
  1. In recent years, cross-border attacks in Ivory Coast have been attributed to supporters and militiamen of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who had either escaped or sought refuge in Liberia. That said, Liberian criminals and mercenaries were held responsible for a similar clash in June 2012 which left seven United Nations Peacekeepers and eight civilians dead, resulting in the closure of the Liberia-Ivory Coast border. The border remained closed until April 2013. Moreover, some of the cross border incidents were reportedly carried out by a pro-Gbagbo militiamen present in refugee camps in Liberia in cooperation with Liberian mercenaries. Thus, while the identity of the assailants who carried out the latest border attacks on May 13 remain unknown, several possibilities should be considered.
  2. Political tensions between the ruling government in Ivory Coast and the leading opposition and former Gbagbo party, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), have been on the rise in recent months, particularly in the wake of the extradition of the opposition youth leader Charles Ble Goude to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague in March 2014. Furthermore, issues relating to the political crisis, and the FPI’s role in it, continue to be very sensitive in the Ivory Coast, as the return of pro-Gbagbo refugees has progressed slowly due to ongoing fears of retaliation. This situation has therefore led to increasing dissatisfaction among the Ivorian refugees in neighboring countries, with former militiamen known to be hiding amongst the expatriates.
  3. Moreover, these attacks came ahead of the resumption of negotiations between the Ouattara led government and the FPI on May 21. By attacking border villages, as well as clashing with security forces, pro-Gbagbo elements would cause an increase in insecurity in the area, which would shed a negative light on the Ivorian government’s ability to secure its population. Thus, we assess that there is potential for further cross-border attacks orchestrated by pro-Gbagbo elements depending on the trajectory of the resumed negotiations, as these factions will seek to pressure both the government and the FPI negotiators to address their interests. 
  4. That said, while it remains possible that pro-Gbagbo refugees acted on their own, despite FPI leaders complete refutation of this, we assess that the latest incidents are more likely to have been carried out in cooperation with Liberian mercenaries, who carried out similar raids in the past for financial gains. This cooperation was best demonstrated in March 2013 raids, where members of the Ivorian Movement for the return of the We to the West (MIWRO), pro-Gbagbo militiamen in refugee camps in Liberia, as well as Liberian mercenaries carried out a border attack on Zilebly, in the Blolequin District. This assessment is rendered further credible as the attacks initially targeted villagers rather than armed forces, which would be the more probable target for pro-Gbagbo assailants wanting to strike against rival Ouattara government targets.
Assessments: Cross-border attacks likely to continue as instability in area enabled by porous borders, poor security
  1. While the ability of UNMIL forces to leave other regions in Liberia indicates that security within the country itself has significantly improved, the deployment of additional forces to the border region further indicates that concerns over border security within Liberia are increasing. Moreover, it underscores that the violence witnessed on May 13 and February 22 is not expected to be isolated incidents, with additional attacks remaining likely. These measures further support the Ivorian government’s claim that the violence originated within Liberia.
  2. Despite the increase of UNMIL forces along the Liberian border regions, as well as the increase of government military forces on the Ivorian side, we assess that the porous nature of the border regions will continue to enable Liberian criminals and former Gbagbo militiamen to carry out additional attacks. Moreover, these criminal networks have proved to be highly entrenched into society, with some sources alleging that they have enjoyed the support of some local residents, while others have pointed out the potential permissiveness of security forces on the Liberian side. This would further justify the deployment of UNMIL forces rather than additional Liberian forces, which are alleged to be highly corrupt.
  3. Tensions between Ivory Coast and Liberia have decreased in recent weeks, particularly in the wake of the rescinding of blame on Liberian nationals for the February incident by Ivorian government officials. That said, we assess that the rescinding of allegations was likely an attempt to reduce political tensions that increased as a result of the previous statement. This assessment is further reinforced by the fact that additional statements have since been made accusing Liberian criminals of having carried out the February attacks. Given that cross border attacks are expected to continue, we assess that bilateral tensions are most likely to increase as the Ivorian government is likely to assert its belief that the violence is being perpetrated by Liberian nationals. In response, the Liberian government is likely to continue criticizing the Ouattara government for its failure to repatriate its nationals living in refugee camps.
  4. Finally, the presence of UNMIL forces along the Liberian border is likely to improve security in the longer term, as they have proven to be more efficient and are less likely to be directly targeted by the armed assailants. That said, in the coming weeks and months, we assess that the unstable security situation along the joint Liberia-Ivorian border is likely to continue, enabled by the porous nature of the borders, heightened political tensions in Ivory Coast and ongoing financial motivations for criminal elements to carry out these cross-border raids. Thus, we assess that additional attacks and clashes between criminals and security forces in Ivory Coast remain likely, particularly as the Ivorian forces remain in a state of elevated alert along the border areas.