Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration in Côte d’Ivoire: Lessons Identified for Security Sector Reform

by Franziska Ehlert · October 4, 2017.

The nexus between Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) and Security Sector Reform (SSR) is becoming increasingly well explored. DDR as a shorter term intervention can be seen to set the stage for long-term reform, and insights from DDR can be a valuable resource to inform SSR and help (re)shape the endeavour. The connections between these two intensely political processes are intimate. Concerned with the state’s (legitimate) monopoly of force, they mirror and fundamentally influence the overall distribution of social and political power. Both affect the population’s trust in security institutions, determine their size and shape, and tie into development agendas.

A particularly timely case to discuss in this respect is Côte d’Ivoire. Since the end of its devastating civil war in 2007 and the resolution of the post-electoral crisis in 2011, the country has achieved a return to normality, with a continuously growing economy and peaceful presidential elections in 2015. Yet, recent events are a forceful reminder that Côte d’Ivoire still has a long way to go. Mutinies by parts of the army over allegedly promised but unpaid bonuses from the civil war have uncovered deep divides within the security forces and raised fears that the country might not be as stable as commonly assumed, especially with a view to the next presidential elections in 2020. Furthermore, demobilised ex-combatants have taken to the streets, feeling generally disadvantaged over those who were integrated into the army. Against this backdrop, SSR is currently underway in Côte d’Ivoire and has to find sustainable responses to the underlying causes of this discontent. The SSR process is now confronted with the same inherent challenges that faced DDR at the outset in 2012: The country is still split between those parts of the population that supported former President Laurent Gbagbo, and those who supported the rebel group Forces Nouvelles des Forces Armées (FAFN), with which current President Ouattara is associated. This remains a significant societal division up to this day, despite rhetoric of reconciliation and social cohesion. Moreover, both the DDR and SSR processes have been conditioned by the war outcome: with the FAFN as the clear winner, its former zone commanders or chefs de guerre exert decisive influence on day-to-day politics.

In this sense, SSR can learn from both the good practice and shortcomings of Côte d’Ivoire’s DDR process, particularly as DDR is part of the overall SSR strategy and explicitly linked to wider activities such as Small Arms and Light Weapons control. Unsuccessfully attempted several times throughout the conflict, a coherent DDR strategy was eventually implemented from 2012 through to 2015. It sought to address the needs of 74,000 ex-combatants, from both sides, that were not retained for the newly constituted unity army. The process produced some tangible outcomes and was widely applauded for its success at reintegrating 95% of the targeted population, according to government statistics. The post-2011 government showed strong political will and commitment, attaching the national authority tasked with DDR (ADDR) directly to the presidency and assuring 68% of the programme’s financing without support from donors. ADDR exercised strong leadership and coordinated the roles of its domestic and international partners according to its self-determined needs. This largely helped to avoid a duplication of efforts, as every partner engaged in one or two stages of the programme and was assigned a ‘share’ of ex-combatants to treat or finance. Regular coordination meetings of all partners served as a platform to exchange information. This good practice of cooperation and coordination is being continued into SSR, for which the Ivorian government shows equally strong buy-in.  

However, DDR also had shortcomings that SSR should take into account. One aspect is that the process, contrary to official rhetoric, was lacking inclusivity. Ex-combatants who had supported Gbagbo in self-organised defence groups, militia and the former Forces de Sécurité (FDS) had extremely limited trust in the new government and feared retribution. Consequently, many felt wary of disarming and handed in one weapon instead of all weapons in their possession – enough to qualify for DDR, but leaving a large amount of arms and ammunition unaccounted for up to this day. Côte d’Ivoire’s SSR process is uniquely positioned to now work towards overcoming these issues.

One essential step is to create a truly locally-owned process. While the Ivorian government clearly took the lead on DDR, its roadmap did not necessarily reflect the vision and needs of the wider population. Civil society organisations, formally associated with the DDR coordination group and implementing community sensitisation and reintegration projects, as well as traditional authorities were not coherently implicated in the conceptualisation of the programme. Some of their grassroots ideas, however, could have helped tailor the programme more closely to ex-combatants’ needs. For example, the intervention could have been designed more explicitly to generate trust in the DDR process by those ex-combatants who feared revenge from the new government, increasing the number of weapons handed in. This would have required some out-of-the-box thinking like pushing disarmament to a later stage and demobilizing or ‘disarming the heart’ first – a possibly risky approach in a volatile environment, but an idea that was buzzing around civil society and would have merited consideration. SSR now has the chance to truly give a voice to civil society and traditional leaders, which means including them meaningfully beyond formal recognition in the SSR strategy and regular meeting invitations. If SSR wants to adequately address all grievances, it has the best chances to do so if it seeks entry points through actors who enjoy grassroots support and have first-hand understanding of the communities’ needs.

Another important element is the reform of the security forces, including their relationship with the population and demobilised ex-combatants. The armed forces have historically played a crucial political and social role, standing symbolically for the unity of the nation, but have become extraordinarily politicised as a result of the conflict. It will take a long time to redress this social imbalance. The DDR process has brought to the surface a number of further challenges. During the war, combatants on both sides were often promised a position in the army once the conflict was over. While naturally, not all ex-fighters could be retained, many of those who had to undergo DDR now feel disappointed, especially because they perceive the benefit of disarming and reintegrating as too small.

The general lack of appeal and sustainability of reintegration projects has now produced a population of ex-combatants that feel they are losing out. At the same time, as is often the case in DDR, the wider population perceived the process as a reward for those who caused the trouble, especially since compensation for war victims has been low or in many cases absent all-together. Therefore, SSR now needs to go beyond the (undoubtedly necessary) technical reforms of right-sizing and restructuring the security forces to also include a real effort at reconciliation. It is not enough that the SSR strategy contains such provisions if there is no actual change of heart, just as much within the population as within the political leadership. A transparent and inclusive SSR process can also help the government address more consciously its prevailing contentious standing within parts of its population and armed forces. This step requires political courage, but seems unavoidable if ‘social cohesion’ is to be more than just a buzzword.

Lastly, while most international partners were conscious of DDR’s shortcomings as the process was underway, they hardly vocalised them. They were content to see the Ivorian government’s strong leadership of the process and respected that it was strongly nationally owned. However, there seemed to be no culture of constructive criticism, and the high political pressure to deliver a successful process produced an overall atmosphere of restraint at coordination meetings and even informal exchanges. This may have led to an over-emphasis of Côte d’Ivoire’s DDR success and precluded a balanced assessment of the programme. The international community’s surprise at the recent turmoil and mutinies are in part due to this inattentiveness to long-standing, underlying issues that are too easily covered up with the success stories of Côte d’Ivoire’s economic and political comeback. DDR was highly sensitive politically, and SSR is even more so. Therefore, international partners should not shy away from seeking a tone that allows respectful, but critical engagement of international partners with the national road-map.