Major cities across Ivory Coast awoke to the clatter of gunfire Monday. In the country’s commercial center and in several cocoa-producing hubs, disgruntled soldiers broke out weapons and blocked thoroughfares to protest stalled bonus payments and what they view as broken promises from President Alassane Ouattara.
It marks the fourth day of renewed tensions in a dispute that had appeared to be tentatively resolved months ago between the government and more than a third of its soldiers. Now, the country teeters anew on the brink of widespread violence.
As NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, the friction dates back to January, when the former rebel soldiers who helped propel Ouattara to power in 2011 mutinied over their delayed back pay. The two sides settled their fight within days after Ouattara offered to pay them $15,500 apiece, according to the BBC — a promise the news agency says Ouattara has only partly fulfilled.
But in a surprise televised announcement Thursday, a spokesman for the soldiers apologized and declared they would be dropping their demands for the rest of their payment.
The move clearly came as news to many of the soldiers, who in recent days have taken their weapons into the streets in the economic capital Abidjan, the erstwhile rebel stronghold Bouake, and cocoa production centers such as San Pedro and Daloa. In Abidjan, gunfire has been heard near the presidential palace and the U.S. Embassy, while in Bouake, at least one major entrance into the city has been barred by soldiers.
Thus far, Reuters reports, at least eight people have been shot by mutineers in Bouake and growing popular protests to the armed revolt have led to clashes between demonstrators and soldiers — resulting in at least one death.
“The situation is dangerous in terms of what will happen if a full-blown confrontation erupts between loyal forces and mutineers,” Al-Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris reports from the outskirts of Abidjan. “The civilian population will be caught in the crossfire.”
Another spokesman for the soldiers — who number roughly 8,400 of the country’s 22,000-strong army — denies the clashes but says that “we can no longer turn back.”
“We don’t know what will happen to us, so we just want our money so we can start a new life,” Seydou Kone says, as quoted by Reuters. “But we can’t give up now that we’ve reached this point.”
Much of the dispute has hinged not on events in city streets or on battlefields, but rather on cocoa farms. Far and away the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans, the country has come to rely deeply on the commodity — a fact that, as cocoa’s prices plummeted earlier this year, spelled fiscal troubles for the Ivory Coast.
That has spelled trouble, in turn, for a cash-strapped government and many of its bonus-seeking soldiers.