, ABIDJAN, Sept 9 – A long-delayed inquiry in Ivory Coast to probe the alleged perpetrators and victims of close to a decade of political violence began taking evidence on Monday.
The first open sessions of the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CDVR) began in Abidjan almost three years after the panel’s 11 members were sworn in.
The commission is chaired by former prime minister Charles Konan Banny, leading its critics to claim the probe is politically biased.
“In the museum of horrors, we want to show Ivorians that we went too far,” Konan Banny told reporters on Monday.
Once the economic powerhouse of west Africa and still the world’s leading cocoa producer, Ivory Coast was plunged into crisis after long-time opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo was elected president in 2000.
A rebel front, the New Forces (FN), launched an insurgency in 2002, taking control of northern towns. One of their grievances was that Alassane Ouattara, a prominent northerner, was banned from confronting Gbagbo at the polls on grounds of contested nationality.
– 63,000 witnesses –
Thousands died in the conflict and several mass graves were uncovered, while the country was long divided between an FN-held north and the south in the hands of Gbagbo’s troops and volatile youth militias.
Under the aegis of a United Nations mission and pressure from former colonial power France, a long-stalled presidential poll was held late in 2010, this time pitting Ouattara against the incumbent.
Early in December 2010, the national electoral commission proclaimed Ouattara the winner, but Gbagbo refused to accept defeat, sparking five months of conflict that ended after he was arrested on April 11, 2011.
Ouattara formally became head of state, already recognised by the UN and foreign peers, but at the cost of 3,000 lives in Abidjan. Today, Gbagbo faces trial before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The reconciliation panel was appointed to cover the period after Gbagbo came to power, a time during which local and international rights groups reported serious atrocities by all parties in the conflict.
Some 63,000 witnesses have provided testimony to the commission. Journalists covering Monday’s session were asked to exit the chamber when witnesses took the stand.
– ‘Victor’s justice’ –
Protesters say that under Konan Banny, another of Gbagbo’s former political foes, the commission cannot be fair.
“You can’t choose somebody with his profile,” said an expert UN source, who asked not to be named.
“You should watch to make sure that leadership is truly independent and that it is not in the hands of someone who is both judge and party to the process,” the source told AFP.
Rights groups fear that the reconciliation panel will deliver nothing but “victor’s justice”, arguing that it is subject to political influence from Ouattara’s camp.
Patrick Baudouin, head of the International Federation for Human Rights, charged in June that the Ivorian panel had “absolutely not carried out its role”.
But Mary-Paule Kodgo, a commission member, defended the inquiry and called for its critics to reserve judgement.
“This is the first time that such an instrument exists (in Ivory Coast),” she said. “That’s not to say that everything will be perfect, but you have to give us a chance.”
In spite of taking tens of thousands of witness statements, the decision to select no more than a hundred to speak during public sessions has raised doubts over the commission’s ability to effectively probe Ivory Coast’s violent past.
Recently asked about the panel by AFP, a member of the current government smiled: “What for? We have reconciliation already.”