Moussa Toure Zeguen, an aging militia leader and longtime backer of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, spends most of his time in exile online, drafting missive after missive to rewrite the history of his country’s recent post-election violence.
A six-page “press statement” sent out by Zeguen last month shows just how much his take differs from the standard version of events. Whereas the international community saw now-President Alassane Ouattara as the undisputed winner of the November 2010 election, Zeguen’s statement describes the campaign to install him in office – part of months of violence that claimed at least 3,000 lives – as a “military coup” led by colonial power France. Zeguen derides Ouattara as a foreigner, a “Western puppet” and a financier of rebellions.
In person, Zeguen’s rhetoric is even more extreme. “We want Ouattara to die,” said the 68-year-old, who is on a European Union sanctions list for his role in the conflict. “And if I get him in front of me I can cut his neck.”
Nearly 1,000 Gbagbo supporters currently live in Accra, according to the Ghana Refugee Board. Known as “urban refugees” because they live outside refugee camps, they include ex-combatants like Zeguen, political leaders and former high-level government officials, most of whom fled to Ghana in the weeks after Gbagbo was arrested in April 2011.
Their anti-Ouattara vitriol – delivered in a steady stream of press statements, blog posts, tweets and newspaper articles – threaten Ivory Coast’s reconciliation, say analysts.
“The exiles are working to prevent” national reconciliation with messages that “sustain doubts about Ouattara’s legitimacy in the minds of all those who previously supported and may continue to view Laurent Gbagbo as Ivory Coast’s rightful president,” said Joseph Hellweg, an Ivory Coast expert at Florida State University.
In recent months, the Gbagbo loyalists have come under greater scrutiny, with Ouattara’s administration accusing them of coordinating roughly 10 attacks on military positions within Ivory Coast since early August. Last month, a United Nations experts’ report also accused them of coordinating the violence, claiming they had tried to recruit Islamist fighters in northern Mali, among others, to their cause.
The leaders of the urban refugees deny the allegations. In recent interviews, most exiles said their days were largely spent in front of their laptops, reading and responding to news from their home country while living off money sent from supporters overseas.
Ahoua Don Mello, a former Gbagbo spokesman who is under an international arrest warrant, said this online outreach helps the exiles in Accra maintain their standing as “the central leaders” of the former president’s supporters – a feat made easier because what remains of Gbagbo’s political party in Abidjan is very weak.
The role the exiles play in shaping public opinion is clear. Ever since Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court one year ago, his high-level allies have insisted that reconciliation can only happen if the court releases him immediately – something that is practically inconceivable.
Matt Wells, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said making reconciliation conditional upon Gbagbo’s release shows the exiles’ “refusal to acknowledge the grave crimes committed by pro-Gbagbo forces during the crisis.” Nonetheless, this line has been adopted by many ordinary Gbagbo supporters in Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Zeguen, the aging ex-combatant, is widely regarded as the leader of the exiles’ propaganda campaign. His lengthy diatribes routinely get picked up by pro-Gbagbo newspapers in Ivory Coast, which are owned and controlled by the former president’s inner circle.
In its sanctions notice against him, the EU said Zeguen’s writings reflected “a strong logic of conflict and armed revenge,” noting that his blog often “violently calls for the mobilization of the Ivorian people against Ouattara.”
However, there are some indications that the exiles are losing sway, even over those who share their politics. Some residents of the Ampain refugee camp, the largest camp for Ivorians in Ghana, accuse them of needlessly stoking animosity between the pro-Ouattara and pro-Gbagbo camps, thereby delaying the refugees’ eventual return home.
“Those refugees who are living in Accra, they are free. But here, we are not free,” said one refugee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “We don’t have money. There are so many problems here. In Accra, they say they are refugees but they are free to do anything they want.”
Hellweg at Florida State said this frustration would likely become more widespread over time, hurting the exiles’ ability to influence the debate over reconciliation.
“The longer that Ouattara can maintain power, the harder it will be for the exiles to effect change, as their resources will eventually diminish and their authority among their Ivorian fellow travelers will diminish due to distance,” Hellweg said. “Time, in other words, is on Ouattara’s side.”