Ivory Coast Tries To Keep Terrorists From Crossing Border

They shall not pass: Since July, soldiers have stepped up patrols along the country's 1,600-km border with Mali and Burkina Faso.

Soldiers march during a military parade marking the 59th anniversary of the independence of Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, Aug. 2019
Youenn Gourlay

KORHOGO — It's a delicate operation. Commander Roland Seahet of Gohouo repeats the instructions to the Fourth Battalion of Korhogo, a city in the north of the Ivory Coast. "Be vigilant and ready for combat," he says. "Have the men been deployed to the border? Have the positions been secured?"

In the Burkina Faso forest of Dida, along the Ivorian border, a sweeping operation is underway this October following an aerial military bombardment aimed at potential jihadists. "The Burkinabés shot at suspects," the commander explains. "We don't want them to flee and find refuge in Ivorian territory."

In recent months, the Ivorian army has focused on the 1,116-km border that the Ivory Coast shares with two of the most unstable countries in the subregion, Mali and Burkina Faso. Launched in July, "operation watertight border," as it's called, is focused on apprehending intruders.

Many here don't even know where the border is exactly.

The operation follows the killing of a guide and the abduction of two French tourists in Pendjari National Park in Benin, near the border with Burkina Faso. Earlier in the year, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an "orange alert" for the area, warning French tourists not to travel there "except for imperative reasons."

Today, in addition to customs and police officers, at least 300 seasoned military personnel monitor the border daily. But as the commander notes, "In the dry season, the rivers are receding and crossing over into Ivorian lands becomes easier" — especially since between the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali, people move back and forth constantly.

"Some have their parents on the other side," says Dion, an officer stationed in the north. "Village festivals are common. Round trips for trade or fishing are daily. Not to mention that some families here own plantations on the other side of the border. Besides, many here don't even know where the border is exactly."

U.S. and Ivorian soldiers during a joint naval exercise in Abidjan — Photo: Mcs1 Justin Stumberg/Planet Pix/ZUMA

Either way, it's been far more protected since the arrival of the army in July. Checkpoints and patrols of up to 30 men control the comings and goings of Ivorian villagers in Burkinabé territory, directly opposite.

In the village of of Kavadogo, the border is marked by a bend in the Comoé River. It's a place where children love to swim and where large flat canoes await fishermen and locals. The friendly atmosphere notwithstanding, there are now four armored vehicles here standing guard.

Stanislas Loukou, who has worked in the village for two years as a teacher, says he's now used to the military presence. At first, seeing all these soldiers was worrying for him and his family. Today he finds their presence reassuring.

A few months ago, local farmers reported that two men, armed and hooded, had crossed the border and were poking about the nearby villages. "It's a big deal," a government official explained. "They had Kalashnikovs and threatened peasants." Since then the military presence has been strengthened.

The military admits, nevertheless, that it "will never be able to control everything." Their fear continues to be that some terrorists are hiding within the local population, especially among the gold miners who are increasingly present in the gold-rich fields of the north.

The real challenge for the soldiers is to improve their intelligence network so that abnormal acts or behaviors can relayed back to village leaders as quickly as possible.

"Some people act in a way that's suspicious, which makes everyone nervous," says Amoro Ouattara, younger brother of the leader of Kaouara, one of the last Ivorian towns on Abidjan-Ouagadougou axis. "You shouldn't assume that the evil is always elsewhere."

The military admits that it will never be able to control everything.

He goes on to explain that he was at the mosque praying one day and noticed unattended bags at the entrance. "I said to the imam: "Don't allow this to be here. We don't know what it contains. There could be bombs." It concerns everyone: the chief, religious communities, the youth too," Ouattara explains.

The French military helps Ivorian law enforcement by providing intelligence, and according to the French Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner — who visited the country in May — several attacks have been thwarted as a result.

France is also helping finance a counter-terrorism academy in Jacqueville, 50 kms from Abidjan, the country's largest city and economic center. During a presentation of the project in October, the Ivory Coast's defense minister, Hamed Bakayoko, talked about the "urgent" need to act, and noted that whatever problems might arise in Burkina Faso will necessarily impact his country as well.

The school won't be completed, probably, until next year. But some training sessions have already taken place.

Since the security crisis began in the great Sahel region, the Ivory Coast has only had one jihadist attack: on March 13, 2016, in the seaside town of Grand-Bassam, a few kilometers from Abidjan. Th attacked killed 19 and wounded 33. The goal since then has been to avoid a repeat, and so far, the country has been spared. "Why?" Commander Seahet of Gohouo asks. "We respect the rules and we're helped by the hand of God."

As one French observer puts it, the Ivory Coast is a key source of stability for the whole region. "If the security situation breaks down there, it would be a disaster for all of West Africa."

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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