A short while ago I travelled with local colleagues in Côte d’Ivoire to explore what opportunities exist to consolidate peace and security after years of violence. The country shares borders with Burkina Faso and Mali in the north, Guinea and Liberia in the west and Ghana in the east – along with rivers, roads and trade, in West Africa as elsewhere the causes of conflict cross borders.
Conflict drivers that are familiar across the region
Tensions around border areas have long posed a threat to sustainable peace, with issues of underdevelopment and corruption a day-to-day irritant for communities who are trying to carve out a post-conflict livelihood without violence. I visited one such community at Gbinta, at the Côte d’Ivoire–Liberia crossing.
Gbinta is not the worst border post, but nor is it working for the communities it should serve.
In the area surrounding Gbinta there are about eight communities of fifty to sixty people each. They work the land and get by selling cocoa, rubber, coffee, plantain and yams. They have no pipe-borne water but instead rely on free-flowing sources – this freedom of movement doesn’t extend beyond the river itself. Liberia had closed its side of the border due to ongoing tensions, including arrests and killings in the local area, which leaves locals even more isolated than usual.
The community’s connection to their government is stunted and weak. People living there have only very limited access to basic amenities, with what healthcare and education facilities that do exist being delivered by large international NGOs.
Trust must be restored in border officials
The roads in this area are terrible and – were the crossing itself to be passable – no facilities exist for an official border post on the Ivorian side.
It’s a similar situation across the region: peppered across the 28km between Gbinta and Danané, the regional capital, there are eight unofficial barriers that are marked out by little more than sticks and sheds. Each is heavily staffed with representatives from agriculture, the police, FRCI customs and sometimes the “Dozo” – traditional hunters living in northern Côte d'Ivoire, southeast Mali, and Burkina Faso – but none is equipped to fulfil something like an accountable service.
The impact of this piecemeal system is that navigating even this short distance can take several hours.
I observed that those individuals who do pass for border officials have to provide their own uniforms, their own transport to get to work, and even their own water during the day. They receive scant training in how to fulfil their role with authority or bring about respectful relations with those passing through. They check travellers’ documents, ask what’s on board, and invariably demand money for the right to pass.
Building capacity to prevent a slide back into conflict
Why am I describing this? Because this level of disruption fosters disharmony. I’ve seen before how dangerously people’s allegiance to political rulers can unravel when the social fabric is allowed to fray in such a way.
Petty corruption is eating away at communities in West Africa and preventing people from fostering their own sustainable peace.
These themes and more are addressed in our Talking Borders short films. A lack of meaningful governance at the local level undermines people’s confidence in the state and can lead them to question its very existence.
It doesn’t have to be like this, and nor is it everywhere. Across the border in Liberia there’s a well-equipped border post with kit supplied by the UN: with a clearly defined system, treated water, electricity and signposts to guide expectations, it’s everything that Gbinta isn’t.
Establishing a regional programme to respond to people’s concerns
These challenges aren’t unique to Côte d’Ivoire – people in neighbouring countries of the Mano River Union are all looking for answers to similar questions.
People are coming to realise that it has to change and are identifying opportunities to make a positive difference. As Papa Kamara of Danane put it, “The more you talk about it, the more you see what’s possible.”
For their part, civil society in Côte d’Ivoire need to do more joint work so they too can have a stronger voice: on the peace process, on reconciliation, on the future.
Individually they can be easily overlooked but if they work together then donors are forced to listen. And, perhaps more importantly, others in their society – be it communities, officials or politicians - then feel they have something valid to say.
Whether in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone – it will take people’s imagination and cooperation to focus their energies collectively on alternatives to violence.
Change is always possible and we’re going to be working with local peacebuilders to help make it a positive one.
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