by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.In December 2017, it was announced that the Republican Forces of Cote d’Ivoire (FRCI), which serves as the military forces of Francophone Africa’s second wealthiest country, would cut its ranks by 997 personnel, mostly from among the Army’s non-commissioned officers. This may lead some observers to hope that Ivorian policymakers are pursuing the professionalization of the country’s military, in much the same way that, for example, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has downsized its land forces under Defence Reform Plan 2020 (DRP2020) in order to focus on the quality of troops and equipment rather than on sheer quantity. After all, it is estimated that Ivorian land forces are comprised of almost 25,000 soldiers, while Cote d’Ivoire struggles to develop sufficient seapower to fend off pirates in its portion of the Gulf of Guinea and the status of Ivorian airpower is unknown. Surely, one might assume, reductions to Ivorian infantry would be accompanied by the development of special counter-terrorism forces and FRCI’s two other branches – the Air Force and Navy.
Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Cote d’Ivoire remains without a formal security strategy and has largely remained aloof from regional efforts to combat non-state security threats, such as piracy and various militant Islamist groups. This, despite Cote d’Ivoire suffering from terrorist attacks like the March 2016 mass shooting in the seaside resort town of Grand-Bassam. Beyond the acquisition of three RPB-33 patrol boats from French shipyard Raidco Marine in 2015-2016, there have also been no announced procurement projects for any of the FRCI’s branches.
If the personnel cuts are not part of a modernization drive for the Ivorian military, then what is going on in Abidjan? Most likely, the troop reductions result from the consolidation of power in Cote d’Ivoire by President Alassane Ouattara, who came to power in 2010 after a disputed election and several months of civil war. Ouattara’s predecessor, President Laurent Gbagbo, had led an increasingly oppressive government that declined to hold elections between 2000 and 2010. Ultimately, Gbagbo would become the first head of state to be taken into the custody of the International Criminal Court, after he was captured in April 2011 by a coalition of French forces and pro-Ouattara militants, known as the “New Forces of Cote d’Ivoire” (FNCI).
The case can be made that substantial numbers of infantry were needed to maintain order and deter pro-Gbagbo elements during Ouattara’s initial years in power, as well as to financially reward those who fought for Ouattara during the civil war. The Ivorian courts’ recent acquittal of Simone Gbagbo, a political figure in Cote d’Ivoire and the wife of former President Laurent Gbagbo, would also seem to suggest that a degree of understanding has been reached among the country’s elites since the internal strife of 2010-2011. Rather, the military itself has become the greatest challenge to Ouattara’s continued rule, as evidenced by several mutinies that broke out in January and May 2017.
In those incidents, former FCNI militants who had been integrated into the Ivorian military as non-commissioned officers seized control of nine cities across the country, including the capital, in order to demand better pay or, in some cases, to protest serving without pay as part of the Economic Community of West African States’ Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL). Although negotiations were successful in both January and May 2017 in persuading the mutineers to return to their duties, at least one civilian was killed during the first mutiny in Bouaké, the second largest city in Cote d’Ivoire. Negotiations on the current troop reductions seem to have started not long after the May 2017 mutinies were resolved, suggesting this may be more so a matter of peacefully phasing out troublesome former FNCI elements from the military. This would certainly go some way toward satisfying some of the security sector reforms in Cote d’Ivoire called for by the international community, but it is a long way from the comprehensive transformation observers would expect or the FRCI will need if it is to play a role in West African counter-terrorism efforts.
Evidently, Ivorian policymakers need to engage with partners in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – and internationally, such as with France – to determine how to build momentum behind such a transformation in the way the FRCI trains, fights, and secures the country.