Before last month’s presidential election, M’Batto in central Ivory Coast was a small, peaceful town where ethnic groups intermarried and churches and mosques existed side by side without friction, residents say.
Two weeks on and the streets are littered with empty shotgun cartridges, shops have been burned down and at least six people are dead, killed in ethnic clashes that some fear could herald a repeat of Ivory Coast’s civil wars in 2002 and 2010-2011.
The October 31 election, which was boycotted by the opposition, opened up old wounds around the question of identity in Ivory Coast between mostly northern Dioula migrants and the Agni southerners who see themselves as original settlers.
The landslide win of President Alassane Ouattara for a controversial third term made tensions worse.
“I was at home when someone called me to say youths were burning our mosque. We went running to protect it,” said Amidou Togo. In the melee that followed, someone fired a shotgun at Togo, leaving a gash in his neck.
The violence presents Ouattara with a post-election conundrum: how to stand firm against rivals who say his third term breaks the law, while reuniting a divided nation.
The challenge was plain to see in M’Batto this week, where shop owners tried to clean up their gutted properties in the rain while soldiers with rifles patrolled nearby.
The violence began on Monday when supporters of opposition leader Pascal Affi N’Guessan, of Agni ethnicity, marched to oppose the vote. The town’s migrant ethnic Dioula, who generally favour Ouattara, blocked them coming into their district. Gunshots rang out, residents said.
One woman named Mariette Koua lost her son in the fighting and her business was burned down. She lay in a hospital bed on Thursday, too traumatised to speak.
An acquaintance, Sidonie Nguessan Marie, sat beside her in tears.
“They … burned down my restaurant. They burned down everything. We have nothing left now and right now we don’t know what to do, everything is gone, burned.”