Nestled among the cocoa plantations of western Ivory Coast is a gold mine that does not feature on any official maps. It is not run by an industrial mining company, nor does it pay taxes to the central government.
The unlicensed mine is a key part of a lucrative business empire headed by the deputy commander of the West African nation’s elite Republican Guard, United Nations investigators allege. He is one of the principal players in a network of senior officers – former rebel commanders who have integrated into the Ivorian army – that has seized control of mines that generate tens of millions of dollars a year, and that engages in illegal taxation, smuggling and racketeering, they say.
Interviews with more than two dozen military insiders, diplomats, U.N. officials, local authorities, analysts and miners also reveal that the network of former rebels continues to maintain loyalist fighters under their exclusive control. A confidential U.N. arms inventory, reviewed by Reuters, showed that one former rebel commander possesses enough weapons – from surface-to-air missiles to millions of rounds of ammunition – to outgun the Ivorian army.
A senior Ivorian army officer said that the network represents a parallel force within the military that threatens the stability of the country, which has emerged from a 2011 civil war as one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
Elections in October are expected to return President Alassane Ouattara for a second and final term. But some former rebel commanders are loyal to rival political figures. As politicians position themselves to follow Ouattara, they risk dragging the country back into turmoil.
“I don’t know how we’re going to sort this out,” said the senior army officer. “They (the former rebel commanders) are completely out of our control.”
“THE ONLY WORK THERE IS”
A hundred meters or so beyond a checkpoint manned by armed former rebel fighters outside the village of Gamina, a deep trench runs through what used to be rice fields. Thousands of men hack through the earth and rock with picks and chisels as a handful of soldiers look on from above.
Two years ago a rubber farmer here struck a vein of gold ore. Today, a sprawling system of pits, trenches and underground tunnels covers some 180 hectares (445 acres). The mine employs nearly 16,000 workers and produces gold worth nearly $97 million a year, according to U.N. investigators.
Laborers have flooded in and say that, with luck, they can make up to 250,000 CFA francs ($430) in a few weeks, about what they would earn in a season working on a cocoa plantation.
“This is the only work there is,” beamed Adama Bamba, a 26-year-old mud-caked miner. “It’s a dog’s life under the cocoa trees.”
The mining is backbreaking and dangerous. Miners and local villagers told Reuters that dozens of bodies, victims of regular cave-ins, are buried in unmarked graves beneath nearby coffee trees. Others have been left in the rubble at the bottom of the pits, some of which cut down 60 meters into the earth.
A U.N. expert panel charged with monitoring an arms embargo imposed on Ivory Coast by the Security Council, as well as military sources at the mine and within the Ivorian army, say the Gamina mine is controlled by Lieutenant-Colonel Issiaka Ouattara (no relation to President Ouattara). Issiaka Ouattara is a former rebel leader who is now the deputy commander of the Republican Guard and a man known ubiquitously by his three-syllable nom de guerre: Wattao.
A Reuters reporter witnessed soldiers loyal to Wattao in control of the mine and overseeing the miners. Those soldiers were also present inside the “comptoirs,” or offices where the miners sell the gold they find.
One of the soldiers based at the mine told Reuters that he was an ex-rebel who had gone through a donor-backed disarmament program but returned to his old unit. He said other soldiers in Gamina had done the same or were still waiting to go through the program. He named his two commanders and said those officers answered to Wattao. A senior army officer familiar with the operation confirmed to Reuters that Wattao controlled local fighters and the mine.
Wattao denies any involvement in the mining operation or the existence of a private force of loyalist fighters. “These are pure lies … I’ve never been involved in gold,” he told Reuters by telephone in April. “They’re looking to find some false problem at all costs in order to put Wattao under sanctions.”