Africa, Environment, Headlines

COTE D’IVOIRE: Toxic Waste Scandal Becomes a Political Football

Fulgence Zamblé

ABIDJAN, Dec 11 2006 (IPS) - Côte d’Ivoire is ending 2006 on a turbulent note, with protests against President Laurent Gbagbo’s decision to reinstate officials implicated in the recent toxic waste scandal – and ongoing tensions between Gbagbo and Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny.

Anti-government demonstrations that resulted in three deaths and several injuries broke out in the West African country several days ago after Gbagbo reversed Banny’s decision to prolong suspension of the officials.

In mid-August, toxic waste dumped in Côte d’Ivoire’s financial capital, Abidjan, caused the death of ten people and the hospitalisation of 100,000 others. A government inquiry seeking to establish responsibility for discharge of the waste implicated close friends of the president – notably Marcel Gossio, director-general of the port of Abidjan; Gnamien Konan, director-general for customs; and Pierre Amondji, governor of the district of Abidjan.

While Banny decided in November to extend the officials’ suspension by a month, the president issued decrees reinstating them toward the end of November.

According to attorney Francoise Offoumou, based in Abidjan, “The president’s decisions ride roughshod over the principles of good governance. To reinstate those implicated is practically an insult to the victims, who to date have not received justice. It would have been more sensible simply to name new appointees to the posts.”

Adds Yssouf Tchima, president of the National Conference of Toxic Waste Victims (Conférence nationale des victimes des déchets toxiques), “The presidential decrees are just as toxic as the waste that was dumped. They extol the crime instead of punishing it, and this we cannot accept.”

The reinstatements highlighted tensions that have prevailed between Gbagbo and Banny since resolution 1721 was adopted by the United Nations Security Council last month, giving Banny increased powers to carry out his mission of disarming militants in Côte d’Ivoire and organising presidential elections by Oct. 31, 2007.

The country has been divided into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south since a failed coup in 2002. Rebels claim that they took up arms to fight discrimination against people in the north.

Resolution 1721 has been rejected, in part, by Gbagbo, who stated that “the provisions contained in resolution 1721 are contrary to the constitution will never be implemented”.

Notes N’goran Nda, an attorney in Abidjan, “We have two captains on board because the resolution gave the powers of the head of state to the prime minister. It was completely foreseeable that the prime minister’s decisions could be dashed by presidential decrees.”

According to Boniface Ouraga Obou, professor of constitutional law at the University of Abidjan-Cocody, Gbagbo and the prime minister should try reach an agreement so they can implement resolution 1721 and avoid an impasse which could jeopardize next year’s polls.

Gbagbo has also made other unpopular decisions of late, such as dismissing the director of a pro-government daily newspaper ‘Fraternité-Matin’ (‘Morning Friendship’) on the grounds that it had published false information about an alleged secret meeting between Gbagbo and Banny in November.

He also sacked the director-general of the country’s state-run radio and television stations for allowing broadcast of a statement by the prime minister which Gbagbo described as “seditious”.

These decisions “constitute an attack on press freedom”, says Offoumou, sentiments echoed by Amos Béonaho, president of the National Union of Journalists of Côte d’Ivoire (Union nationale des journalistes de Côte d’Ivoire).

“We’re concerned because these many changes of leadership at the state-run media outlets create real unease among journalists,” he noted, adding that the changes also undermined professionalism in the journalistic field.

Béonaho further urged the government to avoid using journalists “as scapegoats in their political battles”.

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