“Everyone agrees that the population should not become hostages of Côte d’Ivoire’s political problems,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator Ndolam Ngokwey told IRIN after returning to Abidjan from a two-day mission to the west with the UN’s Humanitarian Country Team (HCT).
The mission’s main focus was on assessing the needs of thousands of Ivoirians who have abandoned their homes in the face of rising tensions in the west, particularly around the town of Duékoué, the scene of fierce inter-communal clashes earlier this month.
Ngokwey said at least 35 people had been killed in the confrontation between Malinké and Guéré communities in Duékoué, with the local Catholic Mission now playing host to thousands of displaced.
Ngokwey said Duékoué appeared to be calm for now, but warned against complacency. “The conflict may have died down and one can talk about a relative peace. I didn’t hear any gunshots in the time I was there. But you can definitely sense the tensions. The situation remains volatile.”
Ngokwey pointed out that the recent violence, reportedly triggered by the killing of a trader, had deep roots, with local tensions exacerbated by the political stand-off in Côte d’Ivoire. He said the humanitarian needs in Duékoué were stark. “People need food. They need water and sanitation. They need medical care. Until recently, we were looking at a figure of around 4,000 people requiring help in the west, then it suddenly shoots up to 16,000.”
The west remains divided. Guiglo and Duékoué, important urban centres long seen as major strongholds for Laurent Gbagbo remain under the control of an administration that recognizes Gbagbo’s rule. Man and Danané are in territory controlled by the pro-Ouattara Forces Nouvelles. But Ngokwey stressed that, despite the difficulties of the political context, authorities on both sides, at national and regional level, understood the humanitarian priorities and were being supportive, trying to facilitate access. He noted that the road between Duékoué and Man was open.
Ngokwey acknowledged that the post-elections crisis had forced a serious change of thinking within the humanitarian community. “Until recently, the focus was on early recovery, construction, even development. There were some residual humanitarian problems: food shortages in the north, displaced persons in the west. A lot of NGOs left or reduced their activities. But things have changed.”
Ngokwey said it was crucial that current concerns were addressed and contingency plans put into action. “We must manage this crisis effectively so it does not become a catastrophe.” While noting that NGOs and others had “legitimate concerns” about security and other issues, he said the humanitarian presence in the west was expanding again with NGOs sending new personnel into places like Man. He emphasized that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which had heavily reduced its staffing levels and activities over the past year, was again playing a key role in the west.
Despite the visible tensions in Duékoué, Ngokwey said he had been encouraged by the response of the local population. “You see that people are not bowed down. They want our help, but they are asking with dignity. You also see an impressive level of community support and organization, civil society volunteers, priests getting involved, imams using their own means to support those in need. Confronted by crisis, you see people pulling together, working hand in hand to ensure that everybody gets the minimum needed.”
Ngokwey said it was crucial that funding was made available. “We are counting on the generosity of donors”, he told IRIN. “The humanitarian imperative is not a theory but an obligation for all of us.” Ngokwey said he would be returning to the west later in the week to re-evaluate the situation and “check that obligations were being met.”