Lucrative business empire
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, UN 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."
Text: Joe Bavier, Reuters
Image: A gold prospector holds a gold nugget between his fingers at a gold mine near the village of Gamina in western Ivory Coast, March 16, 2015.
Images courtesy: Reuters