By by Chris Stein (AFP) – Oct 15, 2012
ELUBO, Ghana — The taxi rank Jack Eewah manages in this border town hums at all hours with the sounds of passengers and buses, but on a recent night it was filled with a different kind of noise: gunfire.
"Everything broke into pieces," said Thomas Offin, a moneychanger at the border. "They fire and fire and fire."
Residents of Elubo were accustomed to seeing Ivorians stream into Ghana during last year's electoral crisis in the neighbouring nation, but a full-blown shootout echoing from across the border was something new.
Elubo, a strip of gas stations, restaurants and moneychangers for travellers crossing the Tano River separating the two nations, has been caught up in turbulence facing Ivory Coast long after Laurent Gbagbo's arrest.
The same might be said for Ghana itself, where thousands of Gbagbo supporters have fled and where loyalists of the former strongman are suspected of having plotted to regain power back home.
Ghana President John Dramani Mahama faces a delicate balance in dealing with refugees from Ivory Coast, with calls to crack down on alleged Ivorian coup plotters as well as political pressure at home months ahead of polls.
Elements of Mahama's party have in the past been seen as backers of Gbagbo, whose refusal to cede power after losing 2010 elections to rival Alassane Ouattara led to a five-month crisis which killed more than 3,000 people.
Former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, who maintains wide influence in his country, has been seen as a Gbagbo ally. In December, Rawlings labeled Gbagbo's transfer to the International Criminal Court an abduction.
"Mahama is saying, 'Let me try to have a good relationship with this man (Ouattara), but let's also let people know that we were much happier dealing with Gbagbo," said Thomas Tieku, an expert on Ghanaian affairs at the University of Toronto's Munk School.
A new United Nations report says some Gbagbo loyalists have set up a "strategic command" base on Ghanaian soil "with a view to regaining power in Cote d'Ivoire". Ghana has disputed the UN findings.
Mahama has pledged to prevent Ghana from becoming a staging ground for attacks on its neighbour, and Ghanaian security forces have arrested Gbagbo spokesman Justin Kone Katinan, wanted back home for economic crimes and over the murder of two men.
Prosecutors are seeking to extradite Katinan back to Ivory Coast, with a fresh court date set for Tuesday.
Ivory Coast's security forces were in August hit by a wave of attacks in and around Abidjan and in the country's west, with the violence blamed on Gbagbo supporters. Gbagbo's FPI party rejected the accusations.
The gunfire near Elubo occurred during an attack on a border post in the Ivory Coast town of Noe on September 21 and was said to involve assailants who entered from Ghana.
Ivorian officials say five of the attackers were killed in a shootout while the rest fled back into Ghana afterward. Ivory Coast reacted to the shooting by shutting its border with Ghana, though it has since been reopened.
A Ghanaian military spokesman sought to play down the threat.
"Ivory Coast's problem is an internal security problem," Colonel M'Bawine Atintande said. "We have our own borders to secure. They have their own borders to secure."
But the situation in Elubo underscores the risks.
It was widely known that the border was open even during the official closure -- but only by crossing the river via jungle trails, where, in some places, only a rock marks the dividing line.
Many who live along the border belong to the Nzema ethnic group and share a common language.
"People, they come, they return," said Mohamed Eo, an Ivorian who works at the Elubo taxi rank. "They pass the river, they pass tunnels, they pass bush."
Tens of thousands of weapons are also believed to be in circulation since the end of the 2010/11 crisis, among pro-Gbagbo combatants as well as former rebel group New Forces.
The New Forces backed Ouattara last year and many of them have been integrated in the new army.
The instability has led to a continued flow of refugees into Ghana, said Stephen Loutit, head of the UN refugee agency office in Takoradi, which oversees refugee camps near Elubo.
About 200 Ivorian refugees resettled in Ghana in August, he said, although those numbers exclude people who do not seek the UN agency's services.
Most of the refugees claim to be Gbagbo supporters who are fleeing raids by security forces, Loutit said.
Paul Pham, Africa director for the Atlantic Council think tank, said Ghana has an obligation to make sure its refugee camps do not become staging areas for attacks inside Ivory Coast.
However, it is more important to reintegrate and disarm former Ivorian soldiers, he said.
"Ouattara's government is very quick to blame instability on pro-Gbagbo forces, which it accuses of coming over the border from Ghana," Pham said. "It's an easy out. There's more than enough arms in the country to cause suffering."
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