Nick Piper, Director of Signal Risk
Spotlight on the ‘microbe’ youth gangs terorrising Côte d’Ivoire’s Abidjan
Several people were robbed and assaulted by a group of youth criminals, known locally as ‘microbes’, in the Adjamé commune of Abidjan on 24 August. Some of the victims sustained knife wounds. The attack followed a police operation near the commune’s main mosque that was aimed at dislodging microbe gang members from an area where they were suspected to have grouped.
This incident marked the most recent in a seemingly escalating cycle of violence perpetrated by microbes. Cases have been reported throughout Abidjan. On 28 June, suspected microbe gang members robbed and assaulted several people in the Yopougon and Port Bouet communes in the city; on 3 June, microbe elements were accused of attacking students at a bus stop within Félix-Houphouët-Boigny University; and on 30 May, a large group of microbes targeted a bar in the city’s Marcory commune. A notable aspect in all of these incidents is that the perpetrators were usually armed with knives, machetes or other forms of crude weaponry.
The rise of the microbe youth criminal gangs has its roots in the political violence that followed disputed elections in 2010. Amid a political deadlock, rival parties and candidates resorted to an armed campaign in which they recruited the most impressionable in society: the poor, urban youth. Once the unrest had quelled – six months after the poll – these youths were again left purpose-less but, importantly, they were now desensitised to violence. Still disenfranchised under the new political dispensation, they birthed the microbe gangs. Attacks by microbe groups follow a distinct modus operandi. Often intoxicated on alcohol or drugs, up to several dozen assailants will be involved in each ‘operation’. One usual method of engaging victims is to pose as beggars or to simulate fights between themselves. While it is usually one or two microbes that instigate the criminal action, accomplices are at the ready. Key to the success of each criminal episode is the overwhelming numbers of microbes involved, the speed of the assault and the threat of violence. While attacks have been reported at all times of day, they increase in frequency outside of daylight hours and an increase has been noted in the approach to holiday periods such as Ramadan and Christmas. The phenomenon of microbes began in Abidjan’s Attécoubé commune and it is here that the risk remains most pronounced. Other areas that experience regular microbe activity include Abobo, Yopougon and Adjamé. Their prevalence here is a factor of the reduced policing resources in these areas and the fact that they are invariably the areas from which microbe members hail. That said, there has been an increase in microbe attacks elsewhere in Abidjan in recent months, including in areas frequented by foreign nationals, such as Marcory.
The response by authorities to microbes has been limited to security operations aimed at clearing the presence of the groups from certain areas. In May, city police launched Operation Sparrowhawk in an effort to arrest those involved in microbe gangs and thus eradicate the groups. Several hundred youths have since been arrested, with large caches of weapons also confiscated. Adults have been remanded in custody and minors have been received at so-called rehabilitation centres. These measures have yielded few results thus far. For this reason, communities affected by microbes have gone so far as to form self-defense groups, perpetuating cycles of violence in areas where microbes operate. There have been at least three separate recent cases of suspected microbes being killed in vigilante justice incidents in Yopougon and Marcory.
Microbes are essentially a socio-economic phenomenon – despite their roots in ethno-political violence – and for this reason, the issue can only be addressed by dealing with the negative environmental circumstances that spurs such gang activity. As in other cities in the world affected by gangs, such a resolution is unlikely to come quickly, especially given Cote d’Ivoire’s lack of relevant resources. For this reason, microbes will continue to affect the security environment in Abidjan for the foreseeable term and could yet increase their geographical scope and range of activity within the city.
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