Mutinous soldiers blocked on Saturday access to Ivory Coast’s second largest city Bouake as part of an ongoing protest over bonuses.
The protests had erupted in Bouake on Friday before spreading quickly, following a pattern similar to a mutiny in January by the same group that paralyzed parts of the West African state and marred its image as a post-war success story.
Even as the government issued warnings of harsh punishments, mutineers seized on Friday control of the national military headquarters and defense ministry. They went a step further in Bouake on Saturday, blocking roads north and south out of the city.
“We do not want to negotiate with anyone,” said Sergeant Seydou Kone, one of the leaders of the uprising. “We’re also ready to fight if we are attacked. We have nothing to lose.”
Kone said the mutineers were also active in the commercial capital Abidjan and the towns of Korhogo, Daloa, Man and Bondoukou.
The soldiers were revolting over delays to bonus payments, promised by the government after the January mutiny but which it has struggled to disburse after a collapse in the price of cocoa, Ivory Coast’s main export, caused a revenue crunch.
The government paid the 8,400 troops behind January’s rebellion, most of them ex-rebel fighters who helped bring President Alassane Ouattara to power, bonuses of 5 million CFA francs ($8,371) each as part of a deal to end that mutiny.
On Thursday, however, a spokesman for the group said they would forego demands for remaining bonuses of 7 million CFA francs each following a meeting with authorities in Abidjan. The decision was rejected by at least some of the soldiers.
“We want our 7 million and that’s it,” said Kone.
“This is our answer to yesterday’s announcement,” one of the rebel soldiers told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We’re not like teachers who express themselves with pens, our profession is guns.”
“Money or death!” roared one of the soldiers, as the noise of the gunfire sent a colony of bats nesting in the nearby trees shooting into the air.
One soldier could be seen wandering around with a rocket launcher, another carried a machinegun with a string of bullets looped around his shoulders, Rambo style.
The unrest has left many citizens stranded. In Abidjan, a school teacher who had come to the area to collect a document from a nearby administrative building, said: “It’s not good for the country, we don’t know what’s going to happen and everyone is very frightened.”
A handful of civil servants could be seen hiding behind walls, watching the situation as the soldiers let off sporadic rattles of gunfire to keep the curious at bay.
Bouake residents said shops remained closed as soldiers fired weapons in the air and patrolled the streets in cars.
“The soldiers are wearing balaclavas and are threatening to move on Abidjan,” said Bouake resident Abou Kone.
In a statement broadcast on state-owned television late on Friday, Military Chief of Staff General Sekou Toure threatened the soldiers with “severe disciplinary sanctions” if they did not end the revolt.
A Korhogo resident confirmed gunfire there and said access to the main military camp had been blocked.
An inhabitant of the northern city of Odienne reported a similar situation. And there was also sporadic gunfire in Daloa, the main cocoa growing hub in southwestern Ivory Coast, the world’s top producer of the chocolate ingredient.
Ivory Coast emerged from a 2002-2011 conflict with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But deep divisions persist, particularly in a military assembled from both former rebel and loyalist combatants.