By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Authorities in Ivory Coast have closed a large gold mine that United Nations investigators claimed was controlled by a former rebel commander who now holds a senior position in the army, officials said on Thursday.
U.N. officials and a Reuters investigation in May found that the mine near the western village of Gamina was a key part of a business empire headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Issiaka Ouattara, deputy commander of the elite Republican Guard.
Ouattara, better known by his nom-de-guerre Wattao, has denied any involvement in the mine.
Ivory Coast Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi, who ordered the closure of the mine, said the Gamina site was one of two large mines shut down due to environmental and security risks ahead of a presidential election last month.
The government did not acknowledge Wattao’s involvement in the mine.
“We gave an ultimatum to the miners to leave before a deadline and we sent in our forces, but they had already left,” Koffi Koffi told Reuters. “It needed to be cleared before the election.”
Under President Alassane Ouattara – no relation of Wattao – the West African nation is emerging as one of the continent’s star economies. The president won a landside victory and a second five-year term in the Oct. 25 vote.
However Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa grower, is struggling to shake off the legacy of a decade of conflict and political turmoil that has left lasting rifts in society and the security forces.
According to a U.N. panel of experts charged with monitoring a Security Council-imposed arms embargo, the mine employed nearly 16,000 workers, spawned a sprawling shanty-town and produced gold worth nearly $97 million a year.
The Reuters investigation revealed that the mine allowed Wattao to maintain a force composed of loyalist fighters under his exclusive control, an allegation he denied.
Earlier this year the government embarked on a nationwide strategy to drive unlicensed miners out of illegal mining sites.
However, Koffi Koffi said the Gamina mine, which is located west of the town of Daloa, had been made a priority and was the first to be closed in the area. Security forces were preparing to expand the operation to other mines in the country’s west, he said.
“They did it because everyone there was illegal … They set it on fire. They dismantled everything,” said the former gold buyer at the mine, who asked not to be named.