What to do about Ivory Coast

What to do about Ivory Coast

Should fighting break out, the UN peacekeepers would not likely be able to stop it.

Both have had themselves sworn in as president. Both also maintain substantial support within their respective constituencies, some of whom are prepared to fight.

A recent general strike designed by the opposition to force Gbagbo out was widely observed in the north, where Ouattara derives much of his support, hardly at all in those parts of the country supportive of Gbagbo, and only sporadically in Abidjan, where Gbagbo’s thugs, the Young Patriots, are active in the streets.

While the international community and African regional organisations are united in their determination that Gbagbo must go, outside opinion has only limited relevance inside a fractured Ivory Coast. The fear must be of a resumption of the country’s destructive 2002 civil war that severely damaged the economy.

Sanctions imposed

The international community has recognised Ouattara as the duly elected president. Regional organisations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have imposed sanctions on Gbagbo, and have even raised the possibility of military intervention, though interest in that option has receded. The US and French governments have also imposed sanctions on Gbagbo and his most prominent supporters, and the Central Bank of West Africa has cut off Gbagbo’s access. The United Nations Security Council extended the UN mission and the secretary general has recognised Ouattara’s nominee as the Ivorian permanent representative to the UN.

Unsurprisingly, none of these actions has gotten Gbagbo to budge. Instead, he has further entrenched himself in the presidential palace. Some of his supporters have begun to threaten foreigners. This raises the spectre of ethnic killings or ‘genocide’, a word some of Gbagbo’s supporters have used.  Gbagbo’s Young Patriots are also threatening to attack Ouattara and his UN protectors.

Should fighting break out, the UN peacekeepers stationed in the country would not likely be able to stop it. The 900 French troops in this former colony remain to expedite the departure of some 15,000 French citizens, should it be necessary.

Ecowas is refocusing on diplomatic pressure. Three Ecowas heads of state and the Kenyan prime minister were in Abidjan to try to persuade Gbagbo to leave. They follow earlier Ecowas missions and one undertaken by South Africa’s former head of state Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the African Union. Even the US has hinted at offering Gbagbo residency if he quits. Gbagbo has shown no interest in the ‘honourable’ exile and immunity from prosecution that they have offered.

In the face of his intransigence, there is talk of ‘power-sharing’ between the two presidents. International mediators should be wary of such a proposal. Zimbabwe and Kenya power-sharing arrangements, in effect, enabled defeated incumbent heads of state to hang on to power even though they had lost the election. While in Zimbabwe and Kenya power-sharing ended violence in the short term, it has not resolved the underlying causes.

Given these unpleasant realities, the Obama administration has little leverage to get Gbagbo out quickly. It prudently has reduced the size of the US embassy and is likely planning to facilitate the departure of American citizens if necessary. The administration can and should move to contain the consequences for the region of the crisis and underscore Gbagbo’s pariah status. For example, it should provide assistance to Liberia and Ivory Coast’s other neighbours to respond to a potential humanitarian disaster caused by refugee flows. According to the UN, as many as 20,000 refugees have fled the country since the beginning of the crisis. It should seek to stanch any flow of arms into the country. The US should continue publicly to recall that Gbagbo and his minions would be held personally accountable for human rights violations he perpetrates. The US should provide diplomatic support for Ecowas and the African Union in international forums like the UNSC. There should also be international planning for the delivery of humanitarian assistance within Ivory Coast, should widespread fighting start again.

Over time Gbagbo’s domestic support is likely to erode, a process that will be promoted by his new status as an international pariah and if he is cut off from access to international financial agencies. But, meanwhile, the international community will need to show persistence and patience; Gbagbo is unlikely to go away soon.

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