On the brink

Print edition : January 28, 2011

Laurent Gbagbo (left) with the President of Cape Verde, Pedro Pires, in Abidjan on December 28. - SIA KAMBOU /AFP

The electoral outcome in Ivory Coast threatens to plunge the country into a political crisis as the loser refuses to give up power.

THE presidential election held in Ivory Coast in November 2010, the first since the disputed election of 2000, was meant to bring an amicable end to the political and military feud that had polarised the country over more than a decade and a half. Instead, the election, which resulted in the victory of the opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, now threatens to plunge the country into an even bigger crisis. The incumbent President, Laurent Gbagbo, has been in power since 2000. He was installed in office following a popular uprising against military rule. The military had seized power in 1999.

The country's new Ambassador to the United Nations, Youssoufou Bamba, issued a stark warning in the last week of December that Ivory Coast was on the brink of genocide. Bamba, an appointee of Ouattara, said forces supporting Gbagbo had already identified houses and neighbourhoods in the capital Abidjan on the basis of ethnicity. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 30,000 Ivorians have fled to neighbouring countries. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also said that there is a serious threat of civil war erupting once again in the country.


Ivory Coast, which was once the economic power house of West Africa, has been experiencing political turmoil for more than a decade. The country is the world's largest producer of cocoa and third largest producer of coffee. The fall in the prices of cocoa and coffee in the international market is one of the factors contributing to the country's economic decline.

Felix Houphet Boigny, the authoritarian ruler since independence in 1960, died in office in 1993, leaving a political void. Signs of trouble became evident during the last years of his rule. Massive popular uprisings in 1990 forced Boigny to allow the introduction of multiparty democracy. His successor, Henri Konan Bedie, is the man most Ivorians hold responsible for the divisiveness that characterises the country's politics. It was Bedie who coined the word Ivorite. It initially referred to the cultural identity of the people of the country but within a few years stood for those Ivorians whose parents were born in the country before independence. Bedie contested the recent election but came a dismal third.

Alassane Ouattara arrives for a meeting of his government at a luxury hotel, his headquarters, in Abidjan on December 27.-THIERRY GOUEGNON /REUTERS

During the economic boom of the 1960s and the 1970s, Ivory Coast welcomed people from the neighbouring countries to work in the cocoa, coffee and rubber plantations. These workers were in a way responsible for the short-lived Ivorian economic miracle. Soon the term Ivorite, which entered into the parlance of those in power, came to represent the people in the predominantly Christian south of the country. Significant sections of the population in the north have their roots in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali. About one-third of the country's population comprises first-generation citizens and their offspring from other West African states.

Before the controversial 2000 election was held, the military-dominated government at the time passed a law requiring both parents of a presidential candidate to have been born in Ivory Coast. This law was used to debar Ouattara, a former Prime Minister, from contesting the election on the grounds that his parents hailed from Burkina Faso. Ouattara, who has held senior positions in the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions, has denied the allegation.

Gbagbo, who in his younger days was a trade union leader with leftist pretensions, continued with the xenophobic policies of his predecessors. In 2002, the northerners, feeling excluded and deprived of fundamental political rights, rose in revolt. It was the intervention of French troops garrisoned in the country that prevented the fall of Abidjan, the seat of power, to the rebel army. In the civil war that gripped the country between 2002 and 2004, the government under Gbagbo managed to hold on to power but in the process lost control of the north. In 2005, the government and the rebels signed an accord, creating a government of national unity. An election was supposed to be held in 2005 but was postponed following continuing clashes and mutual suspicions. It was finally held in November 2010 under international supervision.

Gbagbo was confident that he would win, given his hold over the south and his influence in the bureaucracy and the army. In the first round, he got the highest number of votes but failed to cross the 50 per cent barrier that would have prevented a run-off. In the second round, it was Ouattara who emerged the clear winner, with 54 per cent of the votes polled. The election was conducted in the presence of international observers, including those from the U.N. and the African Union (A.U.).

Gbagbo, with the support of the armed forces, refused to concede defeat, alleging that Ouattara had rigged the election. Despite protests from international observers, Gbagbo got himself anointed once again as President. No country has so far recognised him but he is sure that the recent discovery of off-shore oil and gas deposits will make some countries change their minds. Angolan and Russian companies recently signed deals with the Ivorian government.

The U.N., the A.U. and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have demanded that Gbagbo make way immediately for Ouattara. Ouattara was sworn in as President in a parallel ceremony held at a luxury hotel, which was heavily guarded by U.N. peacekeepers. In the face of Gbagbo's continued intransigence, ECOWAS has threatened military intervention in order to ensure that a legitimate government is installed. In the last week of December, it sent a team of three heads of state to Abidjan to present Gbagbo with an ultimatum to step down or face action. ECOWAS had previously intervened in Liberia, Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone. The Presidents of Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde, who met Gbagbo, said they would return in the first week of January for a last-ditch attempt to convince Gbagbo to see the writing on the wall.


ECOWAS said: In the event that Gbagbo fails to heed the immutable demand of ECOWAS, the community would be left with no other alternative but to take to other measures, including the use of legitimate force, to achieve the goals of the Ivorian people. The A.U. despatched a team led by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga to persuade Gbagbo to step down. It has already suspended Ivory Coast's membership of the organisation.

Gbagbo has not given any indication that he will relent. His spokesman issued a belligerent statement when the ECOWAS heads of state were in the country. Let's avoid political delinquency. No international institution has the right to intervene by force to impose a President in a sovereign state, he said. Gbagbo's supporters have also started targeting U.N. personnel. More than 170 people have been killed since the election results were announced.

Supporters of the pro-Gbagbo Young Patriots movement wave the Ivorian flag on December 29 as their leader, Charles Bie Goude, arrives for a meeting.-SIA KAMBOU/AFP

In the last decade, supporters of the pro-Gbagbo Young Patriots movement killed thousands of Ivorians hailing from the north. The head of the Young Patriots, Charles Bie Goude, is also the Minister of Youth in the government headed by Gbagbo. Goude is reportedly mobilising his forces for yet another round of blood-letting. The U.N. has confirmed that mercenaries, including former combatants from Liberia's infamous civil war, have been recruited to target certain groups in the population.

Claiming that the international community has declared war on his country, Gbagbo has demanded that the U.N. peacekeepers and the French military contingent leave immediately. He has accused them of siding with his political opponents. There are around 13,000 French troops stationed in Ivory Coast. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has, in a strongly worded statement, said Gbagbo must choose now if he wants to go down in history as a man of peace or be considered a criminal. The intervention of the former colonial power in the internal affairs of a sovereign country in normal circumstances would not have gone down well, especially in the African continent. But in the case of Ivory Coast, the international community so far has presented a united front.

The French previously were in favour of cohabitation between Gbagbo and Ouattara. Paris had virtually acquiesced to Gbagbo's illegal hold on the levers of power. The French troops are in control of Abidjan's airport, which they took over after destroying the country's air force. That incident took place in 2004 after Ivorian security forces killed a few French soldiers. Under the terms of a treaty signed between the two countries, French troops can intervene militarily if there is a request for help from the Ivorian President. As Ouattara is now the internationally recognised President of Ivory Coast, he can legitimately make such a request. But most observers are of the opinion that the French are unlikely to intervene openly.

The West would prefer the job to be done by a joint ECOWAS/A.U. military force. The French, of course, would be playing an important behind-the-scenes role with a sizeable force already on the ground. The U.N. has a 10,000-strong peacekeeping force in the country, but it does not have the mandate to intervene militarily.

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