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Looming civil war

Print edition : Apr 08, 2011 T+T-
ALASSANE OUATTARA (left),who runs a parallel government, arrives with Jean Ping, chairman of the Commission of the African Union, for talks in Addis Ababa on March 10.-SIMON MAINA/AFP

ALASSANE OUATTARA (left),who runs a parallel government, arrives with Jean Ping, chairman of the Commission of the African Union, for talks in Addis Ababa on March 10.-SIMON MAINA/AFP

Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to cede power to the winner in the November election has revived the threat of civil war.

THE failure of the international community to dislodge Laurent Gbagbo, the President of Ivory Coast, from office after his defeat in the November 28 election has plunged the West African country into a deep crisis. There are now effectively two governments in Ivory Coast, one headed by Gbagbo and the other by Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara was recognised by the country's Election Commission and by the international community as the legitimate winner. Gbagbo is in control of the army, while Ouattara controls the central bank. International sanctions, along with a ban on cocoa exports, have hampered the country's economy. Foreign banks have closed down their operations in the country. The Central Bank of West African States has frozen the country's account.

Ivory Coast is the biggest producer of cocoa, which is the country's main cash crop. The sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the European Union have brought cocoa export to a virtual standstill. About 475,345 tonnes of cocoa beans, one-third of the country's production, is said to be rotting in godowns. Millions of Ivorians depend on the cocoa trade for their livelihood. Gbagbo has nationalised the cocoa trade in an effort to stave off the impact of economic sanctions. He had earlier nationalised private banks to get his hands on cash to pay civil servants and the army. With these moves, he has been able to keep his government running and the armed forces loyal for the time being.

The internationally supervised election was supposed to reunify the divided country, but Gbagbo's refusal to cede power gracefully has reignited the vicious cycle of violence. The killing of six unarmed women protesters in the capital, Abidjan, in the first week of March by forces loyal to Gbagbo has further inflamed passions. The woman demonstrators did not expect the security forces to use violence. Strong-arm tactics of the security forces against peaceful demonstrators had caused the death of 26 people in the preceding days. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has criticised the violent response of Gbagbo's forces. U.N. peacekeepers themselves have been targeted frequently. The U.N. force of 9,000 was increased by 2,000 troops as violence began to mount. The U.N. forces have also been provided with two helicopter gunships, an indication that the peacekeepers are ready for a robust response.

Ivory Coast is off the international radar, thanks to the upsurge in the Arab world and the unwillingness of the international community led by the West to dislodge an illegitimate President. Ivory Coast, unlike Libya, is not an oil-rich country. Though international cocoa prices have risen dramatically, chocolates continue to be affordable in the West.

The African Union (A.U.) was quick to recognise Ouattara as the legitimate President and it described the election as fair and free. The regional grouping the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had indicated at the time that it was willing to step in militarily to remove Gbagbo. Since then, there have been several high-level visits to Abidjan by African heads of state and statesmen to persuade Gbagbo to hand over power. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, during their visits, failed to persuade a recalcitrant Gbagbo. Obasanjo, who played a key role in mediating a solution to the conflicts in Liberia and Sudan, said in the second week of January that he did not rule out military intervention. All options are on the table, he said.

But the tough talk has faded since then. More carrot than stick is now being offered to Gbagbo. Ominously, even the African unity on Ivory Coast seems to be dissolving, encouraging Gbagbo to dig in his heels. The Angolan government was known to be unhappy from the very outset with the A.U.'s call for Gbagbo to step down. (Angola, along with Russia, has signed contracts in Ivory Coast's emerging oil sector.) Now South Africa, the continent's powerhouse, also seems to be changing its stance on Gbagbo. In February, it distanced itself from the A.U.'s position, describing the election as inconclusive. Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, too, called for an investigation into the conduct of the November election. There is need for a serious approach that involves investigating the process, he said.

This is a major step backwards. The A.U. had initially asked Gbagbo to step down or face legitimate military action. In the three months since the election, its position has changed radically. The call is no longer for military intervention but for a negotiated settlement. Raila Odinga, the A.U.'s chief negotiator, said in late January that a negotiated settlement was the best way to lay the foundation of an inclusive and stable Ivorian nation after years of conflict. He called on Gbagbo and Ouattara to hold face-to-face talks.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who was part of an A.U. delegation that visited Abidjan in February, was mobbed by angry supporters of Ouattara. President Blaise Campoare of Burkina Faso refused to accompany the delegation, fearing for his personal safety. Gbagbo has alleged that Campoare is providing support to Ouattara. Many Ivorians had originally migrated from neighbouring Burkina Faso to work in the cocoa and coffee plantations.

Even among ECOWAS members, countries such as Ghana are now talking about the need for a negotiated power-sharing deal in Ivory Coast similar to the one worked out in Kenya. In Kenya, Odinga, the real winner, had to settle for the Prime Minister's post, while Mwai Kibaki was allowed to retain the post of President despite evidence of massive rigging. Ouattara is being told by some African leaders to do likewise. As of now, the victor of the election is standing firm and has asked the international community to fulfil its promise of restoring democracy in the country.

Although the leader of the ECOWAS grouping, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, threatened military action to remove Gbagbo, the recent statements by other West African leaders calling for a negotiated settlement are indications that a regional solution to the conflict is not possible in the near future. John Atta Mills, the President of Ghana, recently said that his country would not be taking sides in the conflict and that a military intervention would not solve the problem. Jonathan himself will be facing a tough election in a few months' time. The last general election in Nigeria was marred by widespread fraud and corruption. There is also the growing awareness among West African governments that sending troops to Ivory Coast could be an unpopular move domestically and might help Gbagbo rally Ivorians to his side. The French, who have a strong military presence in Ivory Coast, are loath to intervene despite the strong statements by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The French would be accused of neocolonial intervention, given their dubious track record in the region.

More than 400 people have been killed since the election results were announced in December 2010. According to reports, bodies of those who voted against Gbagbo are found on the roadside every day. Bullet-riddled bodies, all of them having Muslim names, are landing in the Abidjan morgue. Tens of thousands of Ivorians have fled the country after the government forces started going on the rampage. Hundreds of opposition supporters have been abducted from their homes in the capital. The head of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in West Africa, Jacques Franquin, said in early March that parts of Abidjan now resembled a war zone. He said the situation was deteriorating by the day. The UNHCR has set up a camp in neighbouring Liberia, where thousands have fled the fighting.

Supporters of Ouattara have started raising the banner of revolt against the central government by targeting forces loyal to Gbagbo. Most of Ouattara's support comes from the mainly Muslim north of the country, which is under the control of forces loyal to him. Pro-Ouattara forces seized a 50-km-long strip along the border with Liberia in the first week of March after heavy fighting with government forces. Parts of Abidjan, which has a population of more than four million, are already under the control of fighters loyal to Ouattara.

Five years of civil war in the country ended with the signing of a peace deal in 2007. Under the terms of the deal, power was shared between the two sides, with Gbagbo continuing as President and a northern rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, taking over as Prime Minister. The unity government was to give way to a democratically elected one. With Gbagbo refusing to budge, the country is back to square one. The people of Ivory Coast should not expect anything from the African Union. The people of Ivory Coast must have their own revolution chasing Gbagbo from power, Soro said in a recent statement. The opposition wants Ivorians to emulate the people's revolt of