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African adventure

Print edition : May 06, 2011 T+T-
Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised President.-REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP

Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised President.-REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP

After Libya, the French military strikes in Ivory Coast, where a bloody dispute over the presidency threatens to descend into civil war.

IT was the military intervention of French forces stationed in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, that tilted the military balance decisively in favour of the forces supporting Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised President of the country. The French forces had first given a helping hand to the pro-Ouattara militias that had swept down from their strongholds in the north in late March. In a lightning advance, they captured the key towns of Boalle and Sinfra from the loyalists of former President Laurent Gbagbo. They then headed to Abidjan after taking control of Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital and birthplace of the country's founding father, Houphet Boigny, and San Pedro, the key cocoa-exporting port. French troops, who had taken control of the international airport in Abidjan, facilitated the entry of the militias into the capital. Gbagbo, who was holed up in an underground bunker in Abidjan, was eventually arrested on April 12 after a long stand-off.

The French have retained a military presence in Ivory Coast on the basis of agreements signed with Ivorian governments since the country's independence in 1960. For French troops located in a base near the airport, taking over the country's aviation hub was a cakewalk. Then, in a finely choreographed move in tandem with the United Nations, French forces neutralised the heavy weaponry that protected Gbagbo's residence. The French had also convinced influential sections of the Ivorian army to desert Gbagbo and join the New Forces of the rebels from the north owing allegiance to Ouattara. The combined army, renamed the Ivory Coast Republican Forces (FRCI), then tried to storm Gbagbo's residence.

Initial reports from Abidjan and Paris indicated that Gbagbo was negotiating his surrender. But subsequent events showed that Gbagbo, firm in his belief that he was the real winner of last November's presidential elections, wanted to go down fighting. He had hunkered down with his family in a bunker after his residence was pulverised by air and ground strikes by French and U.N. forces.

In an interview with a French television station, he said he was not seeking martyrdom but was fighting for a just cause. His hard-core loyalists also refused to give up and paralysed Abidjan; the police force was still with Gbagbo. All this led to a breakdown of law and order in Abidjan.

More than a million Ivorians have already fled the country and a bloody civil war looms in a country that has witnessed almost non-stop violence for a decade and a half. Gbagbo insisted that the only way out of the political crisis was for one-on-one talks between him and his rival. However, both Ouattara and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the only option for Gbagbo was to sign a formal resignation letter and recognise the new government.

Ouattara called on his forces to restore order quickly in Abidjan, where residents did not have even basic amenities. Widespread looting and indiscriminate killing, most of them blamed on Gbagbo's forces, accelerated after the residence of the former President was blockaded by French troops and Ouattara's FRCI. French forces stepped in to rescue diplomats from their missions, which were being ransacked by Gbagbo's supporters. Among those taken to safety were the Japanese and Indian ambassadors. Ouattara also issued a call to the European Union to lift its sanctions on Ivory Coast so that the all-important cocoa trade could be resumed and the banking sector reopened. After the crisis in Ivory Coast erupted, cocoa prices sky-rocketed in the international market.

Gbagbo should have seen the writing on the wall. On March 24, Sarkozy, flush from his intervention in Libya, called for an immediate transfer of power in Abidjan and the removal of heavy weaponry from the city. Every ruler, and especially every Arab ruler, should understand the reaction of the international community and of Europe from this moment on. We will side with peaceful protesters, who must not be repressed with violence, Sarkozy grandiosely stated.

The intervention in Ivory Coast is the second open military action by France in consecutive months. The first was, of course, in Libya, where France played a key role in convincing the U.N. Security Council to pass Resolution 1973 authorising a no-fly zone'. To get international legitimacy for its Ivory Coast operations, France got help from Nigeria, the West African heavyweight. Together they convinced the Security Council to pass Resolution 1975 on March 30. This resolution conveniently authorised the use of military force to protect civilian population, which was the argument put forward for Resolution 1973 too. Incidentally, the French military is fighting alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan as well.

Sarkozy has been noticeably quiet as far as the brutal repression of civilians in pro-Western authoritarian states in the Arab world is concerned. In fact, he has come in for serious criticism from his political opponents for his government's inability to gauge the popular mood in the Arab world. It has been quite a turn of events for Sarkozy. When he took over as President in May 2007, he announced that the days of France playing the role of a gendarme in the African continent were over. But four years into the presidency, he has opted for a more muscular French foreign policy. This new stance became visible after the change of governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Sarkozy had very good relations with the dictatorial governments in both countries. When Sarkozy embarked on his African adventure, his domestic popularity ratings were at an all-time low. Muscle-flexing on the African continent could bring him short-term political dividends but, the impact on the continent could be devastating in the long term. Libya seems to be heading for partition, as the east of the country battles the west. Ivory Coast could also head in that direction as the Muslim-dominated north owing allegiance to Ouattara battles the Christian south, which has stood by Gbagbo. In the first week of April, forces loyal to Ouattara allegedly slaughtered hundreds of civilians in the western town of Duekoue. The International Criminal Court, in a statement, said that its prosecutors were conducting preliminary examinations into alleged crimes committed by the different parties to the conflict.

A Socialist Party legislator, Dideir Mathus, told The New York Times that Sarkozy was playing with fire in Ivory Coast and that the French intervention was akin to a post-colonial reflex.

Gbagbo has maintained that Ouattara is a puppet of the French and that Paris is backing him to protect its economic interests. I still don't understand how an election dispute in the Ivory Coast brings about French military intervention, he said in a television interview. Incidentally, Gbagbo gave important oil concessions last year to Russian and Angolan companies.

Regional groupings' failure

The events in Ivory Coast and Libya reflected the collective failure of the African Union (A.U.) and regional groupings such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to provide solutions to crises that have erupted on the continent. The A.U. proved incapable of finding a negotiated settlement to the impasse in Ivory Coast. Angola and Ghana supported Gbagbo's case that the 2010 elections were fundamentally flawed. South Africa sat on the fence. Earlier this year, the grouping had said it would intervene militarily to restore constitutional order in Ivory Coast, which is a member of the grouping. But dissensions within its ranks coupled with the realism that a military intervention could spin out of control and engulf the entire region stopped West African leaders from biting the bullet. Nigeria, its most powerful member, is having an election of its own in April. The last election in the country was fundamentally flawed. The focus of the Nigerian leadership is to ensure a more transparent election this time. Besides, Nigerian public opinion is against sending the country's troops to neighbouring countries; its military interventions in the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone left many bitter memories.

The ECOWAS this time preferred to pass the burden on to the U.N. and the French. On March 24, it pleaded with the U.N. to intervene and stop the bloodshed in Ivory Coast. Resolution 1975, which was subsequently adopted, did not authorise U.N. peacekeepers to use force. However, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was quick to write to Sarkozy for military help to dislodge Gbagbo claiming that his forces had used heavy weaponry against civilians.

The bloody circumstances under which Ouattara assumed the presidency will cast a long shadow over his rule. It will be difficult for him to shake off the allegation of the southerners that he assumed the presidency on the shoulders of the French. In 2004, the French destroyed the entire Ivorian air force after one of their military posts was attacked.

Angola's example

There is, of course, the real danger that Ivory Coast could erupt into an all-out civil war of the kind witnessed in Angola in the 1990s. Unita leader Jonas Savimbi had gone back to the bush to rekindle the civil war there after alleging that he was cheated out of the presidency. That bloody war lasted more than a decade, devastating the country and killing more than a million people.

Gbagbo, it should be remembered, won almost half the votes in the disputed elections of November 2010. Ivory Coast, once the shining jewel of West Africa, will take a long time to recover from the scars of the present conflict.