Ivory Coast: An If Too Far


December 19, 2010: Despite a three year long ceasefire, and ample foreign support to hold elections, the country again faces civil war. The presidential elections were held last month, and the northern (rebel) candidate (former prime minister Alassane Ouattara) won. Laurent Gbagbo, who won a legitimate election in 2000, declared the vote a fraud, and had himself declared the winner, with 51 percent of the vote. But the foreign observers and the UN insisted that Ouattara had won with 54 percent.

A former French colony and the world's top cocoa producer, Ivory Coast was once regarded as a haven of peace and stability, until a 1999 coup that toppled president Henri Konan Bedie. Long considered a peaceful country, that welcomed millions of immigrant workers to sustain a booming economy after its independence from France in 1960, up to 40 percent of the 16 million population is now foreign. The immigrants inflamed political, religious and ethnic frictions between the largely Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south and west.  Until his death in 1993, these disputes were kept under control by the country's post-independence president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. But like Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the ancient ethnic and religious animosities were still there, and were exploited by rival politicians after Houphouet-Boigny was gone. Elections were held and Laurent Gbagbo, a southern nationalist, won. He tried to improve his control of the country by forcing northerners out of the security forces, and have millions of them declared foreigners, and ineligible to vote.

This led to the first round of fighting in 2002. The French sent in troops, to at least prevent escalation, and with UN help, a ceasefire was achieved in 2003. But in late 2004, the ceasefire was broken with government air raids on rebel bases in the north. There were several dozen casualties, and a rebel controlled TV station was damaged. A resumption of the ground war was prevented by 6,000 UN peacekeepers, and 4,000 French troops, patrolling the 400 kilometer long border between government controlled southern Ivory Coast, and the rebel controlled north. The UN stopped all humanitarian work in the country for a while. Southern troops were prevented from going north by peacekeepers, but northerner supporters in the south were attacked. The southerners also hired some Su-25 ground attack aircraft (along with pilots and maintenance personnel) from Belarus, and these were used to attack French troops, killing nine of them. The French retaliated, wiping out the southerner's air force, and creating a rift between the nationalist southerners and France.

Laurent Gbagbo, who came to power in 2000 via fraud and demagoguery, did not have many options. He refused to make peace with the northern rebels, mainly because he has gathered support among southerners by promising to expel migrants (up to several generations back) and make life better for "real Ivorians." Ivory Coast was the source of 40 percent of the world's cocoa, but most of that activity was in the north, under the control of the "foreigners."  The UN and France would not put up with the Gbagbo  plan, and threatened sanctions (against arms imports) and other restrictions if Gbagbo doesn't come up with another strategy. His army could not  overwhelm the 11,000 UN and French peacekeepers, and unleashing mobs of angry civilians in the commercial capital (Abidjan) only further weakened the economy. 

By the end of 2004, the parliament passed a series of laws that resolved most of the nationality problems that angered so many northerners. The civil strife had begun in the 1990s, as southerners, resentful of migrants moving into the north to supply workers for the booming cocoa industry, tried to restrict who could become a citizen (and participate in politics, either by running for office or voting.) But by 2004, the breakdown of government has led to other problems. It had allowed many land disputes (over valuable cocoa growing fields) to get resolved by tribal vigilantes. The unrest, vigilantes and banditry encouraged both the government and the rebels to try and make peace.

Efforts to achieve a permanent peace agreement were hampered by a lack of trust. This was stoked by things like a UN report accusing the president's wife, Simone Gbagbo, of running a death squad that killed nearly a hundred political opponents. President Gbagbo's dirty politics were largely responsible for causing the civil war in the first place. Gbagbo was still in power, and he apparently believed he could use wheeling and dealing with the UN and peacekeepers to defeat the northern rebels.    Many Ivorians were not happy with the division of the country, which they blamed on rabble rousing president Gbagbo.  That's why Gbagbo lost the recent election, and why he continues to break the rules to stay in power.

For the last eight years, cocoa production continued in the Moslem north, but the exports declined because of the higher costs of production. Many bribes had to be paid to soldiers and warlords, in order for the crop to be moved into the Christian south. The warlords are enjoying all this wealth, and were reluctant to give it up without some kind of "compensation." Thus neither president  Gbagbo, nor the northern rebels, have any real incentive to change things. By 2006, the deadlock between the government, in the south, and the rebels, in the north, caused the country to be ruled by warlords and outlaws. Despite pressure from the UN, and the presence of 10,000 peacekeepers, the government and rebels would not agree to a deal to share power. The country was drifting into total social collapse, like so many other countries in Africa.

By late 2006 the northern the economy, and infrastructure had broken down. The northern rebels were split into a coalition of factions. They were only really united when it came to dealing with the government in the south. As a result, the water and electricity systems fell apart in the north, mainly due to lack of maintenance, and looting of facilities. There was no government in the north to guarantee the safety of water and electricity facilities, or the staff that runs them, so little was done. President Gbagbo knew this, and believed that if he could get the 4,000 French and 7,000 African peacekeepers out of the country, he could invade and conquer the north and reunite the  country. ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), which supplied most of African peacekeepers, was opposed to that, as they saw Gbagbo as a corrupt despot and the cause of most of the trouble in Ivory Coast. But ECOWAS and the French had to agree to remove Gbagbo and run the country until elections can be held. This would be very difficult, for Gbagbo does have followers who would fight. Gbagbo's basic position, which caused the civil war, is that most of the people in the north, because they are emigrants, or the children of emigrants, are not really citizens of Ivory Coast and should leave. The Ivory Coast armed forces, and pro-Gbagbo militias in the south, were not strong enough to toss out the peacekeepers. And then there's the cost issue. Maintaining 11,000 peacekeepers is expensive, France and the African nations are getting tired of paying for it. Everyone would like the situation to be resolved peacefully, but Gbagbo has made "expulsion of the foreigners" really popular in the south. And the "foreigners" in the north are not willing to go. 

Gbagbo , under pressure from the UN, eventually signed a power sharing deal in early 2007. This was to allow the economy to rebuild, and national elections to be held. Despite the peace agreement, the most important steps were never completed. The army and rebel militias were not reduced in size and integrated, as per the peace deal. Both sides had less than a year  to do this, as well as decide who, in the north, is a citizen (and eligible to vote) and who is not, then hold new elections. The issue of which migrants are citizens is what sparked the civil war in 2002 and, in theory, the peace deal should make many migrants, or descendants of migrants, voters, and those voters may be sufficient to get the pro-government, and Christian dominated, party out of power. The north is mainly Moslem. Five years of conflict had done much damage to the economy and infrastructure. Unemployment was about 50 percent, and there were still 700,000 internal refugees (out of a population of 18 million). 

It's all about money. For decades, migrants from neighboring countries were allowed in to help with the booming cocoa market. But when growth in the cocoa market stalled (and competition from Ghana and Indonesia increased), the Christian southerners sought to expel many of the Moslem migrants in the north. Fighting broke out in 2002, but neither side was strong enough to prevail. That is still the situation. There is a peace agreement, but no real progress towards achieving peace. After three years of delays, with Gbagbo  hoping the nations supplying the peacekeepers would get tired of it all and just go, elections were finally held. Gbagbo lost, declared himself the newly elected president anyway, and ordered all foreign troops out. Northern forces are spoiling for a fight, to finish off Gbagbo  and his nationalists once and for all.

The UN and U.S. have offered Gbagbo an exile free of war-crimes prosecutions, but so far, the offer has not been accepted.    Gbagbo has another opportunity to survive all this. Russia has backed Gbagbo, and may be able to cancel the UN peacekeeping mandate, which expires at the end of the year. If the UN troops were withdrawn, Gbagbo believes he could force the French out, and defeat the northern warlords as well. That's a lot of "If's" and may be an If too far.

Pro-Gbagbo security forces have no such guarantees that they will not be punished for their sins. The security forces have been particularly violent against anti-Gbagbo demonstrators, killing or wounding hundreds in the last few weeks. To stop the violence, the pro-Gbagbo police and soldiers have to be made to stand down. That will be difficult to achieve, and in similar situations, the former cops and soldiers either go work for a warlord, or flee and become bandits.

December 18, 2010: Self-proclaimed president Gbagbo ordered all UN and French troops from the country. Both France and the UN called on the army to back the legitimate president, Alassane Ouattara, and refused to back down. France and the UN believe they hold the stronger hand, and that Gbagbo  has run out of options, and knows it. Gbagbo has stolen lots of government money, and has homes in many countries.

December 9, 2010:  The UN threatened Gbagbo with sanctions, that would force family members in the West back to Ivory Coast, and lead to freezing of assents abroad.

December 7, 2010:  Russia refused to back a UN declaration against self-proclaimed president Gbagbo. Russia is alone in this, and the rest of the major powers believe they can turn Russia around on this.

December 2, 2010:  The Ivory Coast election commission declared Alassane Ouattara the winner of the presidential election.

November 28, 2010: After several years of delays, and much pre-election violence, a national vote to pick the next president was held. There was not as much violence as expected, and the voting was carefully monitored by foreign observers.

November 25, 2010: The UN ordered another 500 peacekeepers to Ivory Coast, to reinforce the 8,600 already there.



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