Ivory Coast: No Money, No Friends, But Lots Of Bullets


March 11, 2011: President Gbagbo is broke, with all the foreign banks closed and no access to cash to pay his followers and troops. The AU (African Union) has ratified the election of Alassane Ouattara, while Gbagbo  continues to insist Ouattara lost. The northern rebels (calling themselves the New Forces) have begun advancing (without announcing it). Gbagbo is in a difficult position. The UN. already has 9,000 personnel in the country, most of them armed. Another 2,000 peacekeepers are on the way (from Liberia.) The UN 10,000 UN and French peacekeepers have orders to fight only if attacked. Thus Gbagbo's troops stay away from the peacekeepers. But the peacekeepers are also apparently letting New Forces sneak past checkpoints. The peacekeeper "truce line" across the country is not absolute. The roads are blocked, so large numbers of troops cannot move north or south, nor can armored vehicles or artillery. But small units of men, armed with rifles, rocket launchers and machine-guns, and move back and forth. The New Forces are apparently doing this. The troops and gunmen loyal to Gbagbo are poorly armed and not much more numerous than the peacekeeping force. Many of Gbagbo's best gunmen are mercenaries, and the longer the banks are closed, the more of these guys desert. The New Forces are armed and equipped in the same fashion as Gbagbo's men, but have better morale, and growing support in the south. Several southern villages and towns have apparently fallen to the New Forces. Gbagbo is pulling his best fighters back to the capital and large towns. Gbagbo is willing to turn the situation into a nasty civil war, that will mostly devastate the south, where most of his supporters live.

The New Forces and Alassane Ouattara  have called for more supporters in the south to make themselves known. This has resulted in more people openly supporting Ouattara, and in retaliation, pro-Gbagbo troops have opened fire several times. There have been more of these incidents in the last two weeks. Ivory Coast has suffered over 400 dead in the last few months, as the loser in last November's election (Gbagbo) disputes that outcome. Actual losses may be 2-3 times higher, because journalists and other investigators are getting shot at. More than 400,000 people have fled the violence, or threat of renewed fighting. The most important export, cocoa, has become increasingly difficult to get out of the country because of the increasing violence. Thus the price of cocoa has hit a 32 year high of over $3,700 a ton. It was not supposed to work out this way.

Gbagbo has taken over the foreign banks, but that only enabled him to gram bash on hand. No new money is coming in for him to use for payroll (of civil servants, armed forces and mercenary fighters). The seizures enabled a partial payment on government salaries, but another month of this and there will be no more cash left.

Despite a four year long ceasefire, and recent elections foreign observers declared free and fair, Ivory Coast has been sliding once more into civil war. The presidential elections, held four months ago, were won by the northern (rebel) candidate (former prime minister Alassane Ouattara). 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. While Ouattara has the support of most of the people, Gbagbo has the support of most of the people with guns, and those guns are increasingly used against anyone who openly opposes Gbagbo. The UN has condemned Gbagbo, and imposed more and more sanctions. Gbagbo has not been impressed, and no one wants to go in and try to disarm Gbagbo's trigger-happy supporters. If full scale civil war resumes, the deaths could be much higher (the tens of thousands.)

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.

France and the UN slowly persuaded Gbagbo and his opponents to stop shooting and agree to an election to decide who is in charge. That didn't turn out too well. Most of the French troops have been replaced by UN peacekeepers.

March 10, 2011: Gunfire has been heard outside the capital.

March 3, 2011:  Two UN attack helicopters arrived, with a third on the way.

March 1, 2011: President Gbagbo has banned UN and French aircraft from operating in Ivory Coast. The UN and France told Gbagbo they would ignore the order.

February 27, 2011: Three peacekeepers were wounded when ambushed by Gbagbo supporters.

February 15, 2011:  UN sanctions have caused most (and eventually all) foreign banks to be closed, cutting the country off from the international banking system.


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