Cote d’Ivoire: Watching and Waiting

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
By Njoki Wamai

As the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the US issue continuous warnings to the President of Cote d’Ivoire Laurent Gbagbo to step down, the former president seems ever more determined to stay. 

Having declared himself president after losing the presidential elections to his opponent Allasane Ouattara, Gbagbo has refused to leave the presidential palace and the military still owes allegiance to him. Ouattara is currently operating from Golf Hotel under the guard of UN’s Peacekeepers while an estimated 20,000 people have left the country fearing a repeat of the 2002-2007 Civil War. So far, more than 200 lives have been claimed and scores injured.

Identity was at the heart of the previous Ivorian Civil War and the current crisis if mishandled could ignite identity based conflicts between the impoverished Muslim dominated North and better-off Christian dominated South and xenophobic attacks against the largely foreign population from Mali and Burkina Faso. Ouattara, a Muslim from the North was barred from running for president previously on grounds that he was not a true Ivorian since his parents were originally claimed to have been from Burkina Faso. Contested citizenship claims and horizontal inequalities between the North and South have, since the death of the first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, been exploited by politicians to incite violence particularly during elections. Although he built a relatively successful economy, which attracted immigrants from poorer neighbours such as Mali and Burkina Faso, Houphouët-Boigny failed to institutionalize a democratic government with clear policies on integration of immigrants as citizens. A lesson that modern day Europe and the US could learn.

Meanwhile, local and international patience is running out. Exhausted from watching and waiting, the legitimate winner Ouattara and members of the international community are faced with dilemmas on how to proceed. The possibility of a coalition government similar to Kenya and Zimbabwe has been overruled and the use of military force is being remotely considered, though it might have costly economic and security implications for the ECOWAS member states as they struggle with their own internal security concerns in 2011. The two leading hegemonic powers in the region, Nigeria and Ghana, have critical internal concerns to effectively deploy approximately 5,000 soldiers who would be needed to ensure stability if a military offensive against Gbagbo was carried out. Ghana, which shares a border with Cote d’Ivoire and is a leading troop contributing country to the AU and UN, views the situation as unsettling as it anticipates to earn revenues from its recent oil drilling. Nigeria, the leading hegemone in the region and current chair of ECOWAS, has its own internal security threats from extremists who have staged a series of terror attacks recently and there are security concerns over the anticipated elections later in the year. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s track record with the Economic Community Monitoring Group and its role in ensuring peace and stability in the region is heavily being counted on. The UN under Secretary General for Peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, has committed to increase the number of peacekeepers by 2,000 in the coming days.

In addition to lack of capacity and current regional dynamics, experts have warned against using military force to oust the incumbent since there is no civil war. Gbagbo enjoys the support of the military top brass, and there exist hordes of unemployed youthful rebel groups allied to both Ouattara and Gbagbo. Any outbreak of violence could have profound security implications for the greater West African region with a number of weak states struggling with their own rising youthful rebels who could be easily co-opted in a civil war. Observers note that there is need for caution in ousting the incumbent, and lessons should be learned from Somalia in 1991, where the US-led Operation Restore Hope tried to oust Farah Aideed in vain.

The precedent set by the Ivorian case is disturbing as 12 African countries hold their general and presidential elections in 2011. These include: Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite the AU’s position on the unconstitutional change of government many politicians such as Gbagbo blatantly defy this and proceed to form government or reluctantly concede to a coalition government after rigging themselves in. Greater support from the international community beyond sanctions and ignoring Gbagbo’s diplomats is called for, especially in supporting preventive diplomacy of the AU and ECOWAS, the two leading institutions in the crisis. But, as the Raila Odinga led AU efforts and Jonathan Goodluck ECOWAS led efforts analyse their options, the Cote d’Ivoire crisis demonstrates one point clearly: impunity and resulting coalitions in elections will no longer be tolerated. 


12 January 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell