Cote d’Ivoire: The Forgotten War?

AFRICA, 4 Apr 2011

Azad Essa – Al Jazeera

Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced, but the crisis has garnered little international attention.

It reads like a poorly conceived Hollywood film: A national election in some West African nation goes horribly wrong when the sitting president refuses to vacate his position despite losing at the polls. A bloody standoff between forces loyal to the two politicians ensues, catching hundreds in the crossfire and forcing thousands to flee. The incumbent is supported by the army, the internationally recognised new president by a troop of former rebels.

But contrary to popular (dis)belief, this is no Hollywood film. This, today, is Cote d’Ivoire.

Despite international recognition of his electoral victory, for almost five months Alassane Ouattara remained barricaded in a hotel. That was until the troops loyal to Laurent Gbagbo who had been guarding it fled on Thursday as pro-Ouattara forces made dramatic gains, marching into Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital.

But as the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces (FRCI) claim towns and cities and Gbagbo’s soldiers continue to defect, the UN and Amnesty International are warning that the conflict may soon reach a violent crescendo. This, it seems, is a story that is unlikely to end with a rock song and timely credits.

Since the standoff began, Cote d’Ivoire has been nothing if not a caricature of Africa’s erroneous on screen image.

The plot

For those who entered the theatre late, the story began with run-off elections last November. Supervised and certified by the UN, the vote was one of the last legs of a peace process that began after the country’s civil war ended in 2003. Originally due to take place in 2005, it had been postponed to allow the post-war disarmament process to be completed. This meant that Gbagbo, who had been elected in 2000 and was meant to step down in 2005, continued on in a series of one-year extensions.

When elections finally took place in 2010, opposition leader Ouattara stood against Gbagbo and won by more than 350,000 votes. But Gbagbo claimed irregularities in election procedures in the north of the country – a claim ratified by the Gbagbo controlled constitutional court. The election results were subsequently altered – cutting Ouattara’s share of the vote from a winning 54 per cent to a losing 49 per cent.

Ouattara found himself besieged in a hotel, while the incumbent president broke down all channels of dissent; shutting newspapers, intimidating journalists and firing into crowds of demonstrating Ouattara supporters.

Clashes between supporters of both men intensified, costing hundreds of lives and prompting a mass exodus of tens of thousands of Ivorians east into Liberia.

Humanitarian organisations have warned that the conflict could lead to another protracted civil war with severe repercussions for the entire region.

The forgotten crisis

Oxfam reported in early March that Cote d’Ivoire threatened to become ‘the forgotten crisis’ as world attention lingered on other stories.

“With over 45,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the west of Cote d’Ivoire, up to 300,000 in Abidjan, and over 70,000 refugees in Liberia, the Cote d’Ivoire crisis is extremely serious and requires the international community to respond to this emergency. There is a risk that without action now – especially in advance of the rainy season – the international community will not be able to deal with current and future refugee flows,” says Tariq Roland Riebl, Oxfam’s humanitarian programme manager in Liberia.

“Every human is of equal value, and the international community must be able to deal with more than one crisis at a time. Whilst current important global events in Libya, North Africa and Japan are attracting the bulk of the media attention at the moment, with serious political and humanitarian dimensions, the international community cannot afford to ignore the deteriorating situation in Cote d’Ivoire and resulting influx of refugees into neighbouring countries.”

Bernadette Kouame, an officer with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), concurs. She says the situation is already desperate. “It’s alarming! People are going in haste … most of them with bundles on their heads …. But most people are simply trying to save their lives.”

She paints a desperate picture of people fleeing their homes, of women walking great distances to neighbouring towns and villages with their babies on their backs. “Families are complaining of food shortages … most banks and businesses have closed and the few stores still operating are competing,” Kouame says. “We can see despair on the faces of heads of households who have mostly become unemployed as a result of the chaos.”

Trouble for the region

Riebl stresses that while the refugee crisis is a burning issue, it is not the only consequence of the standoff. “Cote d’Ivoire has historically been an economic driver in the region, a key trading partner for neighbouring countries, many of whom rely on the Port of Abidjan for imports and exports,” he explains, adding: “The economic and logistical problems in Cote d’Ivoire are also likely to have a knock-on effect on the price of staple foods in the region.”

Julie Owono, a blogger from Global Voices, argues that the impact on the region transcends the unfolding human and economic crisis. “Cote d’Ivoire has been facing a civil war for more than a decade now [and] will face tough times [again] … but what scares me most, is that 2011 will be an electoral year in Francophone Africa, and Cote d’Ivoire was like an example, it was the first country in the region to launch this series of elections.

“If the country falls again in[to] the spiral [of] war, it will seem like French-speaking African countries will not be able to get rid of the fate that says that we cannot hold democratic and peaceful elections.”

Riebl agrees that the remaining 19 presidential elections set to take place across the continent, including in neighbouring Liberia, may be negatively affected as “instability and social unrest spill over”.

Liberia stands to lose the most from a protracted crisis and Oxfam is warning that if the 1.3 million Ivorians living near the border with Liberia flee across it, a mammoth humanitarian crisis will ensue. And, Riebl adds, “the approaching rainy season will greatly hamper the ability to transport supplies, especially food, to remote areas”.

But what does Gbagbo want?

As an African leader unwilling to cede power, Gbagbo joins a legion of African ‘big men’ who have refused to step down when their time was up. Incidentally, Gbagbo led a party in the late 1980s in opposition to the then president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who held office for 29 years. At the time, Gbagbo criticised Houphouet-Boigny for his attempt at ‘immortality’.

Of course, the 1980s were a time of long-life African presidents: Omar Bongo of Gabon was in power for 22 years, General Moussa Traore of Mali for 21, and over in North Africa, there were Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi.

At the time Western powers propped up one-party or dictator states as easy puppets in the larger framework of the Cold War. But this necessity diminished after 1989, and ‘multiparty’ became a new buzzword on the African continent.

But is this really just another case of an African leader holding on to power or has the international community turned on him for other reasons?

Kofi Kouakou, a scenario planner at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, says there is no more to the situation in Cote d’Ivoire than “a desperate African leader trying to hold on to power, again”.

“In fact, the so-called larger picture has been used as an excellent propaganda instrument by the outgoing president and his supporters to distort the true realities of the election results. The crisis has moved from election disputes to colonial and imperialist conspiracies.”

Paul Collier, a professor at Oxford University’s department of economics and author of War, Guns and Votes, concurs, arguing that Gbagbo has used every emotive argument in the book to back his cause. “He has been heavily dependent on French support … his current pretence at resisting French influence is spurious – he just wants to hang on to power.”

The Western conspiracies line is propaganda designed “to hook many post-colonial African intellectuals who have been thirsty to find any new issue to reconnect with the tired colonial debate,” says Kouakou.

And it may have worked in some circles, arguably influencing the foreign policy of regional powerhouses like South Africa who have shied away from the drama under the guise of ‘neutrality’.

Ayo Johnson, a journalist specialising in African affairs, says: “This current stalemate shows a country that has lost its way, simply because the people have not been heard.”

An ethnic dimension?

Now what would a bloody Hollywood narrative on Africa be without divisions along ethnic, religious or, that endemically poisonous term, ‘tribal’ lines?

Owono says that although not completely obvious in the rhetoric, there is a religious and even an ethnic dimension to the dispute. And while media houses are often accused of abusing ethnic tensions in propagating a story line, the news from Cote d’Ivoire has run without much mention of this dimension to the conflict.

“The Ivorian Supreme Court declared Gbagbo president by invalidating the votes of nearly 600,000 citizens. Most of them had voted in the north of the country,” says Owono.

“You have to understand that northern Ivory Coast is mainly Muslim, and mainly populated by Djoulas, Senoufos and Malinkes. All of them have historically migrated from neighbour[ing] countries (Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Senegal).

“By invalidating their votes, Gbagbo and his camp re-used the ‘Ivority’ concept, a concept invented in the mid-1990s to exclude Alassane Ouattara from running for the presidential election because he had parents from Burkina Faso. So with this concept, in the light of the current events, those from the north of Cote d’Ivoire are suspected to be foreigners, because they have parents, or ancestors who migrated to Cote d’Ivoire.”

The fracture between Muslim north and Christian south should not be underestimated in a country on the slippery slope toward civil war.

“It will be very difficult [for] both sides [to] trust each other again and even more difficult to see how any side will take the upper hand and appoint members of the opposite side,” says Owono, adding: “It will be difficult but not impossible.”

Where is the African Union?

While the African Union (AU) has sent delegations to the country, its role has largely been limited to polite attempts at negotiating the stalemate. The inability or unwillingness of the body to act decisively or intervene has raised the usual critiques of its effectiveness.

The AU – through its regional hand, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – set an ultimatum in December, warning of a military intervention if Gbagbo did not cede power. But, Johnson argues: “The AU … don’t say what they mean and don’t mean what they say; they threaten force but don’t act, they have the mandate but don’t enforce.”

Collier, however, maintains that, contrary to popular belief, the AU has managed to set the agenda in Cote d’Ivoire. “It has acted with caution, and probably been too slow, but it has actually set very important precedents. It has recognised President Ouattara and it has refused to go down the road of ‘powersharing’ which has not worked well in either Zimbabwe or Kenya and which the AU has now recognised is a bad model.

“I think that the AU position augurs rather well for the forthcoming 19 African elections. It has been strongly reinforced by the events in North Africa which have hopefully ended the incipient trend [of] sons inheriting the presidential throne from their fathers,” Collier adds.

Kouakou agrees, arguing that the UN and the AU have – for the first time in the history of peaceful conflict resolution in an African crisis – performed quite well. “Many of us are very impatient about resolving the crisis. [But] patiently convincing Gbagbo to step down added with progressive financial pressure are the best ways to solve the crisis.”

But with civil war seemingly looming and the humanitarian crisis deepening, there does not appear to be a solution in sight.

In March, the AU endorsed the conclusions of a panel of five African heads of state, recognising Ouattara as the legitimate winner of the November elections. The panel recommended the creation of an inclusive government and suggested that Ouattara help find a “graceful exit” for his rival. Gbagbo’s camp quickly rejected the proposal as “unacceptable”.

Johnson says that while the AU has been disappointing, “mediation, mediation and further mediation seems to be the only way forward”.

“Force and wars have truly never really solved any problems. They risk making the situation worse and should be avoided at all cost.”

Kouakou agrees that while pressure groups and the media are pushing for immediate solutions, a military intervention might cause more problems than it solves. If anything, he adds, the AU should have primed both parties about the very real possibility of losing the election and the need to accept the electorate’s vote.

“In fact, there was no clear evidence that the Ouattara side would have accepted the results of the elections if [they] had lost,” Kouakou says.

He argues that the AU’s attempt to “shuffle waffle” – a reference to the gestures aimed at creating inclusive governments and exit plans – has only been an irritant to both sides, allowing the conflict to progress into a low-grade war.

And, argues Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, with all attempts to resolve the conflict exhausted, the standoff might just have to be settled through a bloody civil war.

Africa at a crossroads?

With international attention focused primarily on events in North Africa and the aftermath of the Japan earthquake, the ongoing violence in Cote d’Ivoire has already largely been relegated to the scrolling text at the bottom of your screen. This of course, might change if cocoa production stalls completely and there is a worldwide chocolate-bar shortage. Will Nicholas Sarkozy, Barack Obama or Willy Wonka send troops to save the Ivorians then?

Unlikely, says Kouakou. “Cote d’Ivoire really doesn’t represent a very large and deep geopolitical interest for the so-called international community at this stage. There are no serious mineral resources of grave or vast interest for the West in particular. Nor will the fall of cocoa production get Presidents Obama, Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron to rush to the rescue of Ivorians. No chance. That’s why the international community is very quiet. They will get involved if and when UN, US, EU citizens are killed or kidnapped.”

“Only when their [the wider world’s] pains are real and linked to that of Cote d’Ivoire’s will they be more vocal and act promptly. Until the humanitarian crisis gets closer to them, and in their pockets, they will remain quiet,” he adds.

But Owono believes it is time for Africans to intervene themselves, to take up the challenge of shifting the status quo. The future of the continent, she says, depends on it. “People in Africa are tired of wars. My generation is a generation of action, we want to see our continent develop. We have witnessed what South American or Asian countries have done in the past 20 years. We are aware of the potential of the one billion inhabitants [of the] continent, and we are also more than ever conscious that development can never be achieved in times of war.”

Johnson says that the situation in Cote d’Ivoire and the manner in which it has been dealt with thus far suggests that African politics is at the crossroads. “Some states, like Cote d’Ivoire and others who have just experienced war or coups or repeated cycles of poor leadership are fragile states. If they are not supported and nurtured, they could easily slip into their bad ways …. [As] a whole, Africa has a long way to go in terms of being responsible and accountable, but it can change and be seen to change and the rest of the world will see its better side.”

A progressive Africa on the silver screen. Would that even sell? Maybe just on DVD.

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