Ivory Coast Crisis: Towards A Solution

In December 2002, shortly after a failed coup attempt and Ivory Coast’s subsequent descent into full-scale civil war, I visited Abidjan, capital of the former French colony and once West Africa’s sterling economy. Before I left Canada, an expatriate friend asked me to bring him a box of cigarettes – an unusual request, since cigarettes are generally far less expensive in Africa. It was only after I got to Abidjan that I learnt that the main cigarette manufacturing city, Bouaki, had been taken over by the New Forces – an inchoate group of flamboyant nihilists who had practically divided the country into two: the northern axis, which they controlled, and the south, under the control of the besieged President Laurent Gbagbo. I was in Abidjan less than two years before when Gbagbo was elected amidst popular euphoria, so this was all puzzling to me.

Puzzling – and sad, very sad – is the still the way I find developments in Ivory Coast. In early September 2005, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, UNOCI, announced that the country was unprepared for elections that were to be held in October 2005, and that they were to be postponed. Unprepared, in fact, was optimistic: voter registration cards had not even been printed by September (in neighbouring Liberia, also to hold UN-supervised elections the same month, voter registration had been completed by July), and the crucial disarmament process had not even started.

The real pathos of the Ivorian situation, quite apart from the obvious shame that a country that held so much promise only a few years back can be in such a dismal mess, is that no one can claim to be disappointed by recent developments.

The country’s peace process is anchored on the Linas-Marcoussis Accord, signed on 15 January 2003 just outside Paris. The accord was based on three core principles: the need to maintain the territorial integrity of Ivory Coast; the creation of a Government of National Reconciliation; and the conduct of fresh elections that would be transparent and that won’t exclude people by means of fraudulent electoral requirements (this last requirement an obvious reaction to the churlish nonsense called Ivorite – the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘non-pure’ Ivorians).

Nearly three years on, not one of these principles have been realized. Ivory Coast remains divided, the attempts to form a broader-based government were all defeated by the sheer opportunism and insincerity of both Gbagbo’s government and the New Forces rebels, and now the elections, never a realistic prospect, have been postponed.

The elections would have pitted Gbagbo against two well-known politicians, Alasane Quattara, a figure some have linked to the rebels, and former President Bedie, a proven incompetent and dangerous buffoon who started the Ivorite business. New Forces spokesman Guillane Soro, a thuggish former student leader, was also set to contest. Of these, Gbagbo, although linked to such unsavoury forces as the Death Squads, would almost certainly win a straight fight: he is still immensely popular in Abidjan and the entire south of the country his government controls, and he is a wily politician. The New Forces would almost certainly lose even in the north which they are running like mafia gangs.

None of these, however, begin to give you an idea of the kind of dilemma that Ivory Coast poses at the moment. The UN peacekeeping force of over 7,000 soldiers, made up largely of African troops and others from Bangladesh and other poor countries (and under the command of the Senegalese General Ibrahima Fall), is nearly irrelevant, encumbered from pursuing its basic mandate – protecting civilians and disarming the militia combatants. The 4000-strong better prepared and equipped French Licorne force, which was deployed to back up the UN force and prevent a further escalation in the crisis, is hugely unpopular in the country, its presence often the cause of serious fighting and other forms of complication. (No one should blame the Licorne force entirely for this unfortunate situation: Gbagbo’s opportunistic populism, as well as a too-intimate colonial and neo-colonial relationship, are far more important).

Meanwhile, life for ordinary Ivorians, the world’s largest cocoa producer (having over 600,000 cocoa farms), becomes tougher each day. Ordinary civil crimes have increased by 55 per cent in Abidjan since the crisis began in 2002, and there have been tens thousands of job losses as businesses board up, multi-national organizations like the African Development Bank (ADB) move out of the country, the gendarmes and soldiers become criminally predatory, and government defence spending far outstrips that on education and health. Things are infinitely worse in the rebel-held north of the country, where there have been persistent food shortages, reports of widespread banditry, and the collapse of public infrastructure.

Acts of nihilistic terror, always a good indication that a state is increasingly unraveling, have included the gunning down of peaceful protesters in Abidjan (in March 2004, demonstrators calling for progress in the peace process were shot at, and the UN estimated that 120 people were killed by security forces, who had received their orders from “the highest state authorities”), and activities of death squads (several mass graves were discovered outside Abidjan last year).

While everyone seems to agree that Ivory Coast is too important to be allowed to self-destruct, no one seems prepared to embark on a more vigorous policy to ensure that this does not happen. Endless rounds of negotiations, involving even such august figures as South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, have had little impact, partly because they have appeared to be unprincipled.

The first step in any further engagement will be to assert certain principles. The chief one is that while President Gbagbo can sometimes seem churlish and irresponsible, the current crisis in Ivory Coast is not of his making. The real culprits are his opponents: the New Forces rebels, and the two political figures whose actions and utterances set the stage for the crisis, Bedie and Quattara. Clearly Gbagbo had – and still enjoys – a handsome mandate; he won democratic elections. He should be allowed to serve his term in full, and should be given assurances that this is non-negotiable. The second is to insist, as Linas-Marcoussis did without strong affirmation, that the geographical territory of Ivory Coast is inviolate. This means that it is unacceptable for the New Forces to continue to hold on to the northern half of the country. The UN force should be strengthened, along with its mandate, which should include taking control over the northern half of the country from the predatory New Forces. As an immediate step, comprehensive sanctions should be imposed on the rebels, including travel bans. Their supporters, particularly Burkina Faso, should also be sanctioned. If anything, the Sierra Leonean peace process showed that such sanctions can work. An all-out military assault should also not be ruled out.

The past two of three years have witnessed a number of optimistic developments in West Africa: the destructive war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, a UN-backed War Crimes tribunal was set up in Freetown, intervention by thousands of UN troops have succeeded in disarming Liberia’s neurotic militias, and other countries conducted successful elections. Ivory Coast, alas, has now become the new the festering sour on the region. This must not be allowed to continue.

Lansana Gberie’s book, A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, has just been published by Hurst and Company, London.


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