International Troops Reach Ivory Coast

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This article was first published on 25 March. It has been updated today, April 6, with the latest developments in Ivory Coast.

Say what you like about 2011, it hasn’t been a slow news year. And as revolutions and natural disasters have jostled for the lead, the small nation of Ivory Coast has again been riven by violence. Nobody disputed the outcome of presidential elections held in November 2010 — except the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, and his supporters, and for months it didn’t look like they were going anywhere.

Yesterday, April 5, Gbagbo entered into negotiations with the UN on the terms of his potential surrender after international troops intervened in Ivory Coast on Monday. There have been airstrikes on Gbagbo’s soldiers.

This African story has familiar elements: deep ethnic and religious rifts, splinter militia groups, the legacy of colonialism and a host of international organisations looking on powerlessly. It could be Kenya in 2007. Or Zimbabwe in 2008. Or indeed Ivory Coast in 2002.

Hundreds of people have died: there are 1300 known deaths so far, according to The Independent. World leaders, including Barack Obama and Ban Ki-Moon were unanimous in their condemnation of the violence. The efforts of both the African Union and the United Nations to mediate were in vain until the UN and France entered the fight on Monday. As Adam Nossiter and Scott Sayare note in the New York Times, neither global condemnation nor heavy sanctions were sufficient to convince Gbagbo to relinquish power. They write:

"His willingness even to discuss the terms of his exit came only after opposition forces swept across the country and France and the United Nations entered the fight, striking targets at his residence, his offices and two of his military bases in what they called an effort to protect civilians."

It is still unclear what a workable surrender will look like.

International intervention was a long time coming. Last month the Nigerian Foreign Minister condemned the international
community for its failure to take action in Ivory Coast. Odein
Ajumogobia said:

"The contradictions between principle and national interest that seem to be at core of international law and politics — have enabled the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya ostensibly to protect innocent civilians from slaughter, but to watch seemingly helplessly as seven innocent civilian women and hundreds of other men, women and children (were) slaughtered in equally, even if less egregious violence."

The unrest in Ivory Coast has nothing to do with the protests movements that have galvanised in North Africa and the Gulf. Tucked in between Liberia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast was colonised by the French in the 19th century; when it attained independence in 1960 it was one of the most prosperous nations in West Africa. It was led by Felix Houphouët-Boigny who ruled until his death in 1993. Under his long rule, Ivory Coast was effectively a one-party state — and very stable. This stability masked complex ethnic and religious tensions which can be mapped onto the north and south of the country. (There’s more background in thie BBC explainer here.)

Since Houphouët-Boigny’s death, things have been anything but stable. Gbagbo was elected president in 2000 on the back on the back of his reputation as a trade union leader during the Houphouët-Boigny years after a military coup in 1999. The country was embroiled in a civil war in 2002 and 2003 during which Gbagbo meted out harsh treatment to opposition rebels. An uneasy ceasefire has been monitored by the UN since 2003.

Alassane Outtara was acknowledged by the UN and other international observers as the victor in presidential elections held in November 2010. Outtara, an economist and technocrat who advised Houphouët-Boigny, was disqualified from running against Gbagbo in earlier elections because of allegations that his family heritage lay in Burkina Faso, not Ivory Coast. Broadly speaking, it is northerners who support Outtara and southerners who support Gbagbo. Abidjan, the country’s biggest city, is home to supporters of both men.

Outtara was declared the winner of the election by the country’s independent election commission by a convincing 10 per cent margin. Kofi Annan told the Christian Science Monitor in February, "This lack of doubt should have made the transition easier but the fact that Ivory Coast recently emerged from civil war, and because the two dominant parties in this election had been on opposite sides of that civil war, the current impasse has become almost insurmountable."  Gbagbo contested the vote in the constitutional courts (which he set up) and threw out over half a million votes from the north. South African president Jacob Zuma now called the vote "inconclusive", according to the Monitor — but not many in the international community seem to agree with him.

On 10 March, after prolonged efforts at mediation, the African Union endorsed Outtara as president of Ivory Coast but that did not break the deadlock. Gbagbo’s supporters refused outright efforts to install Outtara as president or to establish a power-sharing arrangement. Their warnings of further violence were realised.

Outtara might have the international community on his side but Gbagbo has his own paramilitary police force, Cecos, and the support of the army, who reportedly opened fire on an International Women’s Day march last month.

Some of these pro-Gbagbo militias stand accused of war crimes. A report released last week by Human Rights Watch contains horrific eyewitness accounts of atrocities perpetrated by pro-Gbagbo forces: "The three-month campaign of organized violence by security forces under the control of Laurent Gbagbo and militias that support him gives every indication of amounting to crimes against humanity." Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said, "the time is long overdue for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Gbagbo and his allies directly implicated in the grave abuses of the post-election period," adding that "the international community should also send a clear message to Ouattara’s camp that reprisal killings will place them next on the list." The shelling of a market in Abidjan which killed 25 people prompted the UN to allege crimes against humanity.

The crisis has now displaced up to a million people. As a result, humanitarian organisations are stretched to breaking point. The UN warned in March that Ivory Coast risked being a "forgotten crisis". Appeals for humanitarian aid have not raised enough cash due to pressure on international donors from, well, from all the other scenes of disaster and unrest currently unfurling around the world.

A UN spokesperson told the BBC: "This is an extremely trying time for everyone, but if we cannot get funding for our Ivory Coast and Liberia operations now, we are not going to be able to buy the food and acquire it for the people who need it, even three or four months down the road."


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