Côte d’Ivoire’s Neglected Conflict

While Gaddafi’s air force is getting pummeled by Western air strikes, Laurent Gbagbo is somehow managing to cling onto his illegitimate leadership of Côte d’Ivoire. Somehow, in spite of repeated condemnations from regional powers and the broader international community, of being cut off from international financial flows, of “possible” war crimes and definite abuses of human rights, Gbagbo is still at the helm in Côte d’Ivoire.

With the ongoing military intervention in Libya, observers are beginning to ask why Côte d’Ivoire’s civilians are not also actively protected by the international community. Because the concept of sovereignty still dominates international relations, allied powers involved in the intervention have had to toe a tricky rhetorical line (“We’re not supporting rebels in Libya. We are only protecting civilians”), as Gaddafi is still the internationally-recognized leader of that country (in spite of what Sarkozy might have to say about it.)

In the case of Côte d’Ivoire though, it is abundantly clear to everyone – except Gbagbo loyalists – that Alassanne Ouattara is the legitimate leader. Yet, international intervention has been limited to economic and other sanctions on Gbagbo’s regime, relief assistance is scarce. UNHCR now estimates that between 700,000 and 1 million people in Abidjan alone have now been displaced by the conflict. Nevertheless, only $7 million of the $32 million called for by the UN for the humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire has materialized.

The instability in Côte d’Ivoire is also threatening regional peace. Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres are warning that the escalation of violence and the lack of resolution in Côte d’Ivoire threaten Liberia’s stability. The movement of weapons, the recruitment of Liberian mercenaries to fight across the border, and the tens of thousands of Ivoirians pouring into Liberia seeking asylum are very tangible threats to peace, particularly as Liberia is in a presidential election year.

In a recent piece, Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickinson quotes a UNHCR spokesman in Liberia: “as Liberia heads toward elections, there is a genuine fear in the population that what has happened in Côte d’Ivoire could also happen here.” As I wrote before, displaced people are a strain on host communities. Eastern Liberia is remote and poor, and its capacity to handle a continued influx of refugees is limited. In recent weeks, the number of people who crossed the border into Liberia doubled – but still only a small fraction of refugees end up in UNHCR camps. The ICRC notes that the arrival of 20,000 refugees in Buutuo, an impoverished Liberian town near the border, has nearly tripled the population, creating severe issues in terms of access to food, water and health care not just for the refugees but for the locals as well.

The International Crisis Group warned three weeks ago already that a “civil war scenario accompanied by civilian massacres was the most likely, and that the situation in Côte d’Ivoire constituted a serious and imminent threat to peace and security throughout West Africa.”

I can’t help but wonder at what point do the lives of Ivoirian civilians become as worthy of international protection as the lives of Libyans? At what point does the preservation of regional stability in West Africa become critical? The threat of military action was – fleetingly – put on the table by ECOWAS and the AU, with timid support from the US and France, back in December/early January. What of it now? And if instead of targeted air strikes by powerful militaries, ECOWAS sends boots from regional powers on the ground, will this lead the conflict down an even more dangerous road?

ECOWAS leaders released yet another statement yesterday, noting that the Ivoirian crisis was a “regional humanitarian emergency”, and calling for the UN to “strengthen its mandate in Côte d’Ivoire.” Nigeria is apparently slated to table a draft resolution at the UN today or Monday asking for a tighter enforcement of the arms embargo against Côte d’Ivoire, as well as “all necessary measures” to be deployed to stop Gbagbo from harming civilians. Still, though, there is little regional or international consensus on how to de-escalate and resolve the protracted crisis, while hundreds of thousands of civilian lives are at risk, and the political stability of the region is put in serious jeopardy.

Ed note: The White House released this video earlier today in which President Obama firmly backs Ouatarra as the rightful leader of Cote D’Ivoire.