Cote d’Ivoire On The Edge

Hard to believe that we’re still writing about Laurent Gbagbo clinging on to power at this stage, but we are. Late last week, forces in support of Alassanne Ouattara, the internationally-sanctioned winner of the November 2010 presidential election, entered Abidjan. Up until then, Abidjan had been a Gbagbo stronghold. Indeed, support for Ouattara is mainly in the north of the country, while Gbagbo has been popular in the south, where key cities like Abidjan and San Pedro (which boasts the country’s second largest port) are located. Pro-Ouattara forces entered Abidjan after taking over San Pedro and other key places, signaling a clear shift in the balance of power and a “breakthrough” – as bloody and dangerous as it may be – in the protracted political crisis.

Early this week, Gbagbo was the target of not only attacks from pro-Ouattara forces, but also from UN and French helicopters which targeted military camps and arms depots. The use of force against Gbagbo lead his army leaders to call for a cease-fire. According to several media reports, fighting in the rest of the country has subsided – at least for the time being. The day after the international air strikes, Gbagbo was reportedly negotiating the terms of his exit with Ouattara and the participation of UNOCI and the French government. However, as of yesterday, these negotiations have apparently broken down, as Gbagbo claims he’s not prepared to accept Ouattara’s victory. Following this, pro-Ouattara forces launched another assault on Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan. Frankly, at this stage, it’s very difficult to understand what exactly Gbagbo is hoping to bargain for: immunity from prosecution, locally and/or internationally? A safe haven in a third country for him, his family and a few choice advisors? While the latter is probably a concession Ouattara and the international communtiy are prepared to make for the sake of ending the conflict, if Gbagbo is trying for the first, I doubt he will get it.

Beth Dickinson at Foreign Policy differs slightly in her analysis, suggesting that if Gbagbo isn’t given the option of a “dignified” exit, the crisis will get worse. As much as I want to agree that the opposing factions need to work out a pragmatic deal, I don’t think that letting Gbagbo “off” for his egregious acts since the presidential election sends the right message. In my opinion, post-conflict social reconstruction is not always best served by a reconciliation model, which can lead to anger and frustration as justice is not served. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire, I think the jury is still out on what’s the best option, and only those who are near the negotiations can really say what’s at stake here. Either way, the longer Gbagbo clings on to his illegitimate power, the more difficult any kind of reconciliation will be.

Laurent Gbagbo may be on his way out in Ivory Coast but Alassane Ouattara will inherit a divided country, an unsolved massacre and potential chaos in Abidjan“, notes Peter Apps in a Reuters article. As I’ve suggested before, whatever happens next, if/when Ouattara finally becomes the (lone) president of the country, he will be faced with a tough uphill battle. The economy has been slowed to a standstill, due to international sanctions and a general slow down: banks are closed, people are staying home, etc. About a million people have been displaced, including hundreds of thousands across the border into Liberia. People’s passions have been fired up and dealing with political reconciliation at the national level, following a conflict of this intensity, will be difficult.

Today, Abidjan is still under siege. Gbagbo is still holding on to power. Cote d’Ivoire is on the edge – in this unpredictable conflict, who knows what will happen next.