Côte d’Ivoire’s Waiting Game

As the world’s attention is focused firmly on social and political upheaval in the Arab world, Côte d’Ivoire continues to struggle through its own crisis of leadership. Since December 2010, the country has been living with two presidents: Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent, claimed victory and appointed a government, at the same time as the internationally-sanctioned winner, Alassane Ouattara, also formed a government and entrenched himself in makeshift headquarters in a luxury hotel, heavily guarded by UN forces. Violence and unrest have gripped the country ever since, leading to massive displacement and economic sanctions from the international community, threatening to affect the livelihoods of Ivoirians at the same time as they’re trying to starve Gbagbo’s illegitimate regime. In this two-part series, I examine the diplomatic, economic and human dimensions of this ongoing crisis.

Even though the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire seems far from being resolved, it’s not for lack African diplomatic efforts. On Monday (February 21), yet another delegation from the African Union (AU) visited the capital, Abidjan, reportedly to negotiate Laurent Gbagbo’s departure. The AU delegation, which includes four African presidents, replaces the failed efforts of AU-appointed mediators, former South African president Mbeki and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Both mediators lasted only weeks in their roles. Malawi’s president also visited Abidjan in late January, before the end of his term. To complete the high-level diplomacy efforts on the AU’s part, the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema – a notorious autocrat – also held meetings with the two contending Ivoirian heads of state last month.

The AU delegation in Abidjan on Monday included President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz of Mauritania, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Idriss Déby of Chad, and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania. It also should have included Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, but Gbagbo loyalists warned they would not let him into the country, due to what they view as Compaoré’s bias toward Alassanne Ouattara,. (Compaoré allegedly supported the initial insurgency led by Ouattara’s Forces Nouvelles in the northern part of the country back in 2002, which eventually led to the country’s division along a north-south divide.)

In addition to the high-level diplomatic efforts described above, ECOWAS has also been coming out in favor of Ouattara, even though a unified front has eluded the regional organization. In a previous post on the situation in Côte d’Ivoire, I noted that not all of ECOWAS’ heads of state agreed with the official position. In a briefing on regional diplomatic efforts prepared by IRIN, veteran Ghanaian diplomat Victor Gbeho notes:

“The concern we have is that apart from some geo-political interests by some countries, there are others that are encouraging Gbagbo not to leave,” he said. “Because of certain individual interests, some countries have decided to break the tradition of solidarity in ECOWAS. What is happening is a matter of serious concern to ECOWAS and the international community, as certain countries have taken sides.”

Amidst successive diplomatic interventions from AU and ECOWAS, the threat of a targeted military intervention to forcibly remove Gbago continues to be viewed by African diplomats and governments as a solution of “last resort.” While the UN Security Council’s February report on Côte d’Ivoire noted that Nigerian Foreign Minister Ajumgobia requested for the Council to formally authorize the use of force to oust Gbagbo, the same minister wrote in a national newspaper that a military intervention was an option of last resort. ECOWAS military interventions have in the past had mixed results, and members of the regional organization are weary of the financial, human and political cost of intervening in the sovereign affairs of one of their members.

The UN, for its part, extended the mandate of its peacekeeping mission, UNOCI, until June 2011. It also redeployed forces from the UN Mission to Liberia to Côte d’Ivoire. Despite accusations from Gbagbo that UNOCI is somehow responsible for the unrest, UNOCI continues to protect Alassane Ouattara’s unofficial headquarters at the Golf Hotel in Abidjan. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly called for Gbagbo to step down.

Diplomacy has its limits, though. As a veteran politician, Gbagbo has a certain amount of influence over Africa’s politicians, some of whom have been benefiting from Gbagbo’s largesse and support over the years. As the kerfuffle around Compaore demonstrates, African diplomacy is also limited by perceived biases and prior history. France and the US, the two most outspoken Western countries in this ongoing crisis, have both given priority to AU and ECOWAS diplomacy. Diplomacy’s role is to create space for dialogue, which clearly is not possible when one side – in this case, Gbagbo’s – doesn’t trust the French or the Americans in the least.

Resolving the crisis of leadership in Côte d’Ivoire will require more than high level diplomacy by African actors. While a targeted military intervention could in theory work to remove Gbagbo, resorting to this alternative may potentially have too high a financial, human and political cost and could further destabilize the country. One way the international community might succeed in forcing Gbagbo out is through economic sanctions and the slow but steady choking of his financial resources.

I’ll discuss how this strategy is working, and the impact it’s having on Côte d’Ivoire, in the next installment of this series.