Côte d’Ivoire: A Civil War By Any Other Name?

The way we define conflicts shapes our response to them. Whether it be in Lybia or in Côte d’Ivoire – two countries currently experiencing systematic violence from opposing factions – the label “civil war” has seldom been used to describe these conflicts. According to scholars, a civil war has two basic conditions:

1. Civil war refers to a violent conflict between organized groups within a country that are fighting over control of the government, one side’s separatist goals, or some divisive government policy.

2.For a conflict to qualify as a civil war, most academics use the threshold of 1,000 dead, which leads to the inclusion of a good number of low-intensity rural insurgencies.

Another way of looking at it is that civil war “requires that there is organized military action and that at least 1,000 battle deaths resulted.  In order to distinguish wars from genocides, massacres and pogroms there has to be effective resistance, at least five percent of the deaths have been inflicted by the weaker party. A further requirement is that the national government at the time was actively involved.”

In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, it seems that the country hasn’t yet reached the “civil war” threshold – apparently, a few hundred more dead might tip the country’s “conflict” into a “civil war”. But beyond the arbitrariness of a definition of civil war, let’s take a look at the facts:

-Significant (and growing) numbers of displaced (200,000 to 300,000 internally displaced in Abidjan, according to the UN; another 75,000 who have sought refuge in neighboring Liberia),

– Increased levels of violence. Fifty people killed last week; six women recently gunned down at a rally;

– Growing antagonism between the factions and the general feeling that the situation is worse now in Côte d’Ivoire than it was even at the height of the conflict which divided the country in 2002/3. (Pauline, a freelance journalist based in Abidjan who blogs at West Africa Wins Always, recently wrote about her visit to a local hospital, where staff are documenting how badly wounded patients are (likely by heavy weaponry).

All these factors are contributing to making Côte d’Ivoire’s crisis of leadership inch closer and closer to civil war.

Representatives from the African Union are slated to be back in Abidjan on March 10 for another round of negotiations with the two opposing sides. Meanwhile, the international community is using strong language to denounce the violence and criticize Laurent Gbagbo. Last week, the US condemned the “moral bankruptcy” of Gbagbo’s regime, who, just yesterday, nationalized the cocoa and coffee industry – now, only “the state” (read: Gbagbo and his loyalists) can buy and sell these commodities in Côte d’Ivoire.

Of course, once a conflict is labeled “civil war” it makes it more complicated than it already is for the international community to intervene. State sovereignty seems to remain the most enduring principle of international relations – even in a state where the leadership is divided, where two warring governments are tearing society apart. We unfortunately don’t have the right tools, the legitimacy needed to intervene – militarily, politically, economically. Financial sanctions, travel bans, trade embargoes: these tactics have their limits, as we are clearly seeing in Côte d’Ivoire.

As I’ve written before, I believe that only complete bankruptcy for the Gbagbo regime will resolve the crisis. As long as the army and other “security forces” remain loyal to him (i.e. as long as he’s able to pay them at the end of the month), they’ll continue to defend him. The conflict in Côte d’Ivoire – even if it is not yet branded “civil war” –  is most definitely an Ivoirian crisis which only Ivoirian will and efforts can end.