A Long Road Ahead for Côte d’Ivoire

The political crisis which paralyzed Côte d’Ivoire came to an end last week, when incumbent Laurent Gbagbo was captured by Alassane Ouattara’s forces. While Gbagbo’s removal was key to ensuring that Côte d’Ivoire didn’t descend into full-scale war and effectively ended the crisis of leadership, it does not signify the end of the humanitarian and economic crisis for the country.

The country suffered tremendously during the last few months of this stand-off. The UN says that nearly one million Ivoirians have been displaced by the conflict, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing into neighboring countries. Dealing with the influx of refugees in Liberia, and to a lesser extent in Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, has created an emergency of its own. The UN has appealed for $160 million to deal with humanitarian needs in Côte d’Ivoire, and for $146 million for Liberia. Currently, only 18% and 29%, respectively, of these funds have been provided by the international community. Shortfalls in funding are also reported by the WFP, which is providing emergency food aid in to refugees and IDPs Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.

In Abidjan, which was besieged and the scene of intense fighting in the run-up to Gbagbo’s capture, there are signs that life are returning to a – relative – level of normalcy. Market stalls are re-opening, people are trying to go about their daily lives, emerging from a very fearful period. Nevertheless, there are very worrying reports that forces loyal to Ouattara, as well as the regular army (which vowed allegiance to the new president last week) are hunting down individuals in Abidjan they suspect of wanting to continue to fight for Gbagbo (watch the BBC video report). While it is not surprising that this should still be happening mere days after Ouattara took power, in a context where political reconciliation is a crucial priority, these tactics will need to end soon.

Now that Gbagbo is out of power, there are fewer reports about what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire, particularly in the regions furthest from Abidjan. It’s important that the international community and the media not let Côte d’Ivoire slip into oblivion again – there are still many challenges of reconstruction, reconciliation and healing ahead. Before Gbagbo was removed, Al-Jazeera published a very interesting thought piece on how the media narrative has created a “good guy” (Ouattara) and a “bad guy” (Gbagbo), and the responsibility of the international community not to overlook the crimes committed by forces on Ouattara’s side.

This is particularly important in the spirit of political and social reconciliation and the quest for justice. It will be difficult yet necessary for Ouattara to address some of the atrocities allegedly carried out in his name (in particular, the horrific massacre in Duekoue, in which at least 800 people perished). Sometimes, the objectives of reconciliation and justice can be at odds – in Liberia, in Sierra Leone, for example, Truth & Reconciliation Commissions were preferred over the prosecution of war crimes (save some high-level exceptions, like Charles Taylor) in order to ensure that the countries could move toward healing. It will be a very difficult road ahead for Ouattara, who is taking over the leadership of a country that has been divided between north (his stronghold) and south for nearly a decade.

Furthermore, the economic paralysis caused by sanctions and the financial asphyxiation of the Gbgabo administration have impacted the livelihoods of Ivoirians. Ouattara will need to make restarting the economic engine a priority. But let’s put this in context: “Côte d’Ivoire’s GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) was $2,977 in 1978; it was $1,551 in 2004. From 1990 to 2006, the country slid 18 places on the UN Human Development Index” writes Mike McGovern for Foreign Affairs. Poverty rates in Côte d’Ivoire have also been on an alarming increase over the last few decades – from 10% of the population living below the poverty line in 1985, to nearly 43% in 2008. Improving economic and social conditions in Côte d’Ivoire, which was once regarded as a shining example of post-colonial success, will be a key challenge for Ouattara.

Photo credit: Oxfam International