Signs of unity, slow return to normalcy in Côte d’Ivoire

While incumbent Laurent Gbagbo remains under house arrest in the north of the country, separated from his base of support, president-elect Alasanne Ouattara was sworn in by the head of the Constitutional Council today in Abidjan.

Encouraging signs of political unity are emerging. In a rather significant move, the head of the Constitutional Council, Paul Yao Ndre, not only presided over the swearing in ceremony, but also pledged allegiance to the new president. Back in December 2010, following the election that precipitated the country into dangerous crisis of leadership, Ndre had been the one to declare the election invalid and supported Laurent Gbagbo’s claim that he had won. For Ouattara to have his support is a sign that the political establishment seems to be getting behind the new leadership – not necessarily a given only a few weeks ago.

On the economic front, things are slowly picking up again. The IMF is forecasting that the Ivoirian economy will grow at a rate of 6% over the next year, which is encouraging. Though, as a recent report from the Africa Progress Panel notes, the quality of growth – not just the rate – is a critical factor in terms of ensuring broad economic benefits for the population. After 3 1/2 months, Ivoirian cocoa exports are beginning again. Banks are re-opening, the stock market is revving up, and, in spite of an increased perception of risk, foreign investors are not shying away from Côte d’Ivoire. All these factors are positive signs that Côte d’Ivoire is slowly returning to normal.

Beyond these indicators, however, the country is still reeling from the crisis. The UNHCR notes that the humanitarian situation is still alarming, as hundreds of thousands of displaced people still need ongoing support. Unofficial accounts from over the border in Liberia suggest that at least 250 people/day are still crossing the border to seek asylum, and contacts on the ground in Liberia have noted that the refugee situation is still very much an emergency. Unfortunately, once people become displaced by violence, the end of a conflict does not necessarily mean the end of their displacement. From this perspective, the ongoing need to support the displaced – both internally and across borders – will be a significant challenge both for Côte d’Ivoire and the international community.

As Liberia moves toward its own election later this year, it will be critical to ensure that whatever active cross-border militias are reined in and dealt with appropriately – i.e. in accordance with local and international standards, and not simply through intimidation, which, unfortunately, seems to be the current prevailing strategy. Pro-Ouattara forces, as well as the country’s army, have been setting up check-points and tracking down groups loyal to Gbagbo. The potential for destabilization in using these tactics is great. Hopefully, moving forward, these tactics will be used less and less, as pro-Gbagbo forces shrink or put down arms. The situation is not clear, though, and vigilance is required.

The UN has launched an investigation into potential crimes and violations of human rights committed both by pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces throughout the conflict. As part of their strategy to root out pro-Gbagbo elements, pro-Ouattara forces allegedly attacked a church housing 2,500 displaced people this past week. This disturbing allegation is also being investigated by the UN. Continued bouts of violence could threaten the still fragile peace, and shatter the progress already made in the last few weeks.

Côte d’Ivoire has proved its resilience in the face of crisis. Though, in spite of regained economic vitality and signs of political unity at the top level, the country’s stability is frail. How Laurent Gbagbo is dealt with will also matter a great deal for the country – we should remember that the election was a close one, and that many in Côte d’Ivoire, particularly in the South, are Gbagbo supporters.

Photo: President Alasanne Ouattara. Wikimedia Commons.