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Triumph for West Africa in Gbagbo's Arrest

Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
April 11, 2011

Triumph for West Africa in Gbagbo's Arrest - triumph-for-west-africa-in-gbagbos-arrest

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Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is in the custody of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the November 2010 presidential elections, ending Gbagbo's months-long challenge to Ouattara's win. The standoff between the two has generated hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons; as recently as this past weekend, UN officials had discovered mass graves. While Gbagbo's arrest ends the uncertainty about leadership in Ivory Coast, Ouattara faces an immense task ahead in unifying and rebuilding his country.

After the elections, the international community imposed fiscal sanctions against Gbagbo that made it increasingly difficult for him to pay his fighters, and as a result, many of them defected to Ouattara's forces. As the stalemate persisted and the violence worsened, the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy increased its deployment of troops to Ivory Coast. They engaged in limited military operations that culminated in shelling Gbagbo's palace over the weekend. Gbagbo's capture has spared the city of Abidjan from further carnage.

Gbagbo's future is unclear. International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has called for an Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) member state to refer Ivory Coast to the ICC. Many Ivorians see Gbagbo's cohorts, the so-called Young Patriots, as responsible for human rights abuses. However, the respected organization Human Rights Watch finds that some recent atrocities were the responsibility of Ouattara's forces. Both sides may feel the impact in the future, if the ICC does begin an investigation.

Ouattara now faces the difficulties of dealing with the hundreds of thousands of Ivorians who are displaced. International sanctions have impacted the formal economy. Further, Ivory Coast remains a profoundly divided country, be it between Christians and Muslims, "indigenes" and "settlers," or in some areas among ethnic groups. It will be a challenge for Ouattara to reach out to the bedrock of Gbagbo's supporters to secure their acquiescence if not their support. That process could be complicated should the ICC become involved. Ouattara must demonstrate exceptional political skills.

Nevertheless, Ouattara has advantages that his predecessors did not. He has legitimacy at home and abroad from the November elections. Throughout the post-electoral crisis, Ouattara has enjoyed the support of the international community. He also knows Ivorian politics well. Ouattara was the prime minister to Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in many ways the post-independence "father" of Ivory Coast and responsible for the Ivorian economic miracle. Many Ivorians saw him as Houphouet's likely successor.

Ouattara also benefits from the warehouses in Abidjan and elsewhere that are full of cocoa, which can be sold on a hungry world market. Ivory Coast's advanced economic structures can probably be restored relatively quickly. Prosperity would burnish his image, even among those who once supported Gbagbo.

Gbagbo's departure not only vindicates the results of the Ivorian elections, it will encourage other African states--notably, Nigeria, where civil society is working for credible elections against the backdrop of years of electoral fraud. It also enhances the prestige of the ECOWAS and the African Union, both of which firmly supported Ouattara based on his electoral victory. The end of Ivory Coast's post-election crisis has positive implications for West Africa.

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