- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Nearly five months after presidential elections in Ivory Coast, violence has persisted between supporters of internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara and incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo. As the conflict seems to be reaching a head (NYT), with Ouattara’s troops pushing into the city of Abidjan, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa Studies Jendayi Frazer believes that Gbagbo’s days as president are numbered. Almost five hundred people have been killed since November, and many experts, including Frazer, have questioned the lack of a response from the international community, particularly in light of the UN’s no-fly zone in Libya. Frazer believes that "it’s hypocrisy," particularly given the peacekeeping mandate established in 2004 after the country’s civil war, which granted the UN the authority to protect civilians. "It’s irresponsible, frankly, for the UN to essentially stand on the sidelines," she says, "which is typical of their actions in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa."
Can you highlight the major points of disagreement between Ouattara and Gbagbo?
The main point of disagreement is the election itself and the contestation over who won. The international community has certified that Alassane Ouattara won with 54 percent. President Gbagbo and the Constitutional Court essentially said that some of the votes, especially in the northern areas, were not legitimate and tried to throw them out.
Do ethnic and religious conflicts play into the dispute?
It’s more a question of region and nationality. The northern region, which in some ways rebelled in 2002, has been charged with not being Ivorian--since they are seen to come from neighboring countries or are the children of nationals from other countries, Gbagbo and his supporters characterize them as not being Ivorian citizens. So that issue of identity and nationality has come up since the first president died and has been a fundamental problem for the country.
The north-south divide also has a religious component because the north is primarily Muslim and the south is Christian, but the conflict hasn’t been really religious. It’s been more regional. [Felix] Houphouet-Boigny, the first president [from 1960 to 1993], was able to keep the country together by carefully balancing the interests of different ethnic and regional groups. But, his successor, [Aimé Henri Konan] Bédié [who ruled from 1993 to 1999], essentially whipped up xenophobia against northerners to block [then-prime minister] Ouattara, who comes from the north.
Are the violence and human rights abuses largely occurring between organized groups or are they between separate, armed supporters of the two sides?
There are organized groups. Originally, Gbagbo was in control of Abidjan, where most of his supporters are. The view was that the military was backing Gbagbo as well. Now his supporters are primarily organized by a group called the "Young Patriots," a student movement led by Charles Goude. On the other side, the supporters of Ouattara that are armed groups are called the Republic Forces. And those were the people who rebelled in 2002. Their primary leader is [Ouattara’s] Prime Minister Guillaume Soro. So it’s basically Republican Forces against the Young Patriots.
Do both sides have a hand in the atrocities being committed or is it primarily Gbagbo’s forces behind the killings?
Most of the killing was done in Abidjan and is attributed to the military forces and the Young Patriots in Abidjan.
What economic impact does the conflict have on Ivory Coast and the rest of West Africa?
You have a democratically elected president being protected by the UN, but the UN [is] doing nothing about stabilizing the security environment for protection of civilians, which is part of its mandate.
It’s a really bad effect, because Ivory Coast has, after Nigeria, the second biggest economy in West Africa. The GDP in 2008 was about $23.5 billion, making it one of the larger economies, especially since it has oil but most of its economy is based on agriculture. It is the largest producer of cocoa, so the conflict definitely caused a spike in the price of cocoa. [Also], many West Africans had jobs in Cote D’Ivoire. They were attracted there because of the historical stability that was there before the elections battle in ’98 and ’99, which took things downward.
The UN reports there are almost one million displaced people, many of who have fled to Liberia. What are the long-term effects of this displacement?
The displacement is very problematic because historically, when these refugee groups move into other countries, sometimes they come with young, armed gangs. And that could cause a destabilizing impact on Liberia, which itself has elections at the end of this year. There’s always this feeling in Liberia that foreigners are coming in and influencing their elections. So it contributes to the concern within Liberia and the uncertainty around this election.
There are still thirty elections in Africa during the rest of 2011. What sort of a precedent does this set for those elections?
If Gbagbo is allowed to get away with it, it will allow any leader who is not elected by his population to think that the international community or the region will do nothing if he just clings to power. So it’s a major case for how the rest of the elections could potentially go across West Africa. Now, most elections in Africa have been peaceful. I don’t want to present a stereotype of African elections being like we saw in Kenya [in 2007], where they lead to a lot of violence. But that said, if Gbagbo is allowed to get away with this, anyone who comes to a very closely contested election may feel that he can just stay in power. There’s no point of having elections if that’s going to be the case. There’s a lot at stake in a resolution of this crisis that allows for the elected president to govern.
Do you foresee regional forces, like the African Union and the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), stepping in?
Not before Nigeria’s election takes place [in early April]. ECOWAS has said that they could potentially resort to force [to resolve the Ivory Coast crisis], and the Nigerians have defined that a little bit, including a blockade. It doesn’t necessarily mean marching against Gbagbo’s army. But that said, they won’t be able to do anything until their own election. Moreover, according to the press reports, the army might be falling apart. And Gbagbo might only have his Young Patriots to rely on because there’s been a defection of the chief of army staff and potentially also the police forces. If the army starts to crumble, then Gbagbo doesn’t have very much that’s going to stand between him and the Republican forces.
Is there a point at which he will step down once his army falls apart? Or will it still have to be a brokered agreement?
If Gbagbo is allowed to get away with it, it will allow any leader who is not elected by his population to think that the international community or the region will do nothing if he just clings to power.
I suspect that there’s going to have to be some type of negotiating. But Gbagbo probably will have to leave the country at this point. But that will perhaps [allow] for some of his supporters to not feel that they are forever out of power. You don’t want a winner-take-all scenario. It may lead to, for instance, [that] somebody from the south is put in the prime minister position with a president from the north.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the UN’s responsibility to protect doctrine in Libya. Why hasn’t that philosophy been applied to Ivory Coast?
There’s a lot of hypocrisy there. The UN will say that their mandate doesn’t allow them to take a more robust position, but you could quickly get the mandate changed, as we saw happen for authorizing the no-fly zone in Libya.
Moreover, the UNOCI peacekeeping force in Cote D’Ivoire is operating under a Chapter VII mandate, which is essentially peace enforcement. They do have as part of their mandate, the protection of civilians and upholding the human rights with a special attention to violence committed against women and girls. A Security Council resolution authorized the peacekeeping forces in 2004, and the mandate has been in every peacekeeping resolution that’s been renewed. So, they simply choose to interpret their mandate as one that requires neutrality and does not allow them to "take a partisan position in this crisis."
But it is not partisan to protect innocent civilians. It’s irresponsible, frankly, for the UN to essentially stand on the sidelines, which is typical of their actions in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa. So basically in Libya, the UN is acting on behalf of France, the United States, and the Western powers, and not acting on behalf of innocent civilians and Africans in Cote d’Ivoire.
Are there different regional views regarding the two conflicts? Are the African Union and ECOWAS more hesitant to encourage international action in Ivory Coast?
ECOWAS has been very clear that they’ve asked for military intervention, and have threatened it themselves. The head of ECOWAS is Nigerian, and the Nigerian foreign minister recently questioned the robust action to protect civilians in Libya where we don’t even have a clear understanding of what’s happening on the ground, but not in the Cote d’Ivoire where the UN is on the ground and seeing what’s taking place. We have a lot more information about what is taking place in Cote d’Ivoire. Everybody has agreed that there is illegitimacy in the actions that Gbagbo has taken, and the UN itself certified the election results. You have a democratically-elected president being protected by the UN, but the UN [is] doing nothing about stabilizing the security environment for protection of civilians, which is part of its mandate.
I’m not blaming the Secretariat, and I’m not blaming the UN machinery. I’m really talking about the Security Council, which acts with great resolve when it’s in the interest of the Western powers. Now it’s acting without resolve. It is also true that India and South Africa have been blocking more robust action at the Security Council, which is very problematic.
What is the history between South Africa and Ivory Coast?
President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa mediated the 2002 crisis, and many West Africans felt that he took the side of President Gbagbo, and that they were leaning more toward Gbagbo than playing a balanced mediation role. Others have said, and I can’t confirm, that South African business interests benefited from that mediation process, i.e., there was South African investment. So [in this case], South Africa came out basically backing Gbagbo’s notion that there needed to be an investigation in the Constitutional Court as a final authority, and the votes should be thrown out that helped to elect Ouattara. But more recently, South Africa seems to have shifted its position to be more consistent with the African Union, which also recognizes Ouattara as having been the legitimately elected president of Cote d’Ivoire.
How do you see this conflict ultimately being resolved?
There are two outcomes here. One is if the Republic forces move rapidly in terms of their military advance--they’ve already taken Yamoussoukro, which is their administrative capital; they’ve taken the port San Pedro. [Pro-Ouattara troops are now in Abidjan, firing on Gbagbo’s presidential palace.] If the military melts away, this thing could be over in a matter of days. I don’t see the militia groups really being able to withstand a well-coordinated military offensive. But that scenario involves some blood and a lot more people dying.
The second way it could end is that if Gbagbo signals that he is willing to negotiate. Then the international community would prevail upon Ouattara and those who support him to give that negotiation space, so Gbagbo can leave and it won’t be a bloody end. But that scenario is undermined because we’ve been prevailing upon Ouattara since December to keep his people peaceful and not to go to the street and nothing has happened--the international community has done [little] to resolve the situation. There have been talks, but it has not been meaningful in terms of resolving the crisis. So, Ouattara’s patience is not being rewarded. Early on in the crisis, [it was] felt that the longer it went on, it was to Gbagbo’s advantage, because people would simply take it as a status quo, a stalemate, and move on to other things like Libya.