Ivory Coast: Trying to Break a Bloody Cycle

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Sia Kambou / AFP / Getty Images

Two dead protestors lie on the street as troops loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo clash with supporters of Alassane Ouattara on December 16 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

A president clinging to power heedless of the result of an election, unleashing his security forces to brutally silence those who dare protest, damning his country to international isolation. It's a depressingly familiar saga to voters in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Iran, Belarus and now Ivory Coast, where President Laurent Gbagbo has simply refused to accept the verdict of the electorate in the Nov. 28 runoff election won by his opponent, Alassane Ouattara. But while leaders of other African countries sought to sidestep the problem in Zimbabwe and Kenya by brokering unhappy power-sharing governments that paid little heed to the election results, they're adopting a new approach in Ivory Coast.

Rather than forcing opposition candidate Ouattara to accept a junior role in a Gbagbo government — as they did to Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai — the 52-member African Union has shunned Gbagbo. And the continent's rare insistence that an intransigent strongman abide by an election result, say some Africa watchers, could ultimately force Gbagbo out, albeit not without a bloody fight. "This softly, softly approach has got Africa nowhere," says Rolake Akinola, Africa analyst for the London-based consultancy VoxFrontier. "African leaders felt they did not want to look for another power sharing agreement."

At least 50 people have been killed in mounting violence, which began when Gbagbo and his loyalists — including the military and a militia organization called the Young Patriots — rejected the results of the election. Ivorian election officials, as well as U.N., U.S. and E.U. officials, all say Ouattara appears to have won by about an eight-point margin. Military forces opened fire on Ouattara supporters last Thursday, killing dozens of people. And overnight on Sunday, armed men raided homes of U.N. staff around the commercial capital Abidjan, "on the pretext of looking for arms," according to U.N. special representative Choi Young-jin. U.N. officials in Abidjan said there were also reports of a mass grave and abductions of Ouattara supporters. Gbagbo aides have denied those claims.

The enmity reflects a decade-old ethnic conflict spurred by competition for resources amid economic decline, with Gbagbo rallying his base against the millions of Ivorians who were welcomed as immigrants from neighboring countries during the stable boom years of the 1960s and 1970s. Ouattara had been excluded from a previous election on claims that he had not proven that both of his parents were Ivorian. That conflict split the armed forces, with the rebel Force Nouvelle taking control of the northern half of the country in a five-year civil war that claimed hundreds of lives. Last month's election was mandated by a 2007 peace agreement.

Fighting talk on all sides has raised fears that the post-election deadlock will revive the civil war. A Young Patriots leader told huge crowds in an Abidjan square on Monday to gear up for fighting, saying: "We are ready to die." Ouattara supporters, aligned with militia concentrated in the north, have spoken of waging "the last struggle."

On Monday the E.U. slapped a travel ban on Gbagbo and about 24 of his aides, as well as freezing their financial assets in Europe. France, the former colonial power which has peacekeeping troops in the country, joined the U.N. in rejecting Gbagbo's order to withdraw by Dec. 19. The U.N. Security Council on Monday extended the mandate of its 9,000 peace-keepers for a further six months, and said it would send an additional 500 troops. Hundreds of the U.N. troops are now guarding Ouattara, who is holed up with his aides inside an Abidjan hotel. French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said on Monday that the 900 French troops in the country would respond if attacked by Gbagbo loyalists; there is a large French expat community in Ivory Coast, which maintains extensive economic links with France.

But the international efforts risk provoking a backlash, especially as Gbagbo has portrayed Ouattara as a tool of Western interests. That suspicion deepened after President Nicolas Sarkozy lashed out at Gbagbo last week, saying he ought to cede power immediately. Gbagbo currently retains the support of the military, and controls the main television and radio networks. He could potentially hold out for some time, despite sanctions. Ivory Coast is one of the world"s biggest exporters of cocoa, and has considerable oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea. "Every time the international community has put pressure on Laurent Gbagbo"s regime, it has strengthened his position," says Richard Banegas, political science professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris. The West might need to "wait out the conflict and support demonstrations from the opposition," he says.

Banegas believes African countries could play the key role, by isolating Gbagbo among his peers, stripping him of legitimacy and greatly limiting his ability to move around. That would mark a stark contrast to the African Union's handling of Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's willingness to unleash violence on his unarmed opponents ensured that he remained in power in the arrangement brokered by his neighbors.

Analysts believe African leaders may have concluded that power-sharing arrangements like the ones in Zimbabwe and Kenya have persuaded the likes of Gbagbo that they can cling to power indefinitely, regardless of election outcomes, as long as they threaten violence. "African countries feel this conflict has to be properly solved," says Banegas. "Otherwise the message to other countries is: 'What's the point of going through [elections], if ... the losing side refuses to accept the results?" But with Ivory Coast's recent history of political bloodshed, properly solving the conflict on democratic lines could be a risky and complex business.